Increased Focus on Teachers Should Include a Sharper Focus on Great Teaching

April 5, 2019

Recent debates across the country about education funding and teacher contracts have raised important questions about the investment we need to make in our public schools and educators. We are simultaneously moving beyond the accountability movement that’s dominated public discourse for the past several decades. We have an opportunity within this context to turn our attention to what’s important, namely, how to elevate, encourage, and ensure great teaching for every student. We need to sharpen our focus and deepen our discussion of the bedrock issue of educational excellence: What is great teaching? And how do we make sure it isn’t just by luck or privilege that students have access to it? The challenge for schools (educators and policy-makers) is to 1) define excellent teaching, and 2) create the conditions that ensure that it is available to all students. But it has been disheartening to witness the extremely complex work of teaching reduced to numbers and ratings, resulting in high levels of teacher turnover. Our students and our teachers deserve better.

There appears to be an emerging consensus that great teaching is not defined by student success on standardized tests, even when these are (supposedly) aligned to rigorous student learning standards. There are simply too many other important outcomes of schooling that can’t be captured by any such test (dispositions, such as open-mindedness and tolerance of difference, personal traits, such as perseverance in the face of obstacles in learning, and aesthetics, in the arts, but also manifested in such things as an elegant solution to a mathematics problem.)

Recognizing the complexity of teaching and a vision of student success that goes beyond what we might call the regular curriculum, The Framework for Teaching (originally published in 1996) was designed to give educators (and policy-
makers) a clear and thorough understanding of high-quality, student-centered instruction—a foundation upon which they can build the instructional practices and collaboration that drive academic achievement. It can serve – and has done so in countless schools and districts in the US and globally – as a roadmap to the complex work of teaching and how it can be strengthened.

If we are to create the conditions for excellent teaching, what is the mechanism (or what are the mechanisms) for such a focus? Part of the answer lies in what we know about all learning: that it requires an environment safe for risk-
taking, in which an expectation of individual commitment to learning is pervasive. Fear, in other words, shuts people down. We know this from work with students; adults are no different. Furthermore, educators have gradually learned that teachers
are more likely to learn from their teaching colleagues than from external “experts.” Professional conversations, with one’s study group or grade-level or subject team, particularly when focused around solving the inevitable “problems of practice” that arise in teaching, are a powerful mechanism to drive learning. Analyzing practice – either live or on video - with a trained colleague or coach constitutes another powerful vehicle for the improvement of teaching since it incorporates self- assessment of practice, structured reflection, and dialogue.

We’re entering a new policy era, and as the conversation shifts from evaluation to teacher growth, educators can re-focus on those aspects of teaching that brought many of them to the profession in the first place, namely witnessing the joy of students grasping a difficult concept, finding power in their strengths, or feeling part of a professional community of other educators also committed to student success and joy in learning.

By Charlotte Danielson