Great Teachers Are The Key

I have just read a remarkable article published in the Guardian (, by Ian Leslie) that makes the case for the importance of good teachers. Teachers drive the success of a school far more than the money spent on facilities, or the existence of a universal standard, or the newness of the textbooks, or virtually any other target of debate raging in education today.

I've always felt that if we put a great teacher in a plain-jane school facility with outdated textbooks, she would outperform an unskilled teacher in a state-of-the-art, best-that-money-can-buy classroom. I was right.

"The evidence suggests that a child at a bad school taught by a good teacher is better off than one with a bad teacher at a good school. The benefits of having been in the class of a good teacher cascade down the years; the same is true of the penalty for having had a bad teacher. ...the children who gain most from good teachers are those from disadvantaged homes in which parental time, money and books are in short supply. Being in the classroom of a great teacher is the best hope these children have of catching up with their more fortunate peers.

In 1992, an economist called Eric Hanushek reached a remarkable conclusion by analysing decades of data on teacher effectiveness: a student in the class of a very ineffective teacher – one ranked in the bottom 5% – will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year, whereas if she was in the class of a very effective teacher – in the top 5% – she would learn a year and a half’s worth of material. In other words, the difference between a good and a bad teacher is worth a whole year."

The Guardian article is a long but powerful read. It follows the work of Doug Lemov, author of the book Teach Like A Champion. He chronicles the teaching skills of great teachers and shares that information with others. This simple approach seems to me the best hope for schools, both public and private, here in America. While we may spin our wheels debating the benefit or harm of big programs like Common Core, we would be better off focusing on teachers and what they know, or don't know, about good teaching.

"Lemov is wary of big ideas and educational philosophies. Most of the tools in Teach Like a Champion, he says, remain beneath the notice of theorists of education. But he does have a philosophy, even if he wouldn’t call it that. One of its tenets is that teachers need to maximise the amount of thinking and learning going on in their classroom at any one time, and to ensure that this effort is widely distributed."

This article, and Lemov's book, also share my suspicion that new programs like Common Core will not fix what's wrong with our education system. I believe that the fix begins with helping families stay intact, protecting the social fabric that keeps kids safe and gives them strong character. But schools do play a big part in preparing children for life, and many seem to me to be doing that poorly. In the education bureaucracy's rush to try new programs, it is easy to lose the basic commitment to train teachers to teach well. The British author of the article observed at an elementary school performing well at these old-fashioned basics:

"Sparkes, a self-possessed 35-year-old from Liverpool, was at pains to stress that most of the school’s practices are adopted from other good schools. “Very little of it is new,” he told me, as we stood in the playground and watched two teachers line up the entire school as a post-lunch reset. “The only difference is, we do what we say.” At Dixons Trinity, there is no single innovation or magical personality around which everything revolves, just a shared and relentless attention to better execution. That can make it a hard place to work. “You need a self-critical disposition to work here,” said Thompson."

If you care about our nation's schools, I urge you to read this whole article. I'm going out right away to buy Lemov's book, Teach Like a Champion, and I'll be telling others about it too.