First Person

Identifying talented teachers: what is talent?

If I were to ask what made your favorite teacher stand out what would you say? She was intellectually gifted? He could explain anything clearly? Able to reach every kid? Master of classroom management? Made you want to work? Brought every lesson to life? Don’t worry if you don’t see your teacher on that list. Experts differ on this question, too. Teaching talent is hard to pin down.

This lack of certainty is why I worry that some reforms proposed for teacher preparation may box us into tight requirements with unintended consequences. While research shows that teaching quality is a big factor in whether students succeed there is less clarity on which characteristics constitute “quality.” So how do we make sure only the most talented teachers wind up in classrooms? Even harder, how do we identify which students in teacher preparation programs will be effective in the classroom five or 10 years down the road — and which will never have what it takes?

There’s been a lot of push lately for educator prep programs to limit admission to applicants (usually 18-year-olds) with strong high school GPAs. This recommendation troubles me because while I want teachers to be smart, many important skills of great teachers are not captured in grades. It’s a solution that appeals to logic but, unfortunately, research hasn’t found that it reliably produces better teachers. As Tim Daly, head of TNTP, a nonprofit that includes an alternative teacher prep program, wrote in a blog post last fall:

“Every year, many teachers who come to the classroom from selective programs turn out to be great teachers, but many others turn out to be middling or ineffective. The same is true about less selective programs.  Moreover, there is little reason to believe that any instances of outperformance among selective programs are due to selectivity.  They could be attributable to better pre-service training or better on-the-job coaching models.”

If Daly’s observations hold true more generally, increasing the selectivity of teacher prep programs would not improve the quality of the teaching profession. Further, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of the teaching force. This is critically important as Colorado and the nation continue to diversify ethnically and socioeconomically while our teaching force remains disproportionately white and middle-class.

Daly doesn’t dispute that teacher prep can be improved. However, based on his experience, he points to more complex predictors of strong teaching: success during a teacher’s early years and a novice teacher’s ability to produce focused lessons, apply feedback from mentors, and take responsibility for her own success and continuous improvement.

Daly’s emphasis on characteristics shown by novice teachers led me to make a kind of crazy connection between what it takes to succeed in teaching and recent research about traits of successful athletes. As described by David Epstein in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, an athlete’s capacity to improve with training is more important than traits we traditionally associate with athletic success, such as great strength and speed. Perhaps the same principle applies in teaching. Maybe how much a teacher—even before being placed in front of students— is willing and able to change in response to training and feedback is a good predictor of future success.

A few caveats: After railing about the lack of firm empirical evidence behind some reforms I realize the line of thought I’m proposing is not even on research agendas. I also realize we must be careful comparing physiological changes in athletics with the behaviors and dispositions important in teaching. But bear with me. I think the connection I’m drawing in this limited case merits discussion.

Let’s define “baseline” as someone’s performance level at the point they enter formal training – say, when an athlete joins a varsity team or a teacher candidate starts a preparation program. Obviously, athletes and future teachers have many skills and talents at that point; the trick is to identify which are most important for future success. Some advocates argue that one measure of a teacher candidate’s baseline skill level, high school GPA, should be the prime determinant entry to traditional teacher preparation programs.

However, a key theme of Epstein’s book is that the amount of effort and growth in response to training is as important for identifying talent as the skill level an athlete has before formal training, a point consistent with Daly’s blog post. Epstein talks about the hidden potential of people to grow at explosive rates when exposed to training as “an idea that muddles the notion of innate talent as something that appears strictly prior to training.”  Perhaps we should focus more attention on developing such “trainability” measures so that we can better identify talent, regardless of a teacher candidate’s age or stage in life.

It seems to me quite possible that there are such “trainability bombs”—people with tremendous potential for explosive growth once exposed to training—among entering college students with unimpressive high school GPAs who could become great teachers. And I’m sure there are also a lot of students with relatively high GPAs who, regardless of their training, will never become great teachers. The key is to figure out how to tell these two groups apart, which teacher trainability measures might provide. This is not an easy pursuit but one with potential value to the profession.

So how do we go about putting great teachers in every classroom without narrowing the criteria so tightly that they squeeze out those with untapped potential? I think we start by celebrating the complex interplay of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and practices that go into good teaching and accept that we need more nuanced measures of talent.

As Daly wrote:

“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should forego selection entirely or write off the importance of teacher preparation. But I think we need to admit that the impact of teacher preparation is tempered by a simple truth: Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and not everyone can do it well. It is not a matter of having a certain set of qualifications or completing basic training. It is more like quarterbacking: a job that presents a dizzying array of challenges in quick succession, which only a subset of skilled practitioners can negotiate successfully. Performance varies widely.”

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.