“Many” Great Educators Are Not Enough

By | November 18, 2013

Many people are doing wonderful lessons with students; others are writing and researching better ways of reaching all students. The problem is that “many” are not enough.

Within the U.S., educators use a wildly wide range of teaching materials and practices. Even within a single school district or within a single school, teachers may be teaching with widely varying degrees of success.

Researchers in the Los Angeles Unified School District found that “putting a great teacher in a low-income school helped students advance a grade and a half in one year. An ineffective teacher in a high-income school held student achievement back to about half a grade of progress in a year” (Seattle Times article, 2009). Data from Teach for America shows a similar range in teaching performance (Farr, 2010; Ripley, 2010).

Many teachers find themselves in a double-bind. Everyone, within and outside schools, has an opinion about teaching and schools. Teachers are often not considered the recognized experts for their profession, even in situations where they have proven their ability to teach well. Yet they are responsible for teaching competently in situations where they are often subject to changes in cultural, political, and other kinds of often unsubstantiated opinions about the nature of good teaching. In many schools, school districts, and states, teachers must follow mandates for the materials and methods they should use and how.

If we want all students to be much more successful, all teachers, instead of a subset of teachers, must demonstrate a recognized standard of expertise. Parents, administrators, politicians, and others who depend on education must learn enough to stop asking for and accepting poorer solutions. The only way substantial improvement can occur is if many more people, inside and outside schools, can come to recognize real expertise rather than outward signs that have come to represent it, sometimes with little evidence.

Credentials traditionally are meant to be a sign of expertise — superior proven knowledge and skills. For a craftsman to become a master in a guild in the Middle Ages, he had to produce a valuable example of his craft to prove the depth of his knowledge and skill. More recently, medicine, engineering, and aviation provide examples of professions in which degrees of expertise and competence can be measured by healthy or recovering patients, superior products that function properly, and planes flown safely.

Both individually and as a profession, teachers show their expertise most convincingly through their students’ success in learning. According to many studies, this kind of expertise is not necessarily associated at this time with taking education courses, becoming certified by a state, or even teaching for years.

In order to teach most successfully, teachers must:

  • have a profound understanding of the subjects they teach,
  • know how people think and learn best naturally, and
  • be able to test and improve the design of lessons.

All three — not just one or even two — are necessary to shift the U.S. to a place where we can offer uniformly much better education for all of our students.

Until there is a wide-spread consensus on what truly better materials and methods look like and the nature of truly better results, education in the U.S. will continue to have only fragmentary successes.

Some Professional Parallels

Think about guilds in the Middle Ages. An apprenticeship, then working as a journeyman were required of all who wished to master a craft. Whether a journeyman had mastered foundational knowledge and skills was tested by his masterpiece — a work that masters within the guild would judge. When masters shared high standards and the knowledge and skills to meet those standards themselves, their judgements would be reliable, valid, and trustworthy.

Think about the practice of medicine. In the 19th century, only a subset of doctors believed in the existence of germs that could spread sickness. Many common practices and drugs either harmed or did little to help patients. Over time, doctors developed high standards of knowledge and skills that can be used as a baseline for continuing improvement. Improvement also depends on questioning problematic assumptions, and on refining and changing practices through thoughtful hypothesis-driven experimentation, using the scientific method.

The teaching profession couldn’t do better than learn from these examples. We must develop an “eye” for what is better and provide career steps that help others and ourselves to work at a master level. If we want students to start and continue as eager and competent learners from year to year, all educators must be able to recognize the components of lessons that facilitate or hinder learning. We must avoid practices that needlessly complicate and confuse understanding; we must find those that make important information clear and facilitate ‘aha’ moments and enjoyment of learning. We must be ready and able to continue improving education.

We must also educate the public to realize that good education is not just completing courses or getting diplomas or even passing particular tests, although testing is one way to measure progress. The goal of U.S. education should be far broader and deeper: students who are mastering what they are taught and continuing to learn and be curious about all sorts of things.


Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

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