Are teachers born or made? This is a core tension in the debate about teachers. No one really knows the answer but a lot of people have strong opinions.
Eric Hanushek, an economist who has done influential research on teacher quality, is in the "born, not made" camp. He believes this based on evidence showing that professional development programs for teachers don't work very well. But while there is substantial evidence about the importance of teachers, there is surprisingly little research about programs designed to help teachers get better.
And the professional development most teachers get is terrible, says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest teachers' unions. Weingarten says great teachers can be made. What they need is better — and more — training and support.
"What is shocking to me is that there's no other profession where we think that somebody is going to be great the first day," she says.
It's not clear if schools can't make teachers better, or if they haven't figured out how to do it yet.
People in the "born, not made" camp say the best way to get good teachers is to figure out who the ineffective teachers are and replace them with better ones. This is what economist Eric Hanushek proposes. The other side says the solution is better training. This is union leader Randi Weingarten's position.
School officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee did both. They fired teachers, and they also developed a system to help teachers boost their performance.
What they did became known as the Benwood Initiative. In 2003, Chattanooga's Hamilton County school system got rid of nearly one-third of the teachers in its lowest performing elementary schools. Then officials set out to better understand what good teaching is, and how to teach that to teachers.
They ended up building a system of professional development that is distinguished by several things not typically found in other teacher development programs. Teachers work together in teams, creating lessons, giving feedback, and discussing common challenges. They also visit each other's classrooms, and watch each other teach.
"What we believe is you have to help teachers see and learn from great teaching," says Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, an education reform group in Chattanooga involved with the Benwood Initiative.
In addition, each Benwood school has two master teachers whose job it is to teach other teachers what they know.
It used to be, "You were on your own to do your own thing," says first grade teacher Linda Land. "Now it's a team," adds her colleague, Penny King.
The Benwood Initiative's approach to teacher development seems to be working, according to an analysis by Education Sector, an independent think tank. Before the initiative began, Benwood teachers were far less effective at raising student test scores than teachers at other schools in the district. But six years later, teachers at the Benwood schools were more effective than other teachers in the district. The Education Sector report concludes that the Benwood experiment shows that teacher effectiveness is not a "fixed trait." Teachers can — and did — get better.
The Education Sector report is just one analysis of one effort. It remains to be seen whether the Benwood results could be replicated and, indeed, exactly what it was about the Benwood Initiative that succeeded where other teacher improvement programs fail. But the effort's distinctive features — getting teachers into each other's classrooms to observe and learn, building a culture of teamwork and collaboration, and turning master teachers into coaches — are things that teachers mention when they're asked how teachers become good. The teachers interviewed for this project did not say they were born to be successful teachers. In fact, most of them said they struggled at first. Teachers who become good, they say, do it by working hard and finding great mentors.