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News In Brief

How to make teachers better

Daryl Paranada Oct 4, 2010

Today on Marketplace, reporter Emily Hanford has a story about new tactics being used in the effort to improve teachers and education. The piece is a special based on her documentary series Testing Teachers from American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Here, Emily shares more from her reporting and links to more information and resources.

by Emily Hanford

Education reformers say schools need to get rid of the poorest performing teachers and pay the best teachers more. And then what? The majority of teachers are in the middle – not terrible, but they could be better. Figuring out how to help them get better is one of the most significant challenges facing American schools today.

As part of my research for an American RadioWorks documentary called Testing Teachers , I went in search of teacher improvement programs that work. The best example I found is the Benwood Initiative in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Benwood follows a set of principles that focus on the metrics that matter most these days: test scores. More specifically, teachers who weren’t doing a good job raising test scores learned something and now they’re doing a better job raising test scores (I wrote about the debate over using test scores to evaluate teachers as part of my documentary series).

What happened in Chattanooga
The inner city schools were awful, among the worst in the state. About 10 years ago, education leaders there decided to do something about it. They scoured the data to figure out what was wrong and they decided the problem was teachers. There were too many ineffective teachers in the city schools. But they also discovered there were really great teachers in those schools too. And the education leaders thought, why not figure out a way for the less effective teachers to learn from the superstars? So they set up a mentoring system.

One of the most interesting features of the system is that teachers spend time in their colleagues’ classrooms, watching them teach. “What we believe is you have to recognize where greatness is and help other teachers see and learn from great teaching,” says Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga and one of the leaders of the Benwood Initiative.

Watching others is a powerful way to learn. Some teachers get this through student teaching experience, but few schools have formal systems that allow teachers to continue observing and learning this way. Teachers tend to end up isolated in their own classrooms.

That’s changed in Chattanooga. Everything teachers do is rooted in the idea that they get better when they work together. Not only do teachers observe each other, they plan lessons together and collaborate in all kinds of ways.

“It’s a team,” says Penny King, who’s been teaching in Chattanooga for 26 years. It wasn’t before. “You just did your own thing and you didn’t want anybody to find out what you were doing.”

King says she’s learned lots of new tricks and techniques from her colleagues. And they talk about teaching all the time now. In conversations I observed, teachers were asking the kinds of tough questions that need more attention in public debate: what exactly is good teaching, and how can teachers tell when they’re effective? Test scores are one way, and schools in Chattanooga use tests to gather information about how students and teachers are doing. Teachers say the tests are useful, not as a way to define good teaching but as a place to begin talking about it.

Officials with the Benwood Initiative don’t claim to have all the answers about how to help teachers get better. They say teacher improvement is a complex process and what they did can’t be reduced to a set of steps that will work everywhere. However, they believe giving teachers the chance to collaborate and learn from each other is critical.

Emily Hanford is a reporter for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Listen to the entire documentary Testing Teachers online.

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