Monday, August 07, 2006

Learning From the Masters

Learning From the Masters
Some of the best lessons in teaching happen after ed school
By Jay Mathews
Sunday, August 6, 2006; W33

Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year, made regular visits to his students' homes in Southeast Washington, showing up unannounced if he couldn't reach a parent by phone. Rafe Esquith, a Disney national teacher of the year, developed a system for his low-income Los Angeles fifth-graders that pays them virtual dollars based on their work. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, award-winning creators of the Know-ledge Is Power Program (KIPP) for low-income fifth- through eighth-graders, require students to call their teachers' cellphones after school if they have questions about homework.

These practical, if unorthodox, teaching methods have helped produce some of the largest achievement gains in the country. Yet none was learned at an education school. Kamras, Esquith, Levin and Feinberg say their ed school classes primarily taught theory, and they had to develop their most powerful methods through trial and error or watching other teachers.

Why is that? Why can't university teacher training programs pass on more practical, field-tested ideas to help kids in our lowest-performing neighborhoods?

Well, I thought, maybe they are passing them on, and I haven't noticed. So I did an informal e-mail survey, running a number of winning classroom strategies by some education schools to see if they were teaching any of them.

The best practices included expanding the school day with before- and after-school teaching. In the District, one very successful inner-city boys school, Washington Jesuit Academy, begins the day with 7:30 a.m. breakfast and does not finish until 7:30 p.m., after dinner and supervised homework. Only about 13 percent of its students enter the school on grade level, but after three years more than 90 percent reach that mark.

The strategies also included giving significant amounts of homework and swiftly punishing failure to do it, speeding the grading and return of homework by checking only a few answers, standing beside students in class while calling the students' parents to praise good work and collecting parents' contact numbers personally rather than counting on overburdened school clerks.

Kamras says his marking of just a few homework questions helped raise test scores by enabling him to cover more lessons without getting bogged down in grading papers. Perhaps surprisingly, Kamras, Levin and Feinberg found low-income parents pleased by unannounced visits (the teachers always had something good to say before getting to the problems). Kamras didn't make cellphone calls to praise students without the students' permission, and Esquith's virtual dollars are an entire economic system that not only motivates with privileges won through hard work but teaches about housing costs, taxes and other financial mysteries.

To be fair, it is summer break, and the response to my survey was scant. But the few ed school people I heard from seemed unfamiliar with many of the strategies, and more than once I was told that teaching methods in the curriculum must be confirmed by research. The problem is that education research is often so vague, impractical and controversial that it isn't much help to a new teacher.

The most forthcoming of my ed school correspondents, a professor at a leading university, approved in general of collecting home numbers and lengthening, with care, the school day. He knew much about the research on increasing time for effective learning. But the same professor said he did not like most of the other suggestions from expert teachers. "No one wants someone just showing up at their home unannounced," he said. "Teachers must treat parents with respect."

He advised against requiring students to call teachers after school. "Teachers usually have class preparation and grading to do at home," he said. "Students should contact their teachers via Blackboard [a Web site] or e-mail." He also opposed Kamras's selective homework marking: "Teachers should be willing and able to grade all homework. If they are not, then they should not assign so much homework."

Fair enough. Not every strategy is for every teacher. And there is much that education schools teach that is worthwhile. But most ed school professors do not have as much urban classroom experience as Esquith, Feinberg, Levin or Kamras do. I think future teachers would benefit from hearing what they think works.

Jay Mathews covers schools for The Post. He can be reached at

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