Published on Education Nation – www.educationnation.com
Robert Slavin //Oct. 10, 2012 // 9:00 AM
Several years ago, I happened to be visiting a third grade reading class in a suburban, middle class school. The teacher, I will call her Ms. Fields, had just been named Teacher of the Year for the district, and she was truly outstanding: Enthusiastic, inspiring, a real delight to watch as she taught her high reading groups. However, as is my habit, I wandered over to see what the low reading group was doing. They had two pages from their basal’s workbook. Each had words arrayed on it inside puzzle-piece shapes. Their assignment was to cut out the puzzle pieces on one page, paste the words on synonyms on the other, and then color in the outline, which depicted a cat.
The kids were working happily. They quickly saw that this was a cat puzzle, so they paid little attention to the synonyms. So the task, for them, was a cutting-coloring-puzzle task, not a synonym task. These are not the skills a low-achieving third grader needs. This kind of assignment communicates to the kids in the low group that they are never going to be good readers, but as long as they are quiet and busy, no one was going to ask much of them. Of course, I’ve seen this kind of meaningless time-filling, motivation-deadening activity in traditional reading classes throughout the U.S.; this was only remarkable because it was Ms. Fields, Teacher of the Year, doing it.
You won’t find many teachers better than Ms. Fields, but even she could have profited from programs or professional development to use any of many proven alternatives to the grouping strategy that made the cat puzzle necessary.
I bring up this painful memory to make a point about an important question of educational policy: Should policies focus on better teachers or on better programs? Any sane person would say “both.” Clearly, we want the most capable, intelligent, caring, and hard-working people we can find teaching in every classroom. Current policies strongly emphasize this goal, with an increasing focus on policies such as value-added accountability, new sources of accomplished individuals to enter teaching (as in Teach for America), and higher standards for schools of education. Evidence for the effectiveness of these policies is minimal right now, but if they do result in a more capable teaching force on a large scale, that would be terrific.
Yet better teachers is only half of the equation. We also need better programs, meaning better professional development, textbooks, software, and other supports to help current teachers make a bigger difference. (Full Article)