Paint by numbers isn't artistry

Last week, Justin Baeder at Ed Week's "On Performance" blog had a post arguing that adopting policies that force teachers to copy the teaching strategies of effective teachers is bound to fail.*


Yes, you can get better by imitating those who are better than you?this is how most learning takes place?but this is very different from "implementing" decontextualized practices and expecting it to "work."


Great teachers are great teachers, whether or not they use "best practices." When we study great teachers, we can start to identify common elements in their instruction. However, turning these practices into policy by making poor teachers implement them is not the road to success for our students.


Here, Baeder has it mostly right. Trying to improve student achievement by having all teachers copy the effective practices of the most effective teachers is destined to fail for at least three reasons.

First, it takes our eye off the ball. Teachers should be held accountable for student learning, not for implementing particular pedagogical strategies. And too often, well-intentioned instructional leaders try to get at student achievement indirectly by managing inputs like the implementation of a particular curriculum or fidelity to a particular pedagogical model. The most effective teachers are effective because they are razor-focused on student learning?measured multiple ways?and they tailor their instructional strategies and adopt practices that yield better student achievement results. Sure, they do often learn by imitating the work of master, but they are constantly evaluating their own practice to ensure it meets their students' needs and to ensure that it is actually driving student achievement.

Second, these policies take ownership over student achievement results out of teachers' hands. If we tell teachers that imitating particular practices will yield greater student achievement gains and then manage towards how faithfully teachers implement those practices, then whose fault is it when student achievement lags? In order to hold teachers accountable for their students' learning, they must have the flexibility to meet their goals in multiple--and perhaps even sometimes messy--ways.

Finally, such policies pretend that you can miraculously transform poor teachers into great ones through mimicry. To be sure, all teachers need support and all struggling teachers need to be afforded the chance to improve. But in teaching, just as in all professions, it's impossible to coach everyone to greatness. (Or even to effectiveness.) So we should focus our management and policies on coaching those who can improve and counseling out those whose strengths are better matched to other professions.

In teaching, like in art, you can't turn amateurs into artists with paint-by-numbers. Let's acknowledge that and focus our policymaking and management on the kinds of results-oriented, flexible support that good teachers will thrive on.

(*H/T to Joanne Jacobs.)

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.