Q & A With Author Elizabeth Green: Great Teachers Need ‘Specialized Skills and Knowledge’

In her new book Building a Better Teacher, Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green obsessively explores what good teaching looks and sounds like – and whether the most effective teachers are “born for the blackboard,” in her words.

Green’s quest takes her to schools of education and to classrooms in the United States and Japan, where she observes an array of methods and practices.

Elizabeth Green

Elizabeth Green

Green finds that good teaching is “a complex craft,’’ but that “far too often, teaching doesn’t work at all,’’ – a frightening conclusion at a time of enormous concern over the quality of U.S. public schools.

Nationwide, Green notes, some 400,000 new teachers a year enter classrooms. Green argues that they can be better, with time to study the craft and guidance on how to learn it. Can we build better teachers at a time when 45 states and Washington D.C. have adopted new Common Core standards in math and English, spelling out what skills students are expected to master from kindergarten through twelfth grade?

The Hechinger Report spoke with Green about the challenges ahead.

Q. So much of your book explores the question of whether great teachers are born with natural skills or develop them through real training. What conclusions do you come to?

A. I think it’s always a mix, but the reality is that even the most brilliant ones cannot become great teachers on their own. They need to learn specialized skills and knowledge. There has been throughout history a lack of knowledge about what makes a great teacher and a lack of investment in teacher education. For a long time we didn’t know what to teach [teachers] or figure out how to teach them. Training is really important.

Q. You spent so much time researching what makes a teacher effective, yet today’s teachers feel increasingly judged not by their teaching skills or abilities but by the test scores of their students. Are there better ways to measure teaching ability?

I came away focusing less on what the best way to evaluate a teacher is and more on asking, is it worth so much of an investment? How much did we invest in this relative to other things that we could be doing to help teachers learn to do their job better?

A. I came away wondering why we have invested so much in the measurement challenge and relatively little in improving the quality of the teaching and ways to help people get better. I think it makes sense that we need to have some shared idea of what good teaching is, but there are real limits to what evaluation can do and whom it is serving. Unfortunately, the way evaluation is working now, it is not as aligned to helping teachers get better. One of the things holding it back is that evaluations that have been adopted at the state level are not subject specific — they are generic – and that really limits what teachers can learn from the data they can get. Principals don’t have much knowledge of subject-specific teaching outside of what they taught, so it limits their ability to give feedback. When you look at school networks — especially charters that have good results on standardized tests — they just invest a lot less in [evaluating teachers] than in training. I came away focusing less on what the best way to evaluate a teacher is and more on asking, is it worth so much of an investment? How much did we invest in this relative to other things that we could be doing to help teachers learn to do their job better? Such as time in the day to spend with colleagues who know what they are talking about or professional development that focused on how to teach well.

Q. Your book considers Japan’s educational system, where there is a common curriculum, standards and assessments, and lots of ways for teachers to try out new ideas and refine their craft. What can the U.S. learn from Japan?

A. The most basic thing is the time to study teaching and deciding that it is as much of a teachers job as is teaching kids directly. In Japan, teachers teach for 600 hours a year – it’s almost double here — so there is literally no time [for teachers] to learn. They have subject matter experts and they watch each other teach. I think those structural changes open up a lot of space for good learning. Another important thing is that they are all very clear on what they are trying to teach kids to do there. There is a course of study but it is informed and revised by teacher feedback, not just standards dropped from up high – it’s iterative. They figure it out.

Q. You say in your book that the two dominant philosophies for teacher improvement (autonomy and accountability) have left us with no real plan. Are they any bright spots?

A. I think the dominant policies in place to improve teaching definitely don’t constitute a plan for how to help teachers learn. But we do have to acknowledge how much progress there has been in understanding teaching and teacher education in a short time. Now there is some solid evidence showing what we should focus on, and admittedly some small-scale cases of schools and networks of schools that are doing something really different, like the Boston Teaching Residency and some charter networks that are changing the way people learn. You don’t have to be a genius to teach kids at a high level. People walk into teacher residency programs average human mortals and walk out doing a good impression of Magdalene Lampert, [A BTR advisor and key figure in Green’s book whose success “relied on a body of knowledge and skill that she had spent years acquiring”] and that is pretty amazing.

Q. Your book comes out at a time when Common Core reforms have arrived, but many worry that there isn’t a good enough system for helping teachers to teach them. You’ve also said teachers often feel confused by being asked to do so many different things. What else did you find?

Want more on this new book? Check out Aaron Pallas’ review.

A. A surprising thing I learned is that most schools are really far away from helping kids meet the learning goals outlined in the Common Core, it is also true in some of the schools that get the most attention for being success stories — like KIPP — are set up so teachers have space, time and colleagues to [help them] teach better and change their practice. They are responding with thank you, we wanted to be more rigorous and this is just the inspiration we were looking for. The rest of the school system needs to learn the right lessons from the charters — not the wrong lessons.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute.