Direct Answers

What makes a good teacher? Is it some innate unteachable ability? Turns out, if this New York Times magazine article is to be believed, specific techniques can be taught to teachers and successfully applied to “build a better teacher.”  

Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do.

Different techniques can also be taylored to fit individual classrooms and grades. The 9-page story covers the journey and search for improvements.  It paints an optimistic picture.  While structural school reforms are recommended, it argues that radical change isn’t necessarily the major answer. 

I’m definitely a proponent of trying various market-based reforms for our schools (despite Debra Viadero’s recantation). But if only a limited number of teachers can be good, there would be an insurmountable problem. 

“If it’s just a big pie, then it’s just a question of who’s getting the good teachers,” Lemov told me.

Just like in sports, only so much good talent can be bought through free-agency.  Good times also have the best farm teams where they groom their own.  I hope the people in the article like Doug Lemov, Deborah Ball, and Judith Lanier are really good coaches. Alas, not all the evidence is in their favor:

A more typical education expert is Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University, who favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don’t but looks skeptically upon teacher training. He has an understandable reason: While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?

That’s why I’m never one to discount the radical; but sometimes the little things make all the difference.  

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