Elizabeth Green Tackles the Question; Are Teachers Born or Made?

It’s hard to believe that there will ever be an answer to the question of whether teachers are “born” or “made.” As with the question of whether comedians or poets are born or made, the way that the question is phrased, and its context, will determine the answers. As with the case with other timeless questions, each generation will respond differently to the issue of whether we can make a great many more great teachers and, if so, how to do it.

Elizabeth Green, in Building a Better Teacher, does a fantastic job of writing a history of efforts to make better teachers. Of course, she does so from her generation’s perspective. Green is wise to mostly limit her analysis to the study of math instruction, with disproportionately younger students. That methodology allows for more precision. Had she written a book on efforts to improve teaching effectiveness in subjects that require reading comprehension, in high-poverty secondary schools that serve all comers, Green’s conclusions would likely have been far more ambiguous. But, she provides an excellent service by producing a complex, but clear, proof of the concept that we can and should do a far better job of making teachers.

The first half of Building a Better Teacher surveys academic efforts to study and improve teaching quality. She is sympathetic towards Nate Gage, the leader of the first post-WWII generation of scholarship. She also surveys the science which explains how the behaviorism of era was, to borrow the words of Lee Shulman, “garbage.” It had already been on “life support” for a half of a century. She then reviews the evidence base of the best of the modern, academic teacher improvement movement. Sadly, Green has to also recount the failure to scale up its findings.

Ironically, American ideas for improving education, as well as other institutions, are adopted in Japan but not at home. At least in elementary schools, the Japanese commit to the holistic team effort necessary to build a better teacher. They nurture the exchange of ideas and critical thinking. In other words, they embrace the dynamic qualities of our democracy, as many Americans lose faith in our most cherished ideals.

The second half of Building a Better Teacher starts in the 1990s. It describes the entrepreneurial movement to improve classroom instruction, in order to drive school reform, as a means of fighting poverty. The sincerity of these newcomers is unquestionable. But, their pedagogy is unquestionably behaviorist.

Green starts this section with Doug Lemov and his Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR). These charter school innovators saw themselves as a “movement.” Green explains, “Their obsessions were data-based decision making, startups, and ‘disruption.’” Lemov and other entrepreneurs had little knowledge of (and perhaps less interest in) traditional, scholarly education research. Green explains that those who had been to education schools “gave the rest an idea of what education professors advocated, and as far as they could tell, it was exactly the opposite of what their students needed.”

APR illustrates a pattern which would recur through Green’s narrative. These reformers continually did the opposite of what they saw as the failed practices promoted by the progressive, social science approach. Green describes their fundamentally behaviorist model. She tells how they “threw away the ideas about democracy and open-ended projects in favor of a pathological (some said authoritarian) focus on behavior.”

This movement emerged at the beginning of the James Q. Wilson’s “Broken Windows” response to fighting crime, and which used data and a swift response to minor infractions to head off larger problems. Ironically, as Green’s book is released, the press is full of the violent reactions to abuses that, it could be argued, were the predictable results of any system, whether in criminal justice or in education, where authorities can’t ignore “the small stuff.”

The entrepreneurs quickly settled on the “No Excuses” model of instruction. To their credit, Lemov and others “were ‘Japanese’” in that they shared lessons with each other. No such give and take was allowed in terms of their fundamental model, however. Green describes their “linear” thinking, while noting that it was perhaps unintentional. She doesn’t phrase it this way, but it seems fair to say that their shared focus produced schools patterned after a Toyota assembly line.

Green reviews the way Lemov has adjusted to the shortcomings of his approach. She seems to anticipate ways where some reformers will adjust constructively, as well as ways that others can continue to oversimplify and ignore the true nature of learning. My take is that even if Lemov makes the prerequisite changes in his fundamental assumptions, it is hard to believe that many of his followers will allow themselves to acknowledge the inherent flaws in their reductionistic focus on behaviors.

In future posts, I will go more deeply into Green’s narrative and I will interpret and reinterpret it from a different generational perspective. She obviously knows far more than I about “No Excuses” classrooms, as well as teacher training programs. She is more hopeful than I in regard to our capacity to make better teachers, and for the potential benefits of such an effort. Green provides plenty of reasons for suspicion in regard to whether traditional academic or entrepreneurial reformers will be able to scale up systems for improving instruction. As much as I admire her work, I will often be more pessimistic than she is.


  1. Just a small editing note, E. O. Wilson is also a Harvard Professor who studies behavior (mostly ants), but The Broken Windows theory emerged from James Q. Wilson’s work.

  2. It’s important to read the entire book and not to take things out of context.
    She consistently lays out a narrative of reforms, such as the Entrepreneurs or No-excuses paper, then follows through with the negative consequences. She doesn’t cheerleading for or against, but many don’t end up looking all that good.

    But the narrative of Deborah Ball, et. al. offers hope.


  1. […] is the last in a series. Previous posts can be found here, here, here, and […]

  2. […] be scaled up for high-challenge neighborhood schools.   Previous posts in this series can be found, here, here, and […]

  3. […] discussion of Japanese schools, but this is the third in a series of posts (the first two are here and here) on Green’s discussion of school reform […]

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