Tuesday, May 6, 2008

How to Help our Teachers

There are teachers who need help in teaching and disciplining students, and a few others who are not sufficiently grounded in the subjects they teach. How can we identify and train these teachers?

The Problem: There are a few teachers who do not know the material they are supposed to be teaching. There are others who need help with their teaching skills, or have difficulty maintaining order in their classrooms.

The ‘do not know the material‘ problem is, we believe, the least important. -- the majority of teachers are very well-qualified. However, this problem does exist. For example, we know of a sixth-grade teacher in a local school who doesn’t know the multiplication tables. And we’ve seen notices containing misspelled words posted on school bulletin boards.

The teaching skills and maintenance of order problems have to do with communications -- see the ‘new ideas page.

To solve this problem we must:

* Carefully evaluate existing teachers, perhaps by requiring that they take tests (though principals are likely to know which teachers need help.) Incoming new hires must also take such tests.
* Provide remedial classes to help troubled teachers improve their teaching skills, handle discipline, and acquire knowledge of materials. Teachers who fail even after taking the classes cannot be retained.

It will take money to set up and administer the tests, and to create the remedial classes. However, except for testing new-hires, this will be a one-time cost.

Action hoped-for from the reader.

We’d be delighted to hear from anyone who has a comment on the teacher problem. To comment, just click the underlined word ‘comments’ at the bottom of this page (or any of the other pages), and tell us what you think. We’d be glad to hear from anyone. You might like to tell us:

Why we’re wrong about the problem discussed above, or what additional problems exist that we‘ve ignored or overlooked.

What you think should be done to improve schools.

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Chitra Seshan, Teacher said...

I have taught 8th grade math for almost 2 years in an affluent public school in Colorado. I came to teaching after 20 successful years in the high-tech industry (engineering, management, process improvement) to observe what needs to be changed and to make a change. I am writing you this very long email since I agree with what you are trying to do

I think some of the problems you are identifying are really part of the same problem. I think there are two key problems that can explain the majority of symptoms we observe. The first is in providing the appropriate amount of time and repetition to any given topic for any given student. The second is that the education system has no mechanism in place to facilitate changes to the education system

I believe that there is a relation between the number of repetitions and the time required for students to learn a particular topic. If a student is forced into too many repetitions, they are not being challenged enough. If they are not given enough repetitions, they are not able to keep up in a sequential learning area like mathematics. The repetitions occur through more time on a topic when it is being taught as well as by repeating the topic over several grades.

Based on what I have learned about the middle school math curriculum (and late elementary and early high school curriculum), the expectation is that the typical student needs to have at least three repetitions of any topic at three different grades, except for special-ed kids who really do need more than 3 repetitions and more practice than the middle-of-the road group. (They also often need more individualized instruction. But often the special-ed teachers are not well versed in the knowledge required to teach late elementary and middle school level subjects.)

The typical curriculum also assumes 45-50 minute daily class periods with units lasting between 3-6 weeks. What I see is the mainstream kids do not master the methods in this amount of time but they do learn the basic concept.

Another observation regarding curriculum is that often the problems will expect the student to retain prior concepts. However, the teacher is instructed to evaluate student progress by determining if the student understands the new concept and not by evaluating if the student is retaining old concepts.

I happen to work for a very energetic principal who is interested in trying solutions to see if he can improve student learning. Last year, he doubled the amount of math that each student takes in middle school (to 75 minutes per day). In a single year, we approximately doubled the percent of proficient and advanced students in our state standardized tests. The bad news from this experience is that the students in the Unsatisfactory range did not change.

This year, he has created 3 or more levels of classes at each grade level in addition to maintaining 75 minutes of instruction per day. This includes the highly controversial "remedial" level at each grade. I happen to teach the remedial and two advanced sections in 8th grade. The remedial class has students still in the unsatisfactory range and is a curious mix of students. Two-thirds of this section was quite capable of learning the material in the time provided for the regular population, and yet they had fallen hopelessly behind by 8th grade. We had to start at place-values in 8th grade!

I think the whole issue of matching the amount of time and repetitions to the individual student needs by grouping them in classes according to these needs and using class size as a variable to help those who need it addresses the concern with moving students forward that haven't mastered the skills for the grade level and the issues regarding discipline.

Now to my second key area of concern. The education system does not have a mechanism in place to try and implement change to improve the system. In fact, it encourages stagnancy. As an example, next year we plan that students entering 6th grade next year will be placed in either a regular, accelerated. or advanced plan. We must have an agreed sequence of topics that we will teach, with compacting for the two accelerated tracks built-in to the plan. We also must be able to acess who should switch tracks, and have key checkpoints throughout the 3 years when we will make these determinations.

As I already mentioned, I happen to have a principal who is willing to be a trailblazer and is encouraging these tracks despite the norm in the district. So there is no support from the central district in creating these common assessments and checkpoints. I can see why very few teachers would take the lead role, because that is even more thankless "additional work". Eventually even the most dedicated of the teaching professionals will give up in trying to fight the system to make changes. The sad consequences are that many great ideas never get tried. When great ideas are tried and are successful, there is no mechanism to duplicate it in other schools and other school systems. When ideas are tried and fail, there is no way to warn others to try something else instead. Without a system in place to duplicate progress, all the great local efforts are really only minimally worthwhile.

Blogger said...

This long and valuable comment emphasizes the importance of teacher ability, especially with regard to repetition of material taught. It also relates directly to the Social Promotion problem -- note his remark about students being hopelessly behind by the 8th grade.

Mr. Seshan also bring up a new problem, that of encouraging and using new teaching techniques. As a result of his comment, we’ve added a new section to this blog. You can see it by clicking