I’ve spent a bunch of time recently engaged in webinars with a bunch of brilliant members of the Teacher Leaders Network who have been providing feedback to the Department of Education on all kinds of education policies.

One question that keeps coming up again and again is:

What does effective teaching look like? How would an outside observer know if he/she were in an effective teacher’s classroom?

The problem with this question is that education’s stakeholders—parents, policymakers, business owners, students, teachers, community leaders, public interest groups—all have different expectations for our schools.

“Effective teaching” to a policymaker—especially in today’s accountability culture—is defined by results on standardized tests.  That requires nothing more from me than a strict adherence to a scripted curriculum and drill-and-kill lessons emphasizing memorization of the kinds of basic facts that we are currently testing.

“Effective teaching” to a parent is more balanced.  While it would certainly include a measure of focus on basic skills and abilities, it would also leave students inspired to wonder and prepared for the world of work.  It would focus on the development of the habits that make people successful—things like organization and work completion—instead of a singular focus on narrow curricula.

“Effective teaching” to a community leader would leave students prepared to participate in a democracy.  Students would study the kinds of moral questions that members of communities are forced to answer.  They’d develop positions on things like taxation, welfare and social justice.  They’d think through the role that governments should play in the lives of people.

“Effective teaching” to a business owner is even more complicated.  Business owners working in knowledge-driven fields would be less interested in content mastery and more interested in seeing students develop the skills necessary to collaborate with colleagues and to think innovatively across domains.  Business owners working in the skilled trades would be more interested in seeing students develop basic competencies and skills.

Now can you understand why I’m so discouraged by the reform efforts in our country.

Clearly—if we’re going to meet every expectation that education’s varied stakeholders have for our schools—we’re going to need to redesign teaching significantly.  It’s going to cost us a ton—both in human capital and in dollars and cents.

But because our society isn’t ready to make this investment, we’ll never make every stakeholder group happy and we’ll always be buried under criticism from someone who isn’t satisfied with our work towards THEIR priorities.

What I’d like is for all of education’s stakeholders to agree on what they think effective teaching looks like.  Make clear and manageable decisions—based on the resources you are willing to invest—about what exactly you want schools to be responsible for.

Give me one target to shoot for and I’ll hit it every time.  Give me a dozen targets and one arrow, and I’m screwed.

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