Monday, March 12, 2012

Enabling Effective Teachers

Ever since Senator Ruiz’s hearing on S1455 I have been consumed with the issue of teacher effectiveness. The importance of effective teachers to a young person’s overall development is so fundamental its importance cannot be overstated. Along with parents and peers- whose minds they also shape- teachers can have both bold and subtle influences.

I’m going to declare that the effectiveness of a teacher is more important than a curriculum’s content. It goes without saying that an effective teacher is able to present meaningful content and teach essential skills. The most crucial aspect of a lesson is the learning. Teaching something is not the same as learning something. True learning must be assessed, and we must all understand that assessing learning goes well beyond passing a test. I used to tell my students that they should be able to hold an intelligent conversation for at least 5 minutes on whatever one is learning, whether it be coursework, independent study, or group oriented work.

This gets me back to teacher effectiveness. To me there are 5 characteristics of an effective teacher. They are passionate. They are organized. They are knowledgeable. They are empowering. And they are resourceful. If I were evaluating a teacher’s effectiveness, these are the lenses I would use.

Of the five, passion and knowledge are inextricably linked to the learning process. Research in neuroscience seems to indicate that both should be present for true learning to take place. Now it is unreasonable to expect a student to be equally passionate and knowledge seeking in all of her classes, but it is not too much to ask that the teacher be both passionate and knowledgeable about their course curriculum.

Here’s when an issue- a huge issue to me- arises. It is my belief that  the amount of required subject matter at the high school level is ridiculous, and quite simply it is my contention that the exhorbitant, unnecessary, and excessive demands of the Core Curriculum Content Standards is perhaps one of the greatest HINDRANCES to effective teaching and true learning  in our state mandates.

It is bad enough that our HSPA, the test we use for graduation, is almost completely disconnected from the seven content areas identified by the State. As I stated before, I believe our graduation test should be more akin to a “lifelong learning” test, with students demonstrating they have the requisite financial skills, legal knowledge, historical understanding, awareness of our natural world, and understanding of the human body to be an independent, informed citizen. They should also have acquired the important technological, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills that will help them assimilate into our culture, whether it be in their personal or workforce spheres.

To accomplish these goals, we need the vast majority of our teachers to be effective, able to nimbly see that true learning is taking place in their classroom. I believe the path to this is achievable and worth discussion. Quite simply, I believe that we need to drastically rewrite the Core Curriculum Content Standards, particularly at the high school level, to limit required content to those things that a teenager MUST learn, those things that are essential to “life beyond high school.” Each academic association, whether it be science, social studies, or languge arts for example, believes that there is a lot that should be learned in their field, and the result of having each of their representatives draw up part of the state curriculum is a document that is way too large, onerous, and unnecessary.

Let us rethink and rewrite the CCCS and our graduation test, and at the same time liberate teachers, empower them to design their own curricula, reflecting their own personal passion and knowledge within their fields. It is incumbent on the members of an academic department, working in concert with any department supervisor, to make sure that the revised state standards are met, but beyond that we should support their effort to expand their own learning, and the end result will be dynamic, spirited, and engaging classes with effective teachers that are extremely motivated to insure that learning is taking place.

With proper oversight and collaboration from supervisors and peers, and with liberal access to resources, I wholeheartedly believe that this vision will unleash enormous creative and intellectual energy by our teachers. By allowing teachers to write curricula that express their personal passion and knowledge, our public schools will be energized to produce true learning by our teenagers. School will begin to look more like a true marketplace of ideas, as teachers look to subtly outdo one another in a bit of collegial intellectual competition, whether it be done individually or in teams. What we will have is what I have termed “entrepreneurial educators,’ teachers that see their course as their invention, their business, their product or service.

We live in a society that heralds its entrepreneurs, and as I heard the representative of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce say at the hearing, “education and entrepreneurship have been the agents of our prosperity.” I could not agree more, and believe that we can channel this spirit into the classroom, producing effective teachers and empowered students inspired to learn. What a wonderful thought.

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