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Why teachers have a tougher job than doctors

A sixth-grade math class in Denver.
A sixth-grade math class in Denver.
Hyoung Chang/Denver Post
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

It's no secret that Japanese kids perform much better on international math tests than Americans do. Japan is ranked second in the world, while the US is far below average.

But there's a surprising twist. Japanese teachers' methods for teaching math were developed in the United States, yet never caught on here. Why not? Perhaps because many Americans assume good teachers are born, not trained; that teaching well requires innate talent, or recruiting the best and brightest to begin with.

Elizabeth Green, who founded the education news site and serves as its editor and CEO, spent five years researching those assumptions. She visited the classrooms of talented teachers and charter schools renowned for high test scores, and traveled to Japan to watch math teaching methods in action. Her book, Building a Better Teacher, argues that teaching is perhaps the most complex profession there is, but that training, not talent, can create exceptional educators. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Libby Nelson: What's the most important thing about teaching you learned while writing this book?

Elizabeth Green: Teaching is not something that even the most brilliant and gifted among us is born knowing how to do. I think I would have said of course, it's hard work, it's important, it's a skill. Even early elementary school teachers are doing so much more than sitting on carpets and wiping noses. They are really thinking about ideas — numbers theory and algebra in math, and teaching a child to read is an incredibly detailed enterprise.

I didn't really know that, really. And I think most of us don't really get that, and I think that leads to policies that are misguided. I came away feeling like, I get it. I get why teachers feel under assault. They are really misunderstood.

LN: How would you describe the thought process of a really good teacher at work?

EG: One of the characters in my book compares the work of teaching to the practice of medicine. He at first was really interested in studying the mind and how people think, so he assumed that the most ideal subjects for that research would be doctors, because they must think the most on the job. Only later did he end up studying teachers.

If you're comparing teachers with doctors, the only comparison that really could apply is an emergency room doctor in a natural disaster. With doctors, you just have one person that you're working with, and they want to be there. With teachers, they have as many as 30 or more people they're working with at one time, and some of them do not choose to be there.

Teachers have to be mind readers at the same time as they have to be incredibly interpersonally sophisticated. They have to be masters of emotional intelligence. And at the same they're supposed to be teaching academic content. Even the most sophisticated practitioners that we can imagine — it's still more complicated to be a teacher, I ended up thinking.

LN: Why is there so little attention paid to the practice of classroom teaching?

EG: The fathers of educational psychology, the first education school professors, were bored by classroom practice. Edward Thorndike, who set the tone for all future education researchers, said when somebody asked him what he would do in a particular real-life situation at a school, "Do? I'd resign!" I think that's typical of a university system that focuses on disciplinary research — it's the history of education, the psychology of education. It's not education itself as a thing to study. That has meant that we train future teachers in everything but how to teach, pretty much.

LN: What about after teachers are already in the classroom?

EG: We don't give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it's 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that's happening outside their own classroom.

They have no time to see each other teach. Other countries show that time is some of the most valuable time. When you get to have a common classroom experience to look at, then you get things like figuring out that "13 minus 9" is the very best problem to teach subtraction with borrowing. That kind of learning doesn't happen in the US.

LN: One fascinating thing you found is that reforms in math teaching that were proposed in the US but never really caught on have transformed teaching in Japan.

EG: The Japanese were doing all these things differently in terms of teaching. I didn't know how Japanese teachers got to that point, so I went to Japan myself and I asked them. It was this really strange experience where they would all say, "We learned from you. We learned from the US." I was like, "From who, what?" and they would name these seminal figures throughout US history who had influenced the Japanese system.

The difference is they take good ideas and they know how to put them into practice. We take good ideas and we mandate them, and we pay no attention to how to put them into practice. The policies we come up with to try to put them into practice are the opposite of what actually makes sense.

LN: How do the Japanese do this differently?

EG: The Japanese are lucky in that they start from the place of believing that teaching is a craft. They already had a way for teachers to have time to learn, and they have the space to learn from each other. In their lesson study system, they not only do demonstration lessons of best practices, but they pose questions: Is 13 minus 9 really the best problem to teach subtraction with borrowing? Let's try another problem.

They have the teaching equivalent of Iron Chef. One teacher will teach the same concept one way, and another teacher will teach it a different way. And they'll have a discussion of what was good and what was bad, and you can see in these discussions why that system is so important. Teachers are learning about all the different things they need to know, all at once in this one experience in this really condensed way.

They're learning about how children make sense of the problems they're given, what children are likely to misunderstand. They also learn what techniques are useful to let children track the flow of ideas. They have an entire art of how to write on the blackboard that's like nothing I've ever seen.

LN: The one place you found a similar system in the US was at charter schools.

EG: They have a system of watching each other teach, sharing ideas about what they've seen. They have time dedicated just for learning about teaching. It's really simple, basic things, but they make a huge difference, and they don't exist inside the traditional US school system.

I think we take the wrong lessons from charter schools. I think a lot of policymakers have looked at the successful charter schools, and they've said the lesson here is they operate in a free-market system where they can fire and hire whomever they please. And students choose to go there.

When I asked the charter school leaders, they don't credit their success with market models. In fact they talk about the limits of those models. Instead, they credit their success to the "build it, don't buy it" approach. You can't buy talent; you have to build it. You can't incentivize your way or fire your way to better schools. You have to give teachers opportunities to learn.

LN: When we talk about improving teacher education, one idea that tends to come up most is that education schools need to be much more selective — that teaching needs to be like law or medicine.

EG: One place we have to start is with the reality of the scale of the teaching profession. There are 3.8 million teachers in this country, and that number actually understates the challenge because of teacher turnover. In the next several years we're going to have to have a million new teachers.

That is unlike any other profession. It just totally pales in comparison. We can't simply expect to get the best and brightest — it's not a feasible idea at all. If recruiting talented, smart, more academically successful college graduates were enough, then Teach for America would not think it needs to invest so much in training. They obviously invest more in recruiting the best and brightest and even do a better job of it than some investment banks.

There is nothing wrong with elevating the status of the teaching profession. I think that's a great idea. It's just obviously not enough.