Teacher quality policy and practice unite

Too often in education reform, books are quickly pushed into one of two camps: policy or practice. Doug Lemov’s new book, Teach Like A Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, which was recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine, is so elegant in its simplicity that it has the power to transform the conversations in both worlds. That is, if enough people in both policy and practice read it, get past the “mundane” techniques Lemov proposes, and absorb its true message.

There are two critical ideas in Lemov’s book: 1. Getting results in the classroom stems from the honing of specific, often less-than-glamorous techniques. 2. Success should be defined by how well the teacher drives student achievement, not by how well he or she implements these or any programs, theories, or strategies.

While seemingly simple, the implications of these two messages are transformative: They would mean dramatically rethinking the way we view teacher training and ongoing professional development, as well as principal and teacher autonomy.

On the teacher training and professional development front, for example, a tremendous amount of time is devoted to learning theory and strategy. In the limited time schools (or districts or education schools) have with teachers before they are thrown into the classrooms, this is decidedly not time well spent. Competitive runners, explains Lemov, do not train like this; “Mulling your decision to run from the front [of the pack] a hundred times doesn’t make [you] any better, but practicing a hundred sprints with just the right body position does.” In other words, if you really wanted to prepare a fledgling teacher for what lies in store for him on the first day of school, you would spend time teaching the basic techniques of the craft of teaching, even if that time comes at the expense of learning educational theory or strategy.

We see this in art, too, continues Lemov. Michelangelo, for example, was an artisan first and an artist later. It was his “diligent mastery of the tools of the craft [that] preceded and perhaps allowed what came after.” Likewise, even the most creative and successful teachers must first master the tools—the techniques—of the craft before true artistry can be achieved.

Unfortunately, teacher training, professional development, and even ongoing teacher evaluations are not circumscribed by this purpose. After reading Teach Like a Champion you come away with a deep appreciation for just how much focusing on theory over mastery of the essential techniques of the craft is costing American teachers—and their students.

Of course, it would be easy to read Lemov’s book and decide that these specific techniques should be adopted as ends in and of themselves. Lemov would likely be the first to disagree. He explains:

I would like this fact to distinguish this book from so many others: it starts with and is justified by the results it helps teachers achieve, not by its fealty to some ideological principle. The result to aim for is not the loyal adoption of these techniques for their own sake but their application in service of increased student achievement. Too many ideas, even good ones, go bad when they become an end and not a means. 

In fact, one principal, who has achieved remarkable student achievement results by training his teachers according to Lemov’s “taxonomy of effective teaching,” was recently asked how he holds teachers accountable for successful implementation of these techniques. In short, he doesn’t. Lemov says, “He manages his teachers for the results and provides these techniques to get them there. They are free to use them or not…”

Unfortunately, there are too many (well-intentioned) school and district leaders who, in desperately trying to improve the educational outcomes for their students, manage implementation of reform strategies rather than student achievement outcomes.

Lemov’s message to those on the front lines of educating our students: Make use of these techniques if they help you help your students, but always judge your work by its results. Would that policymakers and school and district leaders would heed this sage advice.

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