Lemov spent his early career putting his faith in market forces, building accountability systems meant to reward high-performing charter schools and force the lower-performing ones to either improve or go out of business. The incentives did shock some schools into recognizing their shortcomings. But most of them were like the one in Syracuse: they knew they had to change, but they didn’t know how. “There was an implementation gap,” Lemov told me. “Incentives by themselves were not going to be enough.” Lemov calls this the Edison Parable, after the for-profit company Edison Schools, which in the 1990s tried to create a group of accountable schools but ultimately failed to outperform even the troubled Cleveland public schools.
Lemov doesn’t reject incentives. In fact, at Uncommon Schools, the network of 16 charter schools in the Northeast that he helped found and continues to help run today, he takes performance into account when setting teacher pay. Yet he has come to the conclusion that simply dangling better pay will not improve student performance on its own. And the stakes are too high: while student scores on national assessments across demographic groups have risen, the percentage of students at proficiency — just 39 percent of fourth graders in math and 33 percent in reading — is still disturbingly low. And there is still a wide gap between black and white students in reading and math. The smarter path to boosting student performance, Lemov maintains, is to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed.
When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.
It was the tiniest decision, but what was teaching if not a series of bite-size moves just like that?
Lemov thought about soccer, another passion. If his teammates wanted him to play better, they didn’t just say, “Get better.” They told him to “mark tighter” or “close the space.” Maybe the reason he and others were struggling so mightily to talk and even to think about teaching was that the right words didn’t exist — or at least, they hadn’t been collected. And so he set out to assemble the hidden wisdom of the best teachers in America.
The most damning testimony [concerning teacher training] comes from the graduates of education schools. No professional feels completely prepared on her first day of work, but while a new lawyer might work under the tutelage of a seasoned partner, a first-year teacher usually takes charge of her classroom from the very first day. One survivor of this trial by fire is Amy Treadwell, a teacher for 10 years who received her master’s degree in education from DePaul University, one of the largest private universities in the Chicago area. She took courses in children’s literature and on “Race, Culture and Class”; one on the history of education, another on research, several on teaching methods. She even spent one semester as a student teacher at a Chicago elementary school. But when she walked into her first job, teaching first graders on the city’s South Side, she discovered a major shortcoming: She had no idea how to teach children to read. “I was certified and stamped with a mark of approval, and I couldn’t teach them the one thing they most needed to know how to do,” she told me.
When Doug Lemov, who is 42, set out to become a teacher of teachers, he was painfully aware of his own limitations. A large, shy man with a Doogie Howser face, he recalls how he limped through his first year in the classroom, at a private day school in Princeton, N.J. His heartfelt lesson plans — write in your journal while listening to music; analyze Beatles songs like poems — received blank stares. “I still remember thinking: Oh, my God. I still have 45 minutes left to go,” he told me recently. Things improved over time, but very slowly. At the Academy of the Pacific Rim, a Boston charter school he helped found, he was the dean of students, a job title that is school code for chief disciplinarian, and later principal. Lemov fit the bill physically — he’s 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds — but he struggled to get students to follow his directions on the first try.
...[H]e decided to seek out the best teachers he could find — as defined partly by their students’ test scores — and learn from them. A self-described data geek, he went about this task methodically, collecting test-score results and demographic information from states around the country. He plotted each school’s poverty level on one axis and its performance on state tests on the other. Each chart had a few outliers blinking in the upper-right-hand corner — schools that managed to squeeze high performance out of the poorest students. He broke those schools’ scores down by grade level and subject. If a school scored especially high on, say, sixth-grade English, he would track down the people who taught sixth graders English.
He called a wedding videographer he knew through a friend and asked him if he’d like to tag along on some school visits. Their first trip to North Star Academy, a charter school in Newark, turned into a five-year project to record teachers across the country. At first, Lemov financed the trip out of his consulting budget; later, Uncommon Schools paid for it. The odyssey produced a 357-page treatise known among its hundreds of underground fans as Lemov’s Taxonomy. (The official title, attached to a book version being released in April, is “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.”)
Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green | NY Times | March 2, 2010