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Media: Building A Better Reporter

07cover_span-sfSpan-thumb-200x243-96961 Some belated thoughts about the substance and the delivery of Elizabeth Green's recent New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, Building A Better Teacher.

First, the kudos.  It's a great accomplishment and a strong story over all.  It shows tremendous effort, curiosity, and smarts, and took amazing persistence to see it through.  The history of the profession is clear and well-written.  The characters of Ball and Lemov (particularly) are brought to life.  The snippets of classroom observation are vivid.  The focus on what to do with existing teachers is a welcome antidote to too much attention given to issues such as selecting, evaluating, and culling teachers.  Like I'm sure many other education writers, I wish that it were my story. 

That being said, there are some serious problems and minor annoyances that undercut the piece and raise questions about its findings and usefulness.


Like Malcolm Gladwell and others, Green juices up her characters' mundane and sometimes obvious ideas by repeatedly describing them as hidden and secret, emphasizing their intricacy and specificity (with numbers, for example), and giving things Important Sounding Names (capitalization!).  Ball and Lemov do this enough themselves, it's a shame Green seems to be aiding them.   

It's considered fashionable in some magazines like the New Yorker for reporters to insert themselves into a story at some point along the way, but I found Green's repeated and not particularly necessary mentions of her presence to be distracting. Is this a Millennial thing?  I don't know.  I'm technically not a Boomer but this self-referencing from whippersnapper Green makes me irritable and sleepy.  First I must floss.


As with a recent Atlantic Magazine article on TFA, there's a troubling absence of criticism.  Green's characters (and her story, over all) are essentially arguing for a massive expansion and re-engineering of  a certain kind of teacher training.  There are many out there who would say that more PD, or Ball and Lemov's kind of PD, are not the answers.  Many teachers would balk at the notion of more PD, or the hyper-particularity of the PD that Lemov and Ball espouse.  But Lemov and Ball don't really disagree all that much, and the closest we get to a truly opposing view is a former critic, Tom Kane.  Access kills, like I always say.  Too much access is nearly always fatal.

As with many other stories written about education issues, there's frighteningly little discussion of key issues such as cost, implementation, and political viability.  Even if Lemov and Ball have indeed discovered the Holy Grail of teacher training, it still has to be paid for, delivered widely while retaining quality, and sold to lawmakers and other such folks who are pulled in a hundred different directions and might or might not like the sound of more (if better) teacher training. The Obama administration's request for teacher training may be doubled but it's still pitifully small.  Training's simply not a top tier issue on the current reform scene, but the reader's left unclear and might think that it was the next big thing. 


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I think it's honest to mention you're there, as a reporter. The whole omniscient narrator style is, I think, going out the window. Maybe it is generational :-)

On the latter point about workability on these reforms, I think that's just a separate story. It's a worthwhile one. But what Green was focusing on was explaining this concept to the average reader. If the reader jumps to the conclusion that it's easy to do, that's jumping to a conclusion; Green didn't lead them there.

Paul W. Bennett commented on your note "Media: Building A Better Reporter":

"Elizabeth Green's feature story certainly drew attention to a long-neglected issue - the promise and perils of attempting to transform teacher culture and to introduce sustainable teacher evaluation/development in any form. It's an exceedingly complex undertaking,and a path littered with a succession of past failures.That's my major quibble with Green's recent revelations. She might also have broadened her focus to include "faculty growth" initiatives attempted, over the years, in various North American independent schools.

Without teacher unions, School Heads have found teachers a little more amenable to the extra work involved in participating in regular, on-going faculty development. Furthermore, most of those faculty growth experiments were designed to supplant the traditional clinical supervision/evaluation model reserved for probationary/ beginning teachers and favoured in the public schools.

Traditional “top-down” teacher evaluations are usually just paper exercises, but they always generate grumbling around the faculty coffeepot. Here’s the familiar routine: Harried administrators pop into the classroom and write-up a class observation report. It normally causes rumblings and is often viewed by the faculty as the equivalent of a “drive-by shooting.”

Walker Buckalew’s Independent School Management (ISM) workshop on “Teacher Effectiveness through Evaluation and Development” has done much to popularize faculty-based, peer evaluations. Breaking from traditional clinical models, Buckalew promotes “meaningful faculty evaluation” developed in collaboration with teachers. It has far more bite than the rather "congenial" approach of the Coalition for Essential Schools reflected in the "Critical Friends Groups."

Even hardened veteran teachers are attracted by Walker Buckalew’s model of peer-based evaluation. For a classic example, see a frank appraisal at “Is It June Yet?” http://www.facebook.com/l/dfbef;isitjuneyet.blogspot.com/2009/09/once-again-there-is-much-buzz-about.html This type of faculty-driven professional evaluation often evolves into well-intentioned “Peer Evaluation Programs." which are time consuming and almost impossible to sustain.

While reading Green's piece , I came to a shocking conclusion. Back in the early-1990s, I gave a Faculty Growth Workshop at the NAIS Annual Conference in New York City and promoted a program known as the Upper Canada College Peer Evaluation Program (PEP). Modelled after a popular ASCD model at the time, it capsized at Upper Canada College when the school adopted the IB in 1997-98. A similar program was attempted at Lower Canada College from 1997 to 2005 and it withered on the vine. I have just discovered that the first such program in North America, at Greensboro Day School (NC), died when the long-term head retired.

I think it is safe to say that a new approach is in order. I challenge anyone to find a program that survives the passing of its zealous proponents.

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