Does Academic Performance Predict Good Teaching?


Opinion Piece by Jared Gellert

Does Academic Excellence Predict Good Teaching?

Teach for America v. Traditional Teacher Training

Does academic performance in an undergrad program predict good teaching, more than a traditional teacher training program?

Opinion Piece — by Jared Gellert

There’s a great article in the Atlantic from a former Teach for America member.

The article discusses her experiences and her training.  Here are some questions it raises for me.

One presumption of Teach for America that comes across strongly is that  academically elite recent college graduates are more effective teachers than their less academically elite cohort  who have received teacher training.  In other words, the superior smarts of people who sign up for Teach for America count more than the teacher training less smart people receive as education majors or minors.

I would have been prime material for  Teach for America had it existed when I graduated college.  I was a liberal arts major who didn’t want to go to law school, wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and definitely wasn’t going to go into the business world.  And I would have been terrible in a classroom because my classroom management skills were (and are) terrible.  I would not have been able to control my classroom, and all my smarts would have been irrelevant.

The presumption that academic excellence translates into good teaching seems wrong on three accounts.

First, I doubt there’s any correlation between academic performance and good teaching, except perhaps for advanced high school courses.  Really, all elementary teachers, for instance, know how to read competently, but they vary greatly in terms of their ability to teach reading.  Equally, certification programs mean that high school math teachers are probably at least competent in Algebra, even if some are much better mathematicians than others.

Content knowledge isn’t the key to successful teaching, though it is a necessary condition.  I had a tenth grade English teacher who couldn’t read critically and wasn’t widely read.  She offered the Cliff notes interpretation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s house, and I offered a different interpretation (which actually was supported in the critical literature) and she just insisted my interpretation wasn’t a possible one.  I tuned her out for the rest of the year, and encouraged my friends to do the same.  I still remember this 40 years later.

Second, the notion that five weeks is sufficient training in classroom management is just silly. Classroom management is an incredibly important skill, especially if you are going to employ strategies that speak to different levels and learning styles amongst the students in your classroom.   Sure there’s an intellectual component in understanding different approaches to classroom management, but a whole lot of it is experience.  Is there a substitute for trying out what works and what doesn’t for an individual teacher with her individual strengths and weaknesses and how well they match the personalities of a given class?  I doubt it.  A lot of teaching is experience, and not academic smarts.

Third being really smart about something doesn’t necessarily make you any good at teaching it.  What may be easy and breathtakingly obvious to you is opaque and difficult to others.  I’m reminded of a basketball story that Kenny Smith told about Bill Russell when Russell was his coach.  Russell said to them to go get some rebounds (he was one of the all time great rebounders in NBA history) and Smith asked him how.  Russell, according to Smith, just mumbled “go get them.”  That advice was no help at all; they needed teaching and he couldn’t teach because it was too easy for him.

Why do we think that something like Teach for America is a good idea?  The simple answer is that the traditional approach to educating large swaths of the population simply doesn’t work particularly well.  In diagnosing why we don’t manage to successfully educate a lot of the population, looking at teachers as a possible factor is certainly reasonable.  Plus, it’s a lot easier to say it’s the teacher’s fault and change the teacher, then to say it’s society’s fault and change our society to one that universally highly values education.

There’s something arrogant about thinking that five weeks is enough to teach someone classroom management, just as there’s something arrogant to think that someone who hasn’t been a teacher can be a good principal, just as there’s something arrogant in believing that  people who have never been in a classroom can run a school system.

Jared Gellert is the executive director of The Center for Integrated Training and Education .


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