A super-easy way to improve American schools and teacher performance

Pro football players improve by studying film of top players at their position.

CEOs improve by observing and sharing ideas with other CEOs.

Programmers improve through “code reviews” with other programmers and through “pair programming,” in which two programmers write code collaboratively.

Furthermore, the best people in every field frequently reflect on their performance, eagerly seeking flaws they can remedy to become even better. For example, the New England Patriots use their off (“bye”) week each season to scout themselves. They watch themselves on film to identify tendencies and flaws they would exploit if they played themselves.

One obvious way to improve American education — at very little cost — is to encourage, enable and require teachers to watch one another and themselves teaching. Teachers should sit in on one another’s classes, provide positive and negative feedback to teachers whose classes they observe, and extract useful ideas they can apply in their own teaching. And classes should occasionally be recorded and evaluated, by the class teacher and other teachers. The sharing of ideas, self-observation and self-reflection would greatly improve many teachers' teaching.

Chattanooga’s Benwood Initiative is living proof. Before the initiative, city student performance seriously lagged suburban student performance. Six years into the initiative, city students are learning at a faster pace than suburban students. Students are learning more, and teachers are thrilled:

Chattanooga’s Benwood Foundation… realized there were a lot of ineffective teachers in failing schools. But they also discovered there were really great teachers there too. Why not figure out a way for the less effective teachers to learn from the superstars?

So the school district set up a mentoring system. One distinctive feature of the system is that teachers spend time in their colleagues' classrooms, watching each other teach. “What we believe is you have to recognize where greatness is and help other teachers see and learn from great teaching,” says Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga…

“As a teacher you don’t really know — what’s good teaching?” says Maggie Thomas, a former teacher who is now involved with efforts to improve teaching in Washington, D.C., public schools. Thomas travels from school to school, observing teachers as part of the District of Columbia’s new teacher evaluation system. “I came to this job with a certain set of teaching practices in my repertoire,” Thomas says. But after watching 200 other teachers, she’s learned all kinds of new techniques and approaches. She says this is what teachers need — a chance to see great teachers in action….

“Of all of my years of teaching, these last eight to 10 years I probably have done a better job than I’ve ever done before,” says Linda Land, a Chattanooga teacher with 37 years of experience. Everyone used to close their doors and do their own thing. Now they work together on everything: They plan lessons, trade advice and give each other feedback. Land says the school is a more open and collaborative place. And it’s more fun to come to work.

Posted by James on Thursday, October 21, 2010