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Identifying talented teachers: what is talent?

WHAT IS FIRST PERSON?

In the First Person section, we feature informed perspectives from readers who have firsthand experience with the school system. View submission guidelines here and contact our community editor to submit a piece.

If I were to ask what made your favorite teacher stand out what would you say? She was intellectually gifted? He could explain anything clearly? Able to reach every kid? Master of classroom management? Made you want to work? Brought every lesson to life? Don’t worry if you don’t see your teacher on that list. Experts differ on this question, too. Teaching talent is hard to pin down.

This lack of certainty is why I worry that some reforms proposed for teacher preparation may box us into tight requirements with unintended consequences. While research shows that teaching quality is a big factor in whether students succeed there is less clarity on which characteristics constitute “quality.” So how do we make sure only the most talented teachers wind up in classrooms? Even harder, how do we identify which students in teacher preparation programs will be effective in the classroom five or 10 years down the road — and which will never have what it takes?

There’s been a lot of push lately for educator prep programs to limit admission to applicants (usually 18-year-olds) with strong high school GPAs. This recommendation troubles me because while I want teachers to be smart, many important skills of great teachers are not captured in grades. It’s a solution that appeals to logic but, unfortunately, research hasn’t found that it reliably produces better teachers. As Tim Daly, head of TNTP, a nonprofit that includes an alternative teacher prep program, wrote in a blog post last fall:

“Every year, many teachers who come to the classroom from selective programs turn out to be great teachers, but many others turn out to be middling or ineffective. The same is true about less selective programs.  Moreover, there is little reason to believe that any instances of outperformance among selective programs are due to selectivity.  They could be attributable to better pre-service training or better on-the-job coaching models.”

If Daly’s observations hold true more generally, increasing the selectivity of teacher prep programs would not improve the quality of the teaching profession. Further, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of the teaching force. This is critically important as Colorado and the nation continue to diversify ethnically and socioeconomically while our teaching force remains disproportionately white and middle-class.

Daly doesn’t dispute that teacher prep can be improved. However, based on his experience, he points to more complex predictors of strong teaching: success during a teacher’s early years and a novice teacher’s ability to produce focused lessons, apply feedback from mentors, and take responsibility for her own success and continuous improvement.

Daly’s emphasis on characteristics shown by novice teachers led me to make a kind of crazy connection between what it takes to succeed in teaching and recent research about traits of successful athletes. As described by David Epstein in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, an athlete’s capacity to improve with training is more important than traits we traditionally associate with athletic success, such as great strength and speed. Perhaps the same principle applies in teaching. Maybe how much a teacher—even before being placed in front of students— is willing and able to change in response to training and feedback is a good predictor of future success.

A few caveats: After railing about the lack of firm empirical evidence behind some reforms I realize the line of thought I’m proposing is not even on research agendas. I also realize we must be careful comparing physiological changes in athletics with the behaviors and dispositions important in teaching. But bear with me. I think the connection I’m drawing in this limited case merits discussion.

Let’s define “baseline” as someone’s performance level at the point they enter formal training – say, when an athlete joins a varsity team or a teacher candidate starts a preparation program. Obviously, athletes and future teachers have many skills and talents at that point; the trick is to identify which are most important for future success. Some advocates argue that one measure of a teacher candidate’s baseline skill level, high school GPA, should be the prime determinant entry to traditional teacher preparation programs.

However, a key theme of Epstein’s book is that the amount of effort and growth in response to training is as important for identifying talent as the skill level an athlete has before formal training, a point consistent with Daly’s blog post. Epstein talks about the hidden potential of people to grow at explosive rates when exposed to training as “an idea that muddles the notion of innate talent as something that appears strictly prior to training.”  Perhaps we should focus more attention on developing such “trainability” measures so that we can better identify talent, regardless of a teacher candidate’s age or stage in life.

It seems to me quite possible that there are such “trainability bombs”—people with tremendous potential for explosive growth once exposed to training—among entering college students with unimpressive high school GPAs who could become great teachers. And I’m sure there are also a lot of students with relatively high GPAs who, regardless of their training, will never become great teachers. The key is to figure out how to tell these two groups apart, which teacher trainability measures might provide. This is not an easy pursuit but one with potential value to the profession.

So how do we go about putting great teachers in every classroom without narrowing the criteria so tightly that they squeeze out those with untapped potential? I think we start by celebrating the complex interplay of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and practices that go into good teaching and accept that we need more nuanced measures of talent.

As Daly wrote:

“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should forego selection entirely or write off the importance of teacher preparation. But I think we need to admit that the impact of teacher preparation is tempered by a simple truth: Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and not everyone can do it well. It is not a matter of having a certain set of qualifications or completing basic training. It is more like quarterbacking: a job that presents a dizzying array of challenges in quick succession, which only a subset of skilled practitioners can negotiate successfully. Performance varies widely.”

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Dr. Kristin Klopfenstein headshot

Dr. Kristin Klopfenstein

Dr. Kristin Klopfenstein, a native Coloradoan, is the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado. The EII’s mission is to work with researchers, policymakers, and educators to improve education in Colorado and beyond. Dr. Klopfenstein was previously Interim Director at the Texas Schools Project where she used the state’s longitudinal education database to conduct and manage policy research. She also taught economics for ten years at Texas Christian University.

WHAT IS FIRST PERSON?

In the First Person section, we feature informed perspectives from readers who have firsthand experience with the school system. View submission guidelines here and contact our community editor to submit a piece.

If I were to ask what made your favorite teacher stand out what would you say? She was intellectually gifted? He could explain anything clearly? Able to reach every kid? Master of classroom management? Made you want to work? Brought every lesson to life? Don’t worry if you don’t see your teacher on that list. Experts differ on this question, too. Teaching talent is hard to pin down.

This lack of certainty is why I worry that some reforms proposed for teacher preparation may box us into tight requirements with unintended consequences. While research shows that teaching quality is a big factor in whether students succeed there is less clarity on which characteristics constitute “quality.” So how do we make sure only the most talented teachers wind up in classrooms? Even harder, how do we identify which students in teacher preparation programs will be effective in the classroom five or 10 years down the road — and which will never have what it takes?

There’s been a lot of push lately for educator prep programs to limit admission to applicants (usually 18-year-olds) with strong high school GPAs. This recommendation troubles me because while I want teachers to be smart, many important skills of great teachers are not captured in grades. It’s a solution that appeals to logic but, unfortunately, research hasn’t found that it reliably produces better teachers. As Tim Daly, head of TNTP, a nonprofit that includes an alternative teacher prep program, wrote in a blog post last fall:

“Every year, many teachers who come to the classroom from selective programs turn out to be great teachers, but many others turn out to be middling or ineffective. The same is true about less selective programs.  Moreover, there is little reason to believe that any instances of outperformance among selective programs are due to selectivity.  They could be attributable to better pre-service training or better on-the-job coaching models.”

If Daly’s observations hold true more generally, increasing the selectivity of teacher prep programs would not improve the quality of the teaching profession. Further, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of the teaching force. This is critically important as Colorado and the nation continue to diversify ethnically and socioeconomically while our teaching force remains disproportionately white and middle-class.

Daly doesn’t dispute that teacher prep can be improved. However, based on his experience, he points to more complex predictors of strong teaching: success during a teacher’s early years and a novice teacher’s ability to produce focused lessons, apply feedback from mentors, and take responsibility for her own success and continuous improvement.

Daly’s emphasis on characteristics shown by novice teachers led me to make a kind of crazy connection between what it takes to succeed in teaching and recent research about traits of successful athletes. As described by David Epstein in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, an athlete’s capacity to improve with training is more important than traits we traditionally associate with athletic success, such as great strength and speed. Perhaps the same principle applies in teaching. Maybe how much a teacher—even before being placed in front of students— is willing and able to change in response to training and feedback is a good predictor of future success.

A few caveats: After railing about the lack of firm empirical evidence behind some reforms I realize the line of thought I’m proposing is not even on research agendas. I also realize we must be careful comparing physiological changes in athletics with the behaviors and dispositions important in teaching. But bear with me. I think the connection I’m drawing in this limited case merits discussion.

Let’s define “baseline” as someone’s performance level at the point they enter formal training – say, when an athlete joins a varsity team or a teacher candidate starts a preparation program. Obviously, athletes and future teachers have many skills and talents at that point; the trick is to identify which are most important for future success. Some advocates argue that one measure of a teacher candidate’s baseline skill level, high school GPA, should be the prime determinant entry to traditional teacher preparation programs.

However, a key theme of Epstein’s book is that the amount of effort and growth in response to training is as important for identifying talent as the skill level an athlete has before formal training, a point consistent with Daly’s blog post. Epstein talks about the hidden potential of people to grow at explosive rates when exposed to training as “an idea that muddles the notion of innate talent as something that appears strictly prior to training.”  Perhaps we should focus more attention on developing such “trainability” measures so that we can better identify talent, regardless of a teacher candidate’s age or stage in life.

It seems to me quite possible that there are such “trainability bombs”—people with tremendous potential for explosive growth once exposed to training—among entering college students with unimpressive high school GPAs who could become great teachers. And I’m sure there are also a lot of students with relatively high GPAs who, regardless of their training, will never become great teachers. The key is to figure out how to tell these two groups apart, which teacher trainability measures might provide. This is not an easy pursuit but one with potential value to the profession.

So how do we go about putting great teachers in every classroom without narrowing the criteria so tightly that they squeeze out those with untapped potential? I think we start by celebrating the complex interplay of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and practices that go into good teaching and accept that we need more nuanced measures of talent.

As Daly wrote:

“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should forego selection entirely or write off the importance of teacher preparation. But I think we need to admit that the impact of teacher preparation is tempered by a simple truth: Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and not everyone can do it well. It is not a matter of having a certain set of qualifications or completing basic training. It is more like quarterbacking: a job that presents a dizzying array of challenges in quick succession, which only a subset of skilled practitioners can negotiate successfully. Performance varies widely.”

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