We saw it as a missing link in the work we’ve done before. The research we’ve done in the past shows that when teachers are given time to work on improvement, they improve and their students show better achievement, but what we’ve been quite surprised to learn is how difficult it is to get leaders to give teachers time to work on improvement. Leaders aren’t prioritizing teacher learning as the primary route to school improvement. That’s why the name of the book is Leadership for Teacher Learning.
The argument is there’s nothing a leader can do that’s going to have bigger impact on students’ learning in a school than creating a learning environment for the teachers.
Formative assessment is at the forefront of your own research, and much of your previous work has been devoted to helping teachers understand its effectiveness. How do formative assessment and leadership work together? How do leaders help teachers implement formative assessment in their classrooms?
There are two levels here. The first is that the only way to improve schools at the scale that we need to give young people a chance at a good life and a future is a much higher level of achievement. Forget measuring up to scores in Shanghai or Finland. We need much higher levels of achievement than that if young people are going to have a chance at a good life. The only way to do that is to create a school environment in which every teacher improves. If you ask the question, “What can we change about what teachers do right now that has the biggest impact on student achievement?”, it turns out formative assessment is the answer. Formative assessment has to be the focus of teacher learning because that’s the thing that changes student outcomes most.
The second way that formative assessment is involved is that it provides a way for teachers to improve. The last chapter of the book deals with applying the principles of formative assessment to teacher learning, rather than just student learning. We’ve taken the same five strategies of formative assessment that we emphasized for student learning in previous books and applied that to teacher learning.
In your book you mention that it’s better to work on improving the teachers we already have versus trying to employ better teachers.
The key to improving schools is improving teacher quality, which you can do either by replacing] teachers or improving the ones you already have. There are two main ways to improve teachers by replacement: improving the quality of entrants to the profession or removing the least effective. Neither of these works particularly well because it turns out we can’t predict who will be good teachers, and we can’t determine which teachers are least effective by looking at what they do in classrooms. So the best course of action is improving the teachers we already have.
Are there definitive ways to determine what personal qualities good teachers possess and how to duplicate those qualities?
The Measures of Effective Teaching project carried out experiments where they took teachers who were found to be more effective in one school and moved them to other schools, and they were still more effective than average. So the evidence is pretty strong that this “thing” that good teachers have is something that they possess inside—it’s a personal quality. But we have no idea what it is. It’s not intelligence. It’s not qualifications. A little bit of it is subject knowledge, but not much. A little bit is probably communication, but how do you measure that? Really, it’s very hard. In fact, it’s so hard that we’re probably wasting our time trying to identify individually effective teachers and duplicating their qualities. The answer is reconnecting teachers with this idea that even if you’re already the best teacher in the state, you can be better. And when you do your job better, your students will live longer, be healthier, and contribute more to society.
Tell us more about “building-based teacher learning communities.” How do they improve teacher impact on student learning?
We know that individual coaching from good coaches improves teacher performance. One way to improve teacher quality is to assign a coach to every teacher. The reason we didn’t go that route is because we weren’t sure we could get enough good coaches. Secondly, this would be a very fragile model. When tax revenues decline in districts, which they do for reasons that are impossible to predict, the first thing that is cut is coaching. Letting teachers go is really hard politically. But cutting the professional development budget is really easy. So we decided we weren’t going to build and design a model that was vulnerable to those kinds of shocks. We can’t afford for the system to rely on externally funded coaches. Then we thought, “Let’s create the coaches inside the schools. Let’s have teachers coaching each other.” That’s where this idea of teacher learning communities comes from: the idea that teachers get together, they make promises to each other about what they’re going to try, and they hold each other accountable for doing it. I call it the Weight Watchers model of professional development. Teachers have told us time and again that they stayed on track because they knew their peers were going to be asking them how much progress they made on the goal they’d set the previous month. Teachers take promises to their peers more seriously than they take promises to their supervisors. The model capitalizes on that. We call them teacher learning communities to distinguish them from the more common professional learning communities. We say teacher learning communities are a specific kind of professional learning community where membership is restricted to those who are actually teaching.
You say, “In the future, young people will need higher levels of achievement than have ever been needed before, not only to find fulfilling work, but also to empower [them] to thrive in an increasingly complex world.” How do leaders know what to do to guide their teachers to prepare students for careers we can’t even imagine today?
We must not believe we can predict what’s coming, so the best we can do is give our students a broad and balanced curriculum. Math, science, and English language arts are important, but they aren’t more important than art, music, dance, and drama. We have to restore the balance to the school curriculum. But we need higher levels of achievement than we’ve ever had before. There’s a double whammy there. We have to spend less time teaching math and reading than we’re using right now. Math and reading in elementary schools are squeezing out everything else. We have to be really focused in efforts to improve student achievement because we can’t do it without the focus. We’re not just preparing students for the world of work, either. It’s about personal fulfillment. And art, music, dance, and drama are sources of personal fulfillment into adulthood, in ways that math and science rarely are.
Where are the new jobs going to come from? People are saying we need to have more students learning coding, but we already have computer programs that can write computer programs. It’s the creative industries that are going to be these huge engines of growth—just take a look at the credits of a Hollywood movie to see how many people are employed in its production. As a matter of fact, many of these jobs will not require college-level education. I think we’re making a big mistake in the U.S. by thinking every kid needs to go to college. People need high levels of skills—certainly beyond what you can acquire by the age of 18—but the future will belong to people who can continue to innovate, adapt, develop, and take advantage of the so-called “gig economy”.
An entire chapter of your book is devoted to the topic of research and meta-analysis, and you charge that the best way to use research to direct teacher improvement is through a “best-evidence synthesis.” Could you expound on this?
Many researchers have cottoned onto a technique called meta-analysis, which works really well in places like medicine, where there is a clearly defined outcome measure. Some people have been arguing that meta-analysis should also be the main way of combining results from different studies in education, but that’s not the only way to find out what works in education. For example, studies of grouping students by ability (i.e., “tracking”) tend to show there are benefits for the highest achievers and losses for the lowest achievers, and typically the losses of the lowest achievers are greater than the benefits of the highest achievers. So the average effect of grouping students by ability is to slightly increase the range of achievement and to slightly lower the average. But it’s important to remember that almost all schools that group students by ability do it in a way that puts the best teachers with the top students. In fact, if you grouped students by ability but gave the best teachers to the lowest tracks, you might actually produce a different outcome because good teachers matter more to students who find learning difficult. But that research has never been done. The point is, relying on research and just plugging numbers into a formula doesn’t take into account that this study may not have been the smartest way to do it.
The whole of chapter three in my book is about getting people to understand that using meta-analysis in education is much more difficult than it is in areas like medicine. In particular, there are some fundamental, inherent limitations with meta-analysis in education that no one can avoid. My criticism is that many of those doing meta-analysis in education don’t mention the unavoidable problems and don’t avoid the avoidable problems. I want school leaders to be more critical consumers of research. It’s attractive when someone says to you, “I’ve done all of the hard work and here are the answers.” When you hear about the outcome of a research project, you need to ask, “Were the students in this project like the students that we teach? Were the circumstances similar to our circumstances? Were the measures being used the kind of measures we use in our situation or was it a laboratory study done by a psychology professor on undergraduate students?” It’s very dangerous to take studies done in a laboratory and say they’re going to apply in a school classroom.
The term “expertise” is thrown around a lot in K–12 education, but you say that expertise is difficult to put into words. Instead, you insist that deliberate practice is the key to elite performance. How so?
We’re seeing a pendulum swing in terms of expertise. We used to believe people who were exceptional just had talent. They had more of what it took to be brilliant. Over the past 30–40 years, there’s been a real understanding that actually very few people are so naturally talented that they don’t need to practice. We’ve discovered that practice is an important component of high-level performance. But not any old practice. Repetition is not practice. What you need is deliberate practice, which is a focused effort to improve performance. What I’m saying is most teachers got better in the first couple of years because the job makes you get better, but very few teachers are pushing themselves to get better once no one is pushing them. That’s the big idea: creating a culture where teachers push themselves to get better when no one else is pushing them to get better.
Tell us more about the logic model for implementation of classroom formative assessment to improve student achievement. Would you say that monitoring plays a key role?
Absolutely. What we have found is that sometimes schools get results very quickly, but generally, we don’t promise you’ll see an impact on student achievement in less than two years, so it’s a bit scary. Principals are under pressure to improve results, and when the superintendent is saying, “What are you doing to raise test scores?”, it’s a bit scary to say we have this plan that’s going to give you results in two years’ time. One of the things that we try to do is give logic models, which set key markers along the way so principals can check to see if they’re on the right track. It shows them what to expect to see when it’s working. It gives them milestones and reassurance.
Would you offer an example of how classroom formative assessment can be integrated into teacher evaluation programs?
There are two ways that can be done: One is as the focus of the evaluation, and the other is as the process of the evaluation. If I was going to observe a teacher, I’d be trying to help her improve. When I look at a teacher, I’d look for opportunities where she might have used formative assessment ideas but didn’t. An example is if the teacher asked a question but didn’t give students enough time to think. Instead, I’d suggest picking students randomly with little time to think. Perhaps students could be given a chance to discuss their work with their neighbors. In other words, I’d use formative assessment as the focus of feedback to teachers, because those are the changes that are going to benefit students most. Formative assessment can also lead us to help teachers monitor their own progress. Formal feedback from a more skilled individual to a teacher is going to be a very rare event in schools, and therefore the most important driver of change is going to be that teacher’s ability to monitor her own performance. Whenever I observe a lesson, the first thing teachers always ask me is, “How did I do?” I always respond by asking, “How do you think you did?” If you know what you need to work on and can tell me, that’s far more powerful than any feedback I can give you. It’s about developing those self-assessment capacities in teachers.
Is there anything else you’d like our audience to know about Leadership for Teacher Learning?
Chapter seven is about the implementation of formative assessment. I’m becoming more convinced that the real issue is simply giving teachers time to work on improvement. Most schools don’t give teachers the time to do that. The key is that people usually try to improve schools by stopping people from doing bad things, and generally speaking, nothing a teacher does is bad. The hard lesson for leaders to grasp is that the essence of effective leadership is stopping people from doing good things to give them time to do even better things. And that seems to be where we’re going wrong in teaching. We need to create time for professional learning.