Pianta's ploy: Catch the teachers who pay attention

Robert Pianta studies "withitness," even if he doesn't call it that.
UVA PHOTO BY DAN ADDISON

What if classroom size, education spending, and even school quality aren't really important? What if all of a teacher's fancy degrees and years of service mean nothing? And what if the only truly important predictor of classroom success is something unknowable at the outset of a teacher's career?

This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell's latest article in the New Yorker and one which is sure to provoke terror among teachers unaccustomed to objective measures of their abilities.

One person not terrorized is Robert Pianta. The dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, he plays a starring role in Gladwell's story, "Most Likely To Succeed," which appears in the style/idea mag's December 15 edition.

Using the example of professional football quarterbacks–- whose NFL performance often bears no resemblance to their college play–- Gladwell paints a picture of teaching skill as a great unknown, but something that Pianta and other Curryites are trying to assess using CLASS, their Classroom Assessment Scoring System.

CLASS attempts to measure what Pianta calls a teacher's "regard for student perspective." But that's what others might call "eyes in the back of their head," "a gift for noticing," or a term coined by another educational researcher which Gladwell seems to fancy: "withitness."

In recent years, Gladwell has become the go-to guy for rethinking conventional wisdom. A year ago, he subtly challenged the entire field of criminal profiling with a devastating New Yorker article called "Dangerous Minds," and his new book, Outliers, which challenges the great man historical theory, currently rests atop the best-seller lists.

Pianta isn't the first UVA prof to inspire the Œber-journalist. Gladwell credits Strangers to Ourselves, by UVA's Timothy Wilson, which appears to have fueled much of Gladwell's best-selling 2005 book Blink, as "probably the most influential book I've ever read."

One gets the sense from reading Gladwell's latest tale that Pianta might be on to something, that "withitness"–- despite the funny name–- might be the next big thing in education.

7 comments

Parents and students would universally agree with Pianta's theories. Just hope the decision makers catch on. I spent a good deal of energy trying to convince the administration of my daughter's school to get rid of a bad teacher and it was close to impossible.

" students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a ââ?¬Å?bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects.

and all this applies to parents too, they're kids first teachers

great article!

ââ?¬Å?One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She’s not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back.”

too bad our great school administrators choose to move lousy teachers rather than booting them. why continue the pattern of poor teaching and administrating? accountability in government schools is lacking!

The New Yorker is a style/idea mag? Sounds like the writer hasn't read The New Yorker much.

One of the saddest effects of a bad teacher is that a child can be turned off from that subject for years. This happened to my daughter in middle school, the subject was English, not one you want to ignore for success in life.

Hopefully the administrators will pay attention to Prof. Pianta and make the changes necessary to find and retain the best and the brightest

Father Jefferson's advice is worth heeding as we dole out money to worthy causes "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be" (from Coy Barefoot's book Thomas Jefferson on Leadership pg. 5)

oh, and by the way my daughter did learn to love books, her father read to her every night before going to bed

Interesting that Mr. Spencer's lead-in mentions "classroom size, education spending." Two items the corrupt teachers' trumpets every time a new contract is pending. I always maintained--having attended Catholic school in the 1970s with 35-40 kids in my classroom--that class size is a self-serving union mantra. And if you think education spending is the be-all and end-all, how come more money is being thrown at schools now than ever before...but Johnny still cannot read.

Oh, Billybob, do you really think that someone named Hawes does NOT read the New Yorker?

This article is really not groundbreaking until you apply it to the public sector: accountability for performance, eradicate the poor performers. I think we need to pay teachers, cops and firefighters more money BUT also can the bad ones...stop trying to protect them.

And Betty, amazing how you say "parents and students would agree; now we have to get the admins. on board." Doesn't that say a lot about the system in place to educate our kids?

I see elected school boards as an advantage in changing the system if we the voters elect individuals willing to buck they system.

We all know that a good teacher is worth far more than a fancy building, but I believe class size does matter even with good teachers. Unfortunately the type of students you went to school with in the 70's, taught to respect their teachers by their parents, is becoming a rarity, making even the job of the best teachers more difficult.

The bottom line is to attract the best and the brightest into the teaching profession we will need to invest in this the same way we invest in our military might and become globally competitive once again by attracting the world's best teachers for our public schools.