Relentless Relentlessness

By Guest Blogger 02/15/2011

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Trivia question: Which brothers combined to hit the most home runs in baseball history? Was it the three DiMaggio brothers, Dom, Vince, and Joe? Or maybe it was longtime major leaguers Felipe, Matty, and Jesus Alou. The Boyer boys? Old-timers Paul and Lloyd Waner? The correct answer is Henry and Tommie Aaron. Everyone remembers Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s career record with 755 round-trippers. You didn’t know he had a brother in the bigs? Tommie Aaron hit home runs like his big brother Hank, just not as many. Thirteen to be precise.

Life is unfair. One brother becomes a baseball immortal; another becomes the answer to a trivia question. Superstars cast long shadows. Steve Farr, chief knowledge officer of Teach For America, will be forgiven if he feels a bit like Tommie Aaron these days. Last February, Farr published Teaching as Leadership, an earnest, well-intentioned book that purports to explain the habits and practices of effective teachers so that others might profit from their example. But then a few weeks later—bang!—along comes Doug Lemov with the education equivalent of a walk-off grand slam.

Heralded by a cover story in the New York Times magazine, Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion became an instant classic, a best seller, and quite possibly a game changer in the teacher quality debate (see my full review in Education Next,Tools for Teachers,” book review, Spring 2011). Farr’s book was respectfully received, but once Lemov arrived the effect was akin to looking at the moon when the sun comes up. It’s still visible, but it doesn’t shine quite so brightly.

I was asked by Education Next to review both books, but with apologies to Mr. Farr, it’s an unfair exercise. Look, Tommie Aaron was a decent ballplayer (you don’t make the majors if you can’t play), but he was no Henry Aaron. And neither is Farr’s Teaching as Leadership.

Teach For America takes pains to describe its thousands of alumni as “a growing force of leaders working to expand educational opportunity from a variety of sectors.” The fatal flaw of Teaching as Leadership is that it seems to serve two goals at once: it attempts to describe the attributes of effective teachers, while simultaneously burnishing the credentials of its corps members in the argot of business books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Good to Great. Effective teachers are more than merely solid practitioners; they are leaders who set big goals, invest their organization (students) in working hard to achieve those goals, and work relentlessly to increase their effectiveness. It’s an unnecessary and distracting conceit. Both Teaching as Leadership and Teach Like a Champion are the products of years of teacher observations. Both stress the importance of setting high expectations and dwell on planning and effective execution. But where Lemov is specific and granular, Farr can be grandiose and imprecise. Here is Farr, for example, on the importance of effective execution in the classroom:

Effective execution happens in the details of our everyday work. It means we follow through on our actions, big and small, so that we are not just doing what we intend to do but are actually having the effect we intend to have. For strong teachers, effective execution means ensuring that everything we do contributes to the goal of student learning.

This idea is so deceptively simple that at first it seems hardly worth noting. And yet, in our observation of highly effective teachers, we sometimes see two teachers go into their classrooms with similarly strong plans and come out with different results. At the end of the lesson, unit, or year, one teacher’s students have made dramatic academic progress, while the other teacher’s students have not. What happens in the course of a plan’s execution that leads to the variable outcomes? What are the common qualities of highly effective teachers who are able to translate their strong goals, student investment, and well-crafted plans into the outcomes they intend?

Paradoxically, effective execution is the sum of many picky details and the result of a singular, deep passion and commitment to student learning. From their smallest transition procedures, to their daily lessons, to their behavior management decisions, to their year-long curricular path, highly effective teachers commit to and work toward achieving desired results. This commitment drives them to insist on doing every task well, knowing whether they are on pace to success along the way, and adjusting their plans as necessary.

This asks more questions (literally) than it answers. Readers who want to know what exactly is happening in that more effective teacher’s classroom—and how to replicate it—will find more insights and illustrations in Teach Like a Champion:

It’s the first day of school and you’re reviewing multiplication facts with your fifth or perhaps sixth graders. You ask Charlie what 3 times 8 is. Glancing briefly and impassively at you, Charlie mutters “I dunno,” under his breath, then sucks his teeth, and turns his head slowly to look out the window. It’s a critical moment. Students all too commonly use this approach to push back on teachers when their unwillingness to try, a lack of knowledge, or a combination of the two makes them unsure or resistant. And all too often it works. Reluctant students quickly come to recognize that “I don’t know” is the Rosetta Stone of work avoidance. Many teachers simply don’t know how to respond. The result is a strong incentive for students to say, “I don’t know” when asked a question. So if Charlie successfully shows you that you can’t make him participate, it’s going to be a long year of you gingerly (and weakly) stepping around him, of other students seeing that Charlie does what he wants, and of Charlie not learning—a lose-lose-lose situation.

If you used No Opt Out in this situation, you would turn to another student, Devon, and ask him that same question. Assuming he correctly answered 24, you’d now turn back to Charlie: “Now you tell me, Charlie, what’s 3 times 8?” Charlie has just found—without your stopping for a time-consuming and possibly ineffective lecture—that he has to do the work anyway in your class.

This is precisely the kind of explicit, helpful advice—do this, not that—that new teachers need, especially those assigned to sometimes rough-and-tumble urban schools. In short, Teaching as Leadership defaults to describing what effective teachers believe. Lemov describes what effective teachers do. And what they do next. And what they do after that.

The tautological subtitle of Teaching as Leadership is “The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap” and the book’s tone of unquestioning confidence risks doing a disservice to the new teachers who are the book’s target audience. Farr sets out six principles that all great teachers—sorry, all great leaders—have in common. “Highly effective teachers set big goals,” he notes. Indeed they do, but so do a lot of highly ineffective teachers. If the “big goals” are too big, and if the teacher’s skill is insufficient to the task, frustration and resentment on the part of both student and teacher is too often the outcome. Farr’s attempts to define how to set big goals can be maddeningly vague. Big goals have measurable outcomes, they are driven by the students’ needs and interests, and they are inspired by high expectations, Farr tells us.

With its laser-like focus on quotidian teaching techniques, Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion understates and overdelivers; Farr does the opposite. “Without exception, the strongest teachers we have studied tap into an amazing phenomenon of human psychology: the self-fulfilling prophecy of high expectations,” Farr writes. “These teachers recognize that we get from our students what we expect from them. These teachers’ every action is driven by the insight that high expectations cause high achievement.” That is an amazing phenomenon! Note that high expectations do not “contribute to” high achievement. They are not even a necessary prerequisite. They cause it. This is rock star teacher stuff of the worst order. If our students fail to achieve it is because of the “inundating smog of low expectation” or our own “weak internal locus of control”—a failure to believe that we as teachers can control events that affect our students.

Highly effective teachers also “invest students and their families in working hard for extraordinary academic achievement.” Effective teachers, Farr writes, “convince their students that they can reach their big goals if they work hard enough, and that doing so will make a real difference in their lives.” Farr approvingly cites the testimony of two teachers who were unable to make contact with their students’ parents over the phone: “We would just start taking kids home, and we would wait at home until the parent came home, and we would just make home visits constantly,” recalls the unnamed TFAer. “If we needed to go meet a parent at work or wherever, we just made it happen.”

What would Lemov, a man who calculates the amount of teaching time lost to handing out papers and extrapolates that into hours of teaching time lost over an entire school year, make of a teacher who spends hours at a student’s home waiting for a parent to return from work? Teaching as Leadership fairly groans under the weight of such anecdotes. And why not? They are the red raw meat that leads our best and brightest to sign up for TFA in boxcar numbers.

Make no mistake, Teach For America corps members really are our best and brightest. The top colleges and universities from which TFA recruits its corps members turn away the vast majority of their applicants; four years later, TFA turns away more than 90 percent of those who made the cut. I suspect that Teaching as Leadership will now be required reading at “summer institute,” the five-week preservice training required of all new TFAers. As a description of the habits of mind that are a precursor to classroom success, it is a useful organizing device. But delivering that success, as Lemov’s book makes clear, depends on a lot of blocking and tackling. It simply won’t do to say effective execution is “the sum of many picky details.” You’ve got to say which picky details and how to address them. Lemov is all about picky details.

For several years, I had the pleasure—and it truly was a pleasure—of working with first-year TFA corps members as an adjunct professor. Each September, classes were filled with 30-odd young teachers, brimming with energy, enthusiasm, and confidence, gung ho to close the achievement gap single-handedly. By mid-October they were haggard, shell-shocked, and sleep-deprived, weighing the cost of their immortal souls against the benefit of getting their students to listen, follow directions, and complete an occasional assignment. Woe unto anyone who would suggest looking within at their weak internal locus of control.

So yes, by all means, let us have big goals and high expectations. But I hope that TFA corps members who actually wish to keep their students focused, attentive, and working toward those big goals will have a copy of the Lemov book at arm’s length.

A former 5th-grade teacher, Robert Pondiscio writes about education at the Core Knowledge Blog.

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