Innovation Smithovation

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We often hear about how charter schools are so innovative. And now we increasingly hear, especially with this week’s release of a Boston Foundation report touting the number of additional hours charter school teachers put into their work, that time in school is what matters.

I agree that charter teachers work their butts off, and we all should be incredibly thankful for their commitment to breaking the determinist logic so many had for so long that “those kids can’t do it.” More time does matter. And innovation does matter.

But time on task only matters if what is going during the additional time brings real benefits. And I am more and more convinced that the quality of charter school teaching is far less a matter of catch phrases like “innovation” and more a function of common sense.

Doug Lemov was one of MA’s great charter founders. He started Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School, which is a great concept and a great school. As happens with people who have big ambitions (here “ambition” = making a big difference for as many kids as possible), he found the cap on charters in MA restrictive. NY came a-calling, and he began to work in charter school accountability there, and then founded School Performance, a non-profit in Albany providing assessments and performance analysis to charter schools. He’s now managing director of the Uncommon Schools network of charters in New York and New Jersey.

So, he’s seen a lot in the classroom and at the management level — and he knows how to make sure policy matches up with great student outcomes. And he has just authored a new book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, that Neal Conan of NPR’s Talk of the Nation does a nice job introducing (access the transcript here or listen to it here):

Teachers sit at ground zero of the raging debate over education. The Obama administration argues that sometimes, the only way to fix a failing school is to fire the whole staff. Washington, D.C. and New York City are just two public school systems that want greater authority to fire teachers whose students perform poorly.

Doug Lemov has been looking through the other end of the telescope. He spent more than 10 years studying great teachers – men and women whose students scored consistently well – to figure out how they do it. And he distilled a set of ideas about how to control the classroom, how to engage the students, make them pay attention, hold them to high standards and get them ready for college.

But as Lemov notes in his introduction, “Many of the techniques may appear mundane, unremarkable, even disappointing.”

Innovation driving learning and student achievement? Lemov notes to Conan:

[O]ne of the things I love about the book and the things that I learned from great teachers in writing the book is teachers will come up to me after a presentation and say: I do that. I do that already. You know, that’s me. And that actually makes me happy. I don’t feel like I haven’t done my job by not creating something innovative.

I’m just trying to describe what great teachers do, and sometimes it’s the simplest things and the smallest things that are real game-changers, that are sometimes beneath our notice, beneath the radar of teacher training or the way that we think about the classroom, and they can be incredibly powerful.

I really think that two of the things that make charter school teachers effective are (1) their content knowledge and (2) their unyielding focus on what works (even the mundane details). Both elements are only possible because charters have heightened accountability and the flexibility to create a culture of learning.

Is teaching quality primarily a question of innovation or of time? Or is that the application of common sense?