Join us in Seattle on June 26-29 for the NCEE Leaders Retreat. Learn more here.

Cross-posted from Education Week

What follows is a note I recently wrote to Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the University of London’s Institute of Education where he recently completed a term as the Institute’s Deputy Director.  In my next blog, I will share his reply.

Dear Dylan,

I’ve been trying recently to reconcile your views on teacher expertise with mine on teacher quality.

Some years ago, a colleague and I visited a high school in California.  It was–and for that matter still is–widely admired, especially in the high-tech community, as the ideal type of high school for children from low-income and minority communities interested in high-tech careers.  But it was a crashing disappointment for my colleague and me.  Notwithstanding the evident engagement of many of the students, I encountered instructors whose command of their subject was nothing short of abysmal and saw instruction that was vapid and shallow.  The level of intellectual challenge, while certainly above that in nearby schools, was well below what you could expect to find in a good suburban school.  All the glitter was on the surface — a lot of use of technology, a lot of project work, a very informal, almost chummy, school climate.

A few weeks later, I went to spend a day at Harvard-Westlake, a private, independent school in west Los Angeles that serves the sons and daughters of LA’s very upper crust, comparable to Groton, Philips Andover, Exeter, Rugby, Harrow and so on.  Small classes, all run seminar-style by teachers who would have been at home on the faculties of our best liberal arts colleges, from Haverford to Amherst.  The level of the class discussions was on a very high plane.  The focus was on ideas, but it assumed a lot of detailed knowledge of the subject under discussion.  The teachers command of substance and ideas was so thorough they were confident enough to let the students go where the discussion led, and able enough to bring it back to the main points wherever it had gone.  I left each class wishing I could stay, not as an observer, but at as a student.

One last example, before I get to the point.  Almost 25 years ago, I put on one of our commissions a teacher of technology from a wealthy Seattle suburb.  Intrigued by his angle of vision in our commission meetings, I decided to visit his classroom.  When I got there, I found his desk shoved up against the wall and almost inaccessible.  He explained that his students, who had been told that much of the work in the course would be organized around a project of their choice, had decided to build a laser measurement device.  The measurements that they wanted to do were to be so precise that the laser would have to be mounted on a base that would be absolutely rock solid.  They decided that they would have to build a large concrete platform in the classroom to accommodate it, and further decided that the only place to put the platform was the space in which his desk was situated.  Hence the placement of his desk when I arrived on the scene.  Building the support for the laser and then mounting the laser-measuring device on it, however, were not the only challenges the students faced.  To accomplish the goals they had set for themselves also required writing some original software, which took some time.  Their project won a prize and was subsequently written up in the leading Seattle newspaper.  A few days later, the instructor got a call from a group of senior engineers at the Boeing Company.  It turned out that the students had solved a software design challenge that these engineers had been working on for years but had been unable to solve.  This led to some extraordinary opportunities for the students at Boeing.

What the instructors at Harvard-Westlake and the Seattle-area high school had in common with each other but not with the instructors at the first school I described was first-rate intelligence and a deep command of the intellectual constructs underlying the subjects they were teaching.  They were also–no doubt about it–in command of the craft of teaching.

I do not doubt that you are right in saying that research clearly shows that the development of real expertise in the craft of teaching takes 10 years or more, just as the development of comparable expertise in other professions does.  But I am assuming that teaching ability is a function of intellectual capacity, deep knowledge of subject matter, strong command of craft and ability to relate to young people.  I recall from our earlier conversation that your research shows that good teachers appear to be more or less randomly distributed among schools.  And, as you also pointed out in our last conversation, the literature on expertise shows that one becomes more expert not as a simple function of time on the job, but rather as a function of the amount of disciplined practice under one’s belt, that is, as a function of the degree to which one has worked in a disciplined way at improving one’s practice.  Finally, it is clear from your research and that of others that closely observing the effects of one’s teaching on the student with respect to your goals for that student while varying your teaching in real time to see what improves the outcomes for that student is the essence of disciplined practice.

All that makes sense to me, but I also took you to say that the research shows that the weighting of these factors changes over time, with intellectual capacity outweighed over time by command of craft.  I cannot quite get to the conclusion that, after a few years, teacher quality is entirely a function of two factors: the disciplined improvement of practice and the time during which one has been engaged in the disciplined improvement of practice.  What I saw at Harvard-Westlake and the Seattle suburban high school convinced me that, even after many years of practice, the teacher’s intellectual command of the subject being taught and the teacher’s capacity to apply that command of the subject to the work at hand are very important.  My conclusion, of course, is based on a tiny sample.  But it is buttressed by so much other evidence over a lifetime of observation that I cling to it.

Have I misunderstood you?  Do you think I am wrong?

– Marc