Reformers have urged -- depending upon where they stand ideologically -- smaller class sizes, more accountability, merit pay for teachers and educational choice. Each year seems to bring a new fad: child-centered learning, new math, cooperative learning and so forth. The No Child Left Behind reform focused on testing. There have been proposals to repeal teacher tenure and to provide every child with a laptop. And always there are fights over curriculum -- the Common Core being the controversy du jour.
But perhaps the most promising thinking about education arises from the discovery from economist Eric Hanushek that the most important factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher. Not class size. Not spending per pupil. Not even curriculum.
Our system produces some great teachers, but only by luck. Each year, 400,000 new teachers enter American classrooms, many knowing little about the nuts and bolts of teaching. As Elizabeth Green argues in her new book, "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone)," our education schools do not teach the mechanics of teaching: how to control a classroom, how to engage students' imaginations, how to check for understanding. They've been sidetracked by educational psychology and fads at the expense of teaching how to teach.
Green cites "education entrepreneurs" including Doug Lemov, author of "Teach Like a Champion," and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, now dean of the University of Michigan's school of education, who focus on helping ordinary teachers to become great.
Lemov, an education reformer and consultant, was struck by something he found by poring over statistics from the state of New York. While the correlation between zip codes and educational success was notable, there were always outliers: schools or classrooms in which even kids from impoverished backgrounds were doing well. Lemov zeroed in on those schools and those particular teachers.
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