Maybe American Teachers Don’t Suck

Could it be? Is it even possible? Are American teachers actually good at what they do?

Education reformers would have you believe that they are not. Not by a long shot. Their evidence? Student test scores. After the results of the 2009 PISA test were released, Head Reformer Arne Duncan, sounded the alarm:

“The chief reason that U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing countries is not their diversity, or the fact that a significant number of public school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem, OECD concludes, is that “socioeconomic disadvantage leads more directly to poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries.”

Our schools, in other words, are not doing nearly as much as they could to close achievement gaps. As schoolchildren age in America, they “make less progress each year than children in the best-performing countries,” according to the OECD.”

He then pointed the finger squarely at our dumb teachers, writing:

“The United States has a lot to learn from South Korea, Singapore, and Finland about building the teaching profession and recruiting teachers from the ranks of top students.”

Reformers are convinced that if we just had better teachers, those middling test scores would skyrocket. In their minds, the two are conjoined, which means that since our scores aren’t very good, then our teachers must not be either. That belief explains why critics are up in arms at the end of every school year when the evaluation systems they were so sure would lead to legions of teachers being fired instead reveal that principals think almost all of their teachers are pretty good.

Their frustration and bafflement are palpable, with headlines like:

Schools Rate Almost No Teachers Ineffective

Michigan School Districts: We Have No Ineffective Teachers

Even After Colorado’s Teacher Evaluation ‘Revolution’ Fewer Than 1 in 1,000 Rated Ineffective 

Brookings was so discouraged that they claimed that “Teacher Observations Have Been a Waste of Time and Money.” (They’re right.)

There are only two possible explanations for why more teachers aren’t rated ineffective. Either principals are giving high marks to undeserving teachers, or principals know what they’re doing and teachers don’t, in fact, suck.

We know what the reformers believe.

While critics of American education base their opinions of teachers on test scores, there are other ways to evaluate people. I can study the statistics of my favorite baseball team, but I can also watch them play.

And of course, not everybody cares about test scores. As a parent, I don’t judge my child’s teacher on my kid’s test results. Evidently, I’m not alone. Because when we ask the American public what it thinks about teachers, we learn that:

–79% of parents are satisfied with the education their oldest child is receiving. (Source)

–The public believe that just 15% of teachers are unsatisfactory.  (Source)

–77% of Americans trust and have confidence in America’s teachers. (Source)

–Americans rank teachers behind only nurses and military officers on questions of ethics and honesty. (Source)

These numbers are remarkable. In spite of well-funded, incessant attacks, three in four Americans still have confidence in teachers, trailing only nurses as a profession. That’s pretty good company.

But you protest. What does the American public know? Half of them don’t even know where New York is.

What about teachers themselves? If anyone should be able to accurately assess teachers, it’s other teachers. So how do teachers rate others in their profession?

According to a 2017 EdNext Poll, teachers rate the performance of 11% of other teachers as unsatisfactory.

While that’s more than districts identify, it still means that teachers, who should know effective teaching when they see it, believe that 89% of their colleagues are getting the job done.

Recognizing that teachers might be the most honest evaluators, a few school districts have experimented with Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs, where mentor teachers work with and evaluate fellow staff members. A review of the Columbus, Ohio PAR program shows that of the 5,861 participating teachers, 9.5% either resigned or were let go. In Cincinnati, dismissal rates ranged from 2.9% to 7% between 1997 and 2001. Rochester terminated 8% to 12% of new teachers between 1998 and 2003. (Source)

So although teachers judge their colleagues more harshly than principals do, they still conclude that about 9 in 10 teachers ought to keep teaching.

Well fine. All these adults think a very small percentage of teachers should be removed from classrooms. But what about the kids? Surely, the kids ought to be the fairest judges. They’re the ones having to put up with teachers’ uncaring attitudes and ineptitude. They spend every day with them! It’s their opinion that should count the most!

The website Ratemyteachers.com has been collecting students’ opinions of their teachers for a number of years now. Students can hop on there, and, in seconds, rate their teachers on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the highest. So what do American students think of their teachers?

The average rating for a teacher on the site is 4.45.

Millions of students have spoken out and they seem to think their teachers do not suck.

–Parents think the great majority of teachers do a good job.
–Principals think very few teachers are ineffective.
–Teachers conclude that about 90% of their colleagues are good at their jobs.
–Students rate most of their teachers highly.

Maybe the rest of us should believe what everybody except the people who base their evaluations on test scores and who have a poorly concealed agenda to dismantle public schools have to say.

Engagement and Relationships Aren’t Cure-Alls

The truth is more important in teaching than in most areas because we have a gaping chasm between what young people expect teaching to be and what it actually is. I believe the gulf between expectations and reality explains why so many quit before they’ve properly begun. Those of us who’ve been in the game for a while have a responsibility to tell the truth about our jobs. And some of us are doing of a poor job of it.

A quick scroll through my Twitter feed, which is almost entirely made of teachers and those pontificating about teaching, reveals the popular belief that nearly all classroom ills can be solved by doing two things:

  1. Build relationships with students.
  2. Teach engaging lessons.

Show the kids you genuinely care about them and they’ll treat you with respect. They’ll work harder for you. So spend five minutes chatting. Attend their soccer games. Sit next to them. Ask about their kitty cats. A student won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. You’ve heard it all before.

Plan more engaging activities and watch behavior problems disappear. Raise the bar and kids will meet it. Students misbehave because they’re bored, or they don’t see the relevance, or the work isn’t challenging enough.
This article on classroom management makes a bold claim:

“Effective educators say that the best classroom management plan is an engaging lesson plan. Once you have that, then you will not have to worry about any discipline problems in your classroom.”

You won’t have to worry about any disciplinary problems. The author is hardly the only one espousing such a rosy view.

Well, as Lee Corso likes to say:

Let’s take a step back from the pretty fluffy thoughts that make us feel good and actually think for a second.

Consider the Playground

Ask any elementary kid what his favorite part of the day is and there’s a good chance he will say recess. Recess, if done right, is largely unstructured play time. Kids can do damn near anything they want. They can choose who they do it with. Autonomy. Choice. Fun. All things a very engaging activity would have, right?

What could possibly go wrong?

Have these people who claim engagement will solve every behavior problem never had recess duty?

Because I can tell you from vast amounts of experience that engagement on the playground doesn’t lead to some rainbow-smeared utopia where children all get along, make responsible choices, and hold hands in song. In fact, many of the same students who struggle to behave in a classroom struggle to behave on the playground, which suggests there might be a few other factors that influence children’s behavior other than whether or not they feel engaged.

Share the following premise with any group of students:

“A pack of boys has to figure out how to survive on an island with no adults around.”

Watch their reaction.

Do they look terrified at the thought?

Hell, no! That’s a dream come true!

And could anything be more engaging than having to figure out how to SURVIVE? Talk about a STEAM project!

But, as anyone who has read Lord of the Flies knows, this sort of engagement doesn’t lead to everlasting peace. Quite the opposite. Jack becomes a lunatic. Piggie dies. The conch is broken. They set the island on fire. So much for engagement.

There Will Be Problems

As for relationships, consider your own family. I love my wife and daughter. They love me. There is a lot of mutual respect, built up over many years. That doesn’t mean we don’t screw up. I say hurtful things. My wife’s patience runs out. Our daughter gets lippy. Conflict is a part of being human. We’re emotional. We’re petty. We’re selfish. We get stressed out, hungry, and tired and we do and say stupid things. So does every kid in your class. There will be problems, no matter how good your relationships are.

Now let me be clear. Is it preferable to build relationships with students and engage them in meaningful activities? Of course it is. Your classroom will be a nicer place to be. Kids will behave better. They will learn more.

You should definitely build relationships and make your lessons interesting.

But will doing those two things put an end to all conflict, poor choices, and laziness?

No, it will not.

Let’s stop making teaching sound easier than it is. Quit offering magic solutions that do nothing except create unrealistic expectations that lead to frustration when the prescribed solutions don’t work the way they’re promised. Good relationships with students will help. Better lessons will, too. But neither are cure-alls. When you’re dealing with human beings, nothing is. And when we’re talking about teaching, there are no silver bullets. Can we quit pretending that there are?

Higher Education: Transitioning From a Teacher to a Professor

The following is a guest post by Dixie Somers. 

Many institutions of higher learning require that newly hired professors have some experience in K-12. After entering the field, however, those individuals often struggle to walk the thin line between remembering their grade level experiences and developing lessons for adult students. The advantage in having such a background, however, is that new professors understand what future teachers will face once in the classroom. An effective transition can be accomplished by keeping a few things in mind.

Many Jobs Come with New Professorship

Most new hires come in as assistant professors. In that capacity, you will be expected to teach, conduct research, and provide various services to the institution you work for. You’ll most likely be teamed with a tenured professor who will help you navigate your first few years. The teaching component is usually composed of between two to four courses per semester. However, it should be remembered that it takes an enormous amount of preparation for each class.

The second job is research.  Institutions of higher learning depend on exposure, status, and reputation to attract quality students. They get those accolades through publications. Additionally, professors become tenured through their publications file.

The third job is service to the institution. That can come in the form of serving on committees, organizing conferences and lectures, and advising students. That job serves a dual purpose. Not only are you providing a much-needed service to the organization, but it also provides you with the opportunity to network with other staff.

Get to Know Your Department Early

To move into a tenured position, you’ll need a strong endorsement from your department. As a result, networking is extremely important. Each department will have its own culture and patterns of behavior that you’ll have to learn and adapt to. It’s important to remember that a political pervasiveness, which is different than at grade level schools, will permeate the department. That factor will require you to learn the nuances of the people and structure of the department so you don’t get sucked into the middle of disputes. The best way to get to know your new department is to attend all functions, whether formal or informal. During such events you will want to ask uncontroversial questions about things you’ve heard, then listen to the stories that will provide enlightenment. Most importantly, you will want to find ways to relieve stress while learning about your co-workers in a less constrained setting, such as the gym.

Change Your Perspective on Being an Education Professional

Transitioning from your position as a teacher to a professor of a college like Stevens Henager College can be a challenge. One of the key things to remember is that faculty members treat each other and students differently than they do in grade level schools. Social distance needs to be established between you and your students and they need to understand that you are not their peer or friend. There are two ways to establish this.

The first is with your dress. If you wear professional clothing then you’ll be treated as a professional. Another way is to establish your position by using your title of “Dr.” or “Professor.” You don’t have to appear as if you know it all. In fact, you’ll gain more respect if you say “I don’t know, but I’ll look it up before we meet again.” In many cases, it can be a great learning opportunity for the students by asking everyone to seek the answer in order to share what they found during the next class. Feel confident in the fact that, in your field, you are an expert.

Your future as a professional in higher education will ultimately depend on several things. Included are your teaching record, evaluations, publications, outside letters reporting on your standing in the field, and the record of your service. The upside is that you’ll have more freedom in academia than you ever thought possible.

 

Dixie Somers is a freelance writer and blogger for business, home, and family niches. Dixie lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is the proud mother of three beautiful girls and wife to a wonderful husband.

Why “Time-on-Task” Hurts Kids (and Test Scores)

There are a number of phrases in education that make me wince every time I hear them and “time-on-task” is right up there with “strict fidelity.” Time-on-task refers to the amount of time students are actively engaged in learning.

The thinking goes like this: The more of something people do, the better they get at it. Therefore, if we have students for seven hours each day, we should maximize their time-on-task so they’ll learn more stuff and get higher test scores. We shouldn’t waste a minute, and we certainly shouldn’t squander time on breaks and recesses.

That kind of thinking is wrong.

Before we get to the academic reasons why schools should build in more breaks for students, let’s start with this simple fact: It’s humane.

The United Nations recognizes this. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states, “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.” Maybe the UN should weigh in on recess time.

There’s also the law of diminishing returns. Put simply, doing more of something only works up to a point. After that point, performance suffers. This is seen in every field and there’s no reason to think it doesn’t happen to kids and their learning.

In one study, researchers recruited 31 students to learn a difficult computer task. The participants were split into three groups. A control group spent one hour training. A second group spent two hours on the task without stopping. A third group also trained for two hours, but they were given a one-hour break between sessions.

On the second day of the study, the control group had mastered the task better than the two-hour group, despite training for only half the time. Those who were given a break also outperformed the nonstop workers, even though the two groups had spent the same total time on the task. (SOURCE)

DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, looked at its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 straight minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer, said Julia Gifford at The Muse, by taking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers. (SOURCE)

Or consider the study of violinists conducted by performance expert Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and they took a break in between each one. They almost never practiced more than 4 ½ hours in a day. They  understood the law of diminishing returns.

Breaks aren’t just important for students’ performance and well-being, they’re essential.

In his newest book, When, Daniel Pink shares some research from Danish schools that found that the time of day students took national standardized tests impacted their scores. Pink writes:

“Students scored higher in the morning than in the afternoons. Indeed, for every hour later in the day the tests were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education–or missing two weeks of a school year.”

It would seem that a simple way to improve student test scores would be to simply move testing times to the morning. But researchers discovered what might be an even easier remedy.

When those same Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break to “eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores increased. Researchers concluded that scores went down in the afternoon, but they went up by a higher amount after breaks. Pink writes:

“Taking a test after a twenty- to thirty-minute break leads to scores that are equivalent to students spending three additional weeks in the classroom and having somewhat wealthier and better-educated parents. And the benefits were greatest for the lowest-performing students.”

The irony — and it’s rich — is that schools’ intent on maximizing “time-on-task” to the extent that their students aren’t given frequent breaks, especially in the afternoon, is actually sabotaging their own stated goal of improving student test scores.

Instead of adding days or hours to the calendar, or forcing our lowest students to do even more work, we need only to acknowledge the law of diminishing returns. Kids should be allowed to do as the violinists do and take more breaks.

Pink helpfully offers suggestions based on research about what kinds of breaks work best:

Short and Frequent

Short, frequent breaks are more effective than occasional, longer ones. Which means most schools do recess wrong. It would be better to have students run around for five minutes after each 45-minute learning block than it would be to give one 30-minute recess in the afternoon with no other breaks.

Move

Having students use technology during their breaks is better than no break at all, but getting them moving is better.

Be Social

We are social animals. Time alone can be good, but time with others, especially if students get to choose who those others are, is better.

Get Outside

Research shows that people who take short walks outside return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk inside. Nature seems to have a rehabilitating effect on people.

Detach

Don’t ask students to multi-task during breaks. Don’t have them keep working on their papers while eating a snack. That’s not productive. For the best breaks, get students out of the classroom doing things that have nothing to do with learning.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that the easiest way schools could accomplish all of the above is by giving kids frequent outdoor recesses. People often complain that education hasn’t changed in 100 years. This is one example of how it would be better for kids (and test scores) if that was true.

 

How would you like to read future articles from Teacher Habits without stumbling onto them? There is a way. You can have them emailed directly to you! Just sign up here!

 

A Guide to Diversity in the Classroom

The following is a guest post by Joy Wenke, CEO of Daybreak Lesson Plans.

 

Learning is the process of experiencing something new. Increasingly, students in grades K through 12 have the opportunity to learn something new every time they come into class, because their classmates come from more diverse backgrounds than ever before. American public schools have become more diverse over the last 25 years, offering students a broader range of backgrounds and cultures to experience as they interact with their classmates. Teachers, among their other duties, have the responsibility of creating a classroom environment in which all students feel welcome and comfortable enough to learn. However, cultural diversity isn’t the only type of diversity teachers need to be aware of in their everyday work.

Diversity in the classroom also means recognizing that every student is an individual with his or her own unique needs. What’s more, each student can present a unique challenge to a teacher. For example, some children may have more difficulty sitting still during class, while others may have emotional issues that require greater patience and understanding. Some students may learn at a slower rate than their classmates and require additional attention, while others may learn faster and become bored more easily. Even in a classroom in which every student comes from the same cultural or socioeconomic background, diversity is a factor with which teachers must be able to contend.

Dealing with diversity is a skill that all teachers need to have in order to be successful. Failing to create lesson plans that account for all the individual needs of their students can put some children at risk for falling behind and missing out on future opportunities. Not having an inclusive classroom environment can stunt students’ development as people. In effect, harming their ability to learn the socialization skills they will need as adults in the modern world. The following guide features some tips teachers can implement to successfully address diversity of all kinds in their classrooms.

 

Author bio: Joy Wenke, CEO of Daybreak Lesson Plans, has worked in both urban and rural areas for more than 33 years as a bilingual teacher, coach and as an educational consultant. Throughout her career, the majority of the students she taught were identified as English Language Learners. Along the way, she got her M.S. in educational leadership as well as an administrative credential. Her passion is to help teachers grow in their personal practices. She facilitates educators to better meet the needs of all their students by purposefully and meaningfully using academic language across the content areas in speaking, reading and writing.