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49 Gimmicks Ain't the Answer

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I hated the article in the New York Times (Crimes) Magazine when I read the headline, "Building a Better Teacher." (March 7, 2010). I learned to be a good teacher through fourteen years of hard work at difficult inner-city schools in New York City. It took a lot of trial and error on my part, support from dedicated teachers, and assistance from thousands of great kids; no one "built" me. People made good suggestions, but judgment and experience, not formulas and gimmicks, were keys to learning how to teach.

What did the editors expect when they assigned Elizabeth Green, a former reporter for the right-wing New York Sun, to write an article about the latest miracle bullet for public education - the 49-point program developed by Doug Lemov?

According to the "Uncommon Schools" website, the charter school promotional organization that Lemov helped to found and is still affiliated with,

Doug Lemov is the Founder of School Performance, an Albany-based non-profit that provides diagnostic assessments, performance data analysis, and academic consulting to high performing charter schools. He is a founder and the former principal of the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Boston, regarded as one of the highest performing urban charter schools in the country. After leaving Academy of the Pacific Rim, Mr. Lemov served as the Vice President for Accountability at the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, the leading authorizer of charters in New York, where he designed and implemented a rigorous school accountability system. He has since served as a consultant to such organizations as KIPP, New Leaders for New Schools, and Building Excellent Schools. Mr. Lemov is a Trustee of the New York Charter Schools Association and of KIPP Tech Valley Charter School. He has a B.A. from Hamilton College, an M.A. from Indiana University, and an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School.

What the website and Times magazine leave out is that Lemov really is a businessman. He is selling books and workshops, charging $250 per person to attend the workshops where he shares his secrets.

Amazingly, while the website touts his Harvard M.B.A., it never mentions Lemov's teaching experience where he discovered the true path to success. However, buried in the New York Times Magazine article, we learn that this "Doogie Howser" look-a-like had "limped through his first year in the classroom, at a private day school in Princeton, N.J." Couldn't he find a better place to prepare himself for revolutionizing education in the inner cities of the United States?

The thing is, the 49-point program is not that outrageous as a guide to good teaching, but it is also not very original. Lemov's champion teachers let students know it is not okay to give up. He argues that when students fail to successfully complete a basic task they should do it again until they get it right. On the other hand, some of his ideas are pretty dumb. Lemov believes right is right -- so there is no room for ambiguity or disagreement, which is a great approach if your goal for education is higher scores on standardized multiple choice tests, but not if you are trying to encourage students to think.

What is outrageous is the idea that somehow without years of training and support, successful teachers can be constructed. In Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003) I laid out some of my ideas for teaching. I am not pushing book sales, but you are welcomed to read it.

Based on 14 years as a teacher in inner-city secondary schools and nearly 40 years in the teaching profession, I believe there are principles of effective teaching in secondary schools that span the subject disciplines. Classroom practice should be based on goals and an understanding of students as complex and diverse human beings. An overall goal in secondary education is to promote greater freedom for students as they assume increased individual and collective responsibility for their own learning.

While content expertise and the mastery of pedagogical skills are essential for teachers, empathy with students and a sense of personal mission are the keys to successful teaching. Effective teaching in inclusive middle school (6-8) and high school (9-12) classrooms with diverse student populations can involve the same student-centered pedagogical practice with differences in degree or emphasis based on student needs rather than differences in kind of instruction - everyone can be treated like an honors student.

I have discovered that learning takes place all of the time - but students are not necessarily learning what teachers intend them to learn; everything that takes place in the school and classroom is part of the curriculum; and learning is social - teachers should build on it, not fight it. Developing classroom community and student leadership is the most effective way to promote student learning - the only people teachers can control are themselves.

It takes extended experience (three-to-five years) and hard work to master the skills needed to be an effective teacher. It is important that new teachers make connections with the work of their colleagues in their own content area and in other areas as well. Where I agree with Lemov is that the skills needed to become a successful teacher are neither magical nor inexplicable, and can be developed by beginning teachers if they work at it and they are supported by Schools of Education and school districts.

The staff development and resources needed to improve the quality of education in the United States are not cheap and there is no fast fix. It certainly will not be achieved by memorizing Lemov's 49 points or pretending that working in elite private schools or privileged charters substitutes for learning how to teach in inner city schools.

In my experience, every teacher must make a decision: will you rock the boat - "fight the power" - of those like Bloomberg, Klein, Duncan, Lemov, and The New York Crimes who are selling miracle cures, or will you become "another brick in the wall" of an educational system that rewards some students, tracks many into limited options, and leaves others behind.