I ran into Knoxville’s mayor and, gubernatorial candidate, Bill Haslam at the Starbucks on Union and McLean last week.
He graciously invited me to his table to hear more about Teach For America’s work in Tennessee. I shared with him the recent Tennessee Value-Add System analysis that illustrated, “Teach For America corps members (what we call our teachers) teaching in (Memphis) are having a positive impact on the rate of student academic progress. The results show that corps members have a larger impact on student achievement gains than both other beginning teachers and veteran teachers across the state. These positive results spanned grade levels and subject areas, including reading, language arts, science, algebra and social studies. The results…indicate Teach For America is bringing teachers into Tennessee’s highest-need classrooms and that corps members are having a positive impact on their student’s academic achievement.”
Mayor Haslam asked for my opinion on why our corps members have been so successful in some of the lowest-performing schools in Memphis and though the complete answer to the question is complex, I believe it is due in large measure to the subject of the Atlantic article posted last week, “What Makes a Great Teacher” and a forthcoming book by Teach For America’s Chief Knowledge Officer, Steven Farr, “Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap.”
Let me be clear, Teach For America has not cracked the code on what makes for effective teaching but, as the Atlantic article notes, Teach For America is one of the only organizations that systematically researches the traits and behaviors that characterize our most effective corps members.
Oddly enough, what makes an effective teacher has been almost completely ignored by educational research, school districts, and states. Many people would have you believe that one is born a teacher or that the components that combine to create excellence in the classroom are a “mysterious alchemy…of inspiration and dedication” (The Atlantic January/February).
Teach For America has taken a different approach.
Over the past twenty years, we have studied the backgrounds of our most effective teachers and the traits that distinguished their success in the classroom; we have taken these lessons to inform our selection model and our philosophy of teaching.
What we learned is that great teaching is simply great leadership.
Great leaders have a vision and goals; they invest their constituents in the goals; they create long-term, intermediate, and short-term plans; they execute on their plans; they are constantly reviewing data in case they need to adjust their approach; and they simply work very hard (http://www.teachforamerica.org/corps/teaching/teaching_leadership_framework.htm).
Consider business, politics, sports: who are the most effective and successful leaders? They are the people who create a compelling vision and see it through to its execution.
Teaching is no different.
Think about Jaime Escalante, the teacher made famous by Edward James Olmos in, “Stand and Deliver.” Mr. Escalante knew that his students needed to take on more challenging material if they were going to be competitive in the college admissions process and the world of work; the curriculum at Garfield High School did not provide those opportunities and so Mr. Escalante created an AP Calculus program with the goal that every one of his students would pass the AP Calculus exam.
Because this was a goal that most thought completely unreasonable, Mr. Escalante had to get the buy-in of his students and their parents; he had to plan backwards from his goal to ensure his kids were taking the proper steps to master the material; he and his students had to execute on those plans, take stock of how they were performing on various assessments and, finally, they simply had to work their hearts out. As many of us know, Jaime Escalante and his kids met their goal and inspired millions of students and thousands of educators nationwide.
What makes this story so remarkable is that nearly all of Mr. Escalante’s students were living in poverty. What makes this story special is that it provides a clear rebuff to those who say that there is nothing teachers can do to combat the difficult circumstances they face.
Teach For America’s philosophy is rooted in the belief that teachers have agency over the achievement of their students and that teaching is, at its heart, an entrepreneurial profession where a teacher’s character traits and behaviors are, by far, the most important component.
This should not be a controversial notion but it is.
At the end of our conversation I wished Mayor Haslam luck and encouraged him to speak to others on the topic of what makes an effective teacher. I encourage other gubernatorial candidates to do the same. What makes a teacher effective will continue to be the subject of much conversation but it is the next major front in education reform.