Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) by Elizabeth Green (W.W. Norton, 384 pp., $27.95)

Prior to publication, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works, by Elizabeth Green became the most highly anticipated (and hyped) education book of the year. The Sunday New York Times Magazine twice ran excerpts. One of the Gray Lady’s regular columnists, Joe Nocera, praised Green for revealing that the art of teaching can be “broken down into certain key skills, which can be taught,” and expressed hope that her book would become a bestseller.

Times readers might have wondered what was newsworthy about the notion that teaching “can be taught.” Aren’t all teachers trained to teach before they enter the classroom? Unfortunately, public school parents and the general public are misinformed about what remains one of the most underreported, yet also critical issues in American education: what future teachers actually learn in the nation’s schools of education. That’s one reason that Green’s book is so timely.

As Green reveals, for most of the past century, education schools have contributed little to the task of “building a better teacher.” In her opening chapter, Green notes that “somehow all those Ed schools’ professors had managed to learn nothing about teaching.” Moreover, “the most prestigious among them—the elite education researchers—ignored teaching altogether.” Green asks: “How did this happen? How had an entire field come to neglect the work at its heart?”

It happened, in part, because the founders of the twentieth-century education schools—iconic figures like William James, Edward Thorndike, and John Dewey—were disinterested in the nitty-gritty of the classroom and thought little about how to improve methods of instruction. (Thorndike abhorred school visits, calling them “a bore.”) Instead, they preferred to write and do research about more intellectually challenging subjects, such as psychology and human intelligence. What Green calls the uniquely American “myth of the natural-born teacher,” along with the corollary assumption that good teachers simply “know what to do to help their students learn,” also encouraged the ed schools’ inattention to the art of teaching.

Green argues that today’s school-reform movements, as well as their ostensible enemies—the traditional defenders of the public schools—have both abdicated responsibility for understanding how teaching works. Reformers have focused almost exclusively on accountability schemes for teachers, based on improvements in student test scores. With the development of statistical techniques known as “value-added modeling,” a group of influential education scholars claim to have discovered a reliable measure of effective teaching. According to these reformers, value-added is a foolproof way of identifying (and rewarding) those teachers who produce the greatest learning gains for their students, while also tracking ineffective teachers who should be weeded out of the teaching ranks.

On the other side, teachers’ unions and their allies have championed what Green calls the “autonomy model” of teaching. In this approach, teachers should be supported as professionals and given the freedom in the classroom (plus the resources) they need to succeed. Teacher-autonomy advocates point out that this is the model for success in high-performing nations like Finland.

Green gives each of these approaches its due. Tracking student improvement by test scores can be useful in evaluating teachers; higher pay and better working conditions may make it easier to recruit higher-performing teachers. The problem is that both the “accountability” and “autonomy” models have ignored the interaction between teachers and students in the classroom, wrongly assuming that “good teachers know what to do to help their students learn.”

Each September, 400,000 newly minted teachers enter American classrooms. Everyone agrees that teachers matter—indeed, that our children’s future lies in their hands. Yet, according to Green, the two dominant models for school improvement don’t address how to boost those new teachers’ performance: “Autonomy lets teachers succeed or fail on their own terms, with little guidance. Accountability tells them only whether they have succeeded, not what to do to improve.”

That’s the bad news in Green’s book. But there’s also some good news. Green tells the story of a largely unknown group of educators who finally came to understand that children were not being served by the education schools’ laissez-fare attitude toward teacher improvement. She calls these pathbreakers “education entrepreneurs.” They began their inquiries about how teaching works outside the orbit of the monopoly system of education schools and the state teacher-licensing agencies. They used videos of classroom instruction, breaking down the components of good lesson plans and learning how to manage 30 students in a classroom in order to maximize learning. Green illustrates how these entrepreneurs used trial and error to find the most effective ways to explain mathematical concepts, such as place value and long division, to third- and fourth-graders.

An outstanding figure in this previously little-known instructional movement is Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a highly regarded elementary school teacher. After 15 years in the classroom, Ball realized that she had no idea whether the techniques and lesson plans she and her colleagues were using were really the optimal way to teach students. Ball showed that improved instruction was not only possible, but could also be made accessible, even to average teachers. Now dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education, Ball is developing training curricula for teachers that incorporate these empirically tested practices. She’s one of Green’s hopeful examples of teachers who are forcing the ed schools to pay attention to classroom realities.

Another leading character is Doug Lemov, author of Teaching Like A Champion, a how-to-do-it manual increasingly popular among young teachers who leave education school with no knowledge about what works in the classroom. Lemov became a teacher and an education entrepreneur in the 1980s through the charter-school movement. He never attended ed school, but his charter-school teaching experiences helped him realize that even the most dedicated young teachers had no idea of how to hold the attention of 30 students in a classroom. At 42, Lemov completed a thoroughly researched “taxonomy” of teaching, consisting of 49 techniques that teachers can use to get students to focus on subject matter.

It’s encouraging that entrepreneurial educators like Ball and Lemov are finally challenging the ed schools’ monopoly control over the teacher-training business in America. Green should be applauded for bringing this promising and independent educational movement to wider public attention.

But Green’s book tells only half the story about the wreckage the schools of education have left in the classroom. Almost all of her book’s focus is on how her education entrepreneurs brought improvements to teaching techniques in math. Math is important, of course, but whether American students are prepared for college-level work is dependent almost wholly on improving achievement in reading. As E.D. Hirsch has noted, “The achievement of high universal literacy is the key to all other fundamental improvements in American education.”

While there have been some gains in American students’ math scores in recent decades, improvement in reading has lagged far behind. The most recent NAEP tests confirmed that there had been no improvement in reading-achievement levels for 11th- and 12th-graders since the first national tests were administered in 1971, when only 40 percent of test-takers were judged to be reading at grade level. Improving literacy instruction presents some unique challenges. Educators are in general agreement about the math content that all children should learn, but one of the major obstacles to improved instruction in reading, as Hirsch has shown, is that the ed schools have miseducated future teachers into believing that reading can be taught as a set of skills, while ignoring the content knowledge that all good readers must possess. Unlike math, this deficit cannot be remedied by better instructional techniques. It requires a focus on a coherent, grade-by-grade, content-knowledge curriculum—something that most education schools still reject.

It’s unfortunate that Green’s book fails to address the nation’s literacy gap and solutions to it (she never mentions Hirsch). Still, Elizabeth Green shows herself to be a talented young journalist, and there’s room for another volume on the important remaining issues of improving literacy instruction in American schools.

Photo by ScratchEd Team/Flickr


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next