A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 01 2010

The Rise (of Doug Lemov) and Fall (of Ed School)

Doug Lemov, managing director at the Uncommon Schools–which, along with KIPP and Achievement First, ranks among the highest-performing charter school networks in the country–came to our last Professional Development Saturday, where he led a 2-hour session focused on Strong Voice, one of the techniques that he has discovered great teachers use consistently in their classrooms (excellent backgrounder on the new teacher training movement here).  In a word, it was a fantastic workshop.

I talk about this all the time amongst my teaching friends, but I’ve never stated it openly: Doug Lemov–or, more specifically, the type of teacher training model that he is pushing–will be one of the key levers to closing the achievement gap.  I don’t know want to say he is the Messiah, so I won’t. But he’s pretty damn close.

Doug Lemov and others like him are pushing the education world to rethink what it means to train teachers–to really teach teachers how to teach, concretely, discretely and effectively.  As a corollary, Lemov’s “rise to power” reflects a new understanding in the education world that ed schools, as they are traditionally run, no longer cut it.

Why? Simply put, there’s too much theory and not enough practice.  In grad school, we talk about socialization, secondary discourses, Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.  We read academic papers that talk about the research that is done in school districts, schools, and classrooms across the country.  I feel like that fat kid in the cafeteria—I walk through the ed school serving line and have my plate overloaded with (indigestible) theories of teaching and learning.  This jumble of academic jargon creates a cognitive Jenga tower.  As is wont to happen with any game of Jenga, from time to time, the entire tower collapses.  The theory is, in theory, in my brain, but, in reality, it’s not always there.

Don’t get me wrong—I think grad school offers valuable and meaningful knowledge.  I’ve enjoyed learning about the “pedagogy of the oppressed.”  It has helped me reflect upon the broader problems within our public education system.  It has exposed me to some of the injustices that lie at the heart of the achievement gap.  But I am not an education policymaker (at least, not yet).  Right now, I am a classroom teacher.  And I want to be a better one.  I am learning too much in a purely “academic” context—one that is disconnected from the reality of my own occupation as a classroom teacher.

Let me put it this way: when it is 2:23pm–after a long day of struggling to engage my first two periods in a lesson on point of view–and I am simultaneously fighting to keep students from playing scrap paper basketball; to keep them—again!—engaged in wanting to understand what point of view is; and to root out obnoxious cell phone use…at those moments—I couldn’t care less about Paulo Freire.

Going back to the idea of meaningful things, there needs to be a clear distinction between something meaningful and something meaningful-enough There are many things in life that would be meaningful to me if only I would pursue them.  For instance, I think I would find much pleasure in learning how to knit.  Gardening might be fun too.  But I do neither. Why?  I only have 24 hours in my day.  My scarcest and most valuable resource–time–must be devoted only to those endeavors which are meaningful enough.  As Doug Lemov (with his Harvard Business School sensibilities) also discusses, every decision must pass a “hurdle rate” test.  Is whatever I’m choosing meaningful-enough or simply meaningful?  That something is meaningful is not enough to say that it is worth doing.  I think ed school is meaningful (to me as someone who enjoys learning about various things), but is not meaningful-enough to me as a teacher.

What is meaningful-enough may also differ based on the context of the individual in question.  What is meaningful-enough to a teacher-in-training may not be meaningful-enough to a professor, and vice versa.  I have the impression that, slowly, ed school professors’ understanding of what is meaningful to aspiring teachers has strayed.

Indeed, what we see (or, at least, what I see) in ed school is a fundamental misalignment between the priorities of the teachers-in-training and their professors.  Of course, professors want to teach aspiring teachers.  However, traditional ed schools still have too much of an academy orientation.  Professors are busy writing papers like the ones in this journal, and shuttling between conferences presenting their papers.

My grad school education has provided me with a comforting cushion of knowledge about teaching, learning and education, but hasn’t told me jack squat about what exactly to do when I’m in the classroom.  The lesson here is that while theory can certainly drive practice, we still need practice in school–because, damn, teaching is not just about theory!  Teachers cannot succeed as arm-chair philosophers. But, aside from the student teaching requirement, ed school is mostly an arm-chair heavy endeavor (the comments section of this Jay Mathews post shows many people revealing this discrepancy).

Lemov, Teacher U and other more pragmatic teaching training programs are showing that teacher education does not have to be this way.


Let’s add one piece of seriously-ironic news to the mix: the charter school run by Stanford’s School of Education (Stanford SoE, by the way, is supposedly the third best in the country) is being shut down because of its extremely low performance.  A mere 19% of students were proficient on the most recent state tests, compared to an average of 78.1% among “top comparable schools”.  The even more ironic fact is that Linda Darling-Hammond, a well-respected education scholar but an open critic of TFA, was the one in charge at this school.

If the nation’s best education professors can’t teach students, what does that say about the credibility of ed school in general?  Certainly, one point of evidence certainly doesn’t prove that ed schools are useless, but they certainly make me wonder whether what I am learning in ed school actually helps me be a better teacher in practice.  Is simply knowing about Vygotsky, Piaget, Marcia and all the other ed psych theorists enough to say that one is a better teacher?  I think not.

A better teacher is one whose students actually do well in school.  In order to improve, a teacher-in-training needs the guidance and direction of an excellent teacher of teachers.  That teacher of teachers needs to have specific techniques to show his/her teachers-in-training.  Once the teacher-in-training learns these techniques, s/he needs guidance in practicing and executing these techniques effectively.

Doug Lemov’s new book, Teach Like a Champion, offers all of this.  Go out and read it.  TFA should make this required pre-Institute reading.  Coupled with the included DVD of video clips, it’s a $15 graduate school education.  Talk about bang for your buck!

(Note: I’m not done reflecting on Lemov and ed school and great teaching.  In my next post, I’ll have (a) excerpts from an email conversation with Mr. Lemov himself (!) and (b) my partial critique of his book.)

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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