According to Milton Friedman, one of the foundational advocates of a school choice system, one goal of school choice is to reinvigorate the teaching profession, replacing ineffective teachers with the “many talented people who are currently deterred from entering the teaching profession by the dreadful state of so many of our schools” (Friedman 1997, 344). Indeed, prominent charter networks frequently boast that their teachers are uniquely qualified, passionate, and eager for their students to succeed (see the below images from Uncommon Schools and Achievement First). The notion that teachers in charter schools are more talented, more determined, or more loving than those in public schools is one theme charter schools use to attract families. After all, what parent would not jump at the chance to ensure excellent teachers for their child?
To make this claim a reality, charter management organizations (CMOs) have set about reinventing teacher education. Traditional schools of education, according to these reformers, teach antiquated and impractical theories that fail to actually prepare teachers for the classroom.
Instead, many major charter school networks train aspiring teachers in-house through “teacher-in-residence” programs; uncertified teachers-in-residence work as paid assistant teachers and eventually earn their certifications through part-time graduate studies. This model has become more formalized and visible with the establishment of Relay Graduate School for Education. A national network with ten campuses across the country, the school was co-founded by the KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First CMOs .
Almost without exception, the philosophy underlying these programs originates in Doug Lemov’s immensely successful book, Teach Like A Champion, known as the bible of the teacher education reform movement. Norman Atkins, the founder and president of Relay Graduate School of Education (formerly called Teacher U), wrote the foreword for both editions of the book; The New York Times describes Lemov’s work as the “backbone of instruction” at Relay and Lemov himself as holding “near-guru status” at the school. Not only has the model become near-omnipotent in charter schools, but it is beginning to be a fixture in entire public school districts as well. For example, the following video advertises that the Houston Independent School District recently piloted a program where teachers in seven public middle schools received Teach Like A Champion training.
In the Introduction, Lemov declares, “I am not writing this book to engage in a philosophical debate” (Lemov 2010, 9). In the second edition, Teach Like A Champion 2.0, he further emphasizes that ideology does not belong in education: “Ideology-driven guidance represents the most common form of advice teachers receive…. A teacher might be told that a classroom should be democratic, for example… but such a classroom is not assessed for whether student achievement rose but whether the teacher did what the democratizing guidance described. Assessment of the effectiveness of an ideology is usually self-reinforcing” (Lemov 2015, 6). Thus, Lemov positions himself as an objective, non-ideological observer above the fray of political debate, merely describing teaching techniques that best increase the objective measure of “student achievement.” Still, I argue that a close reading suggests that Teach Like A Champion promotes values about education that, subtle as they are, have become the philosophical foundations of major charter networks’ approach to teacher education. Teach Like A Champion promotes working-class behavioral norms through a pedagogy of order, uniformity, and obedience; similar pedagogy has been used in the past to maintain strict class and racial hierarchies and prevent the poor from challenging the powerful.
In the first section of this paper, I offer a brief theoretical and historical definition of “working-class behavioral norms,” paying special attention to the role of race in establishing these norms. Next is a close reading that seeks to excavate some of the subtle ideological views of the book. Although some critiques of the book exist (largely on teachers’ blogs), this essay is the first academic close reading of the book that I am aware of. Third, I discuss public reactions to Teach Like A Champion. This essay closes with a brief description of the Relay Graduate School and the future of teacher education in light of the increasing dominance of the Teach Like A Champion philosophy.
Working Class Behavioral Norms: The Theory and History
In this essay, I rely on Joanne Golann’s argument that no-excuses schools – precisely those which have most enthusiastically endorsed Teach Like A Champion – create “worker-learners – children who monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority” (Golann 2015, 1). According to Golann, these schools paradoxically “emphasiz[e] working-class behavioral norms” like obedience and unquestioning compliance “as a gateway to college and the middle class,” even though “researchers have found that middle-class students successfully navigate middle-class institutions precisely because they do not conform to working-class behavioral norms; rather, middle-class students take initiative, assert their needs, and negotiate with authority” (Golann 2015, 13). I contend that, underlying Teach Like A Champion’s veneer of objectivity and pragmatism is the value judgment that inculcating “working class behavioral norms” in students will allow them social mobility while simultaneously stifling students’ inclination to question their surroundings and critique figures of authority, undermining their ability to participate in social justice movements. While Golann focuses explicitly on disciplinary practices and responses to student infractions, this essay focuses on pedagogy and classroom culture as a whole, as well as the relationship between student and teacher.
The public school has historically been a major site for enforcing working-class norms: at the turn of the twentieth century, corporate philanthropists took an especially strong interest in public education, much as they have today. They worried that, as rural America became industrialized and poor people entered strictly controlled factory jobs, the lower classes would rebel against their poor pay and dismal working conditions. Progressive education reform promised a solution: the nation would create modern, factory-like schools that efficiently and infallibly produced uniform products: the students (Tyack 1974, 41). These reformers emphasized classroom order and efficiency as a way of inculcating uniform beliefs and values (Hartman 2008, 9). By acculturating children to a highly controlled atmosphere early on, schools could reduce the chance that children would protest such conditions in their working life.
This idea was especially formative in the realm of race relations. The guiding Southern ideology concerning Black education was Samuel Armstrong’s “Hampton Idea”: freedpeople had developed far too great expectations about their role in society by holding office and attending liberal-arts colleges. Public schools should therefore teach children in such a way as to acclimate them to “the lowest forms of labor in the southern economy”; moreover, the work of adjusting children to such low expectations should be carried out by Black principals and teachers (Anderson 1988, 36). Although the Hampton Idea – and its most well-known proponent, Booker T. Washington – was popular among powerful white leaders, it was unpopular among influential African-American leaders and educators (Anderson, 72). To overcome their resistance, wealthy Northern businessmen like Robert Ogden, John Rockefeller, and George Peabody joined with Southern educational leaders like Charles McIver and Edwin Alderman to overhaul Black teacher education (Anderson 1988, 86). They poured funding into Armstrong’s Hampton Institute and Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where Black teachers spent the majority of their time performing manual labor. Although the school claimed to offer industrial training, teachers did not learn skilled labor that might earn them or their students a higher-paying job; rather, teachers were supposed to learn behavioral habits like self-discipline, obedience, and diligence from their arduous manual labor routines, which they would then pass on to their students (Anderson 1988, 86). The effect was a devastating lack of available high-quality academic education for Black children until the widespread desegregation of the 1960s.
Today, largely white corporate philanthropists pour money into charter schools that almost entirely serve Black and Latino/a children and place a high value on order and efficiency. They are increasingly invested in teacher-training and pedagogy as a means of enacting their vision for these children. Most disturbingly, this vision includes behavioral norms that are eerily similar to those meant to preserve social hierarchy and prevent them from challenging injustices done to them by the powerful. Rockefeller, Ogden, and Peabody understood that pedagogy is essential to shaping social power dynamics; history teaches us that we should adopt the same belief in evaluating Teach Like A Champion.
Teach Like A Champion: A Close Reading
Practically from the first page, Teach Like A Champion contains an implicit critique of education theory and traditional graduate schools of education for being too elite. For example, one of the most famous passages in the book describes Lemov’s colleague, Doug McCurry, training students to pass out papers on the first day of school:
One of the biggest ironies I hope you will take away from reading this book is that many of the tools likely to yield the strongest classroom results remain essentially beneath the notice of our theories and theorists of education. [Lemov describes McCurry’s detailed procedure for passing out papers.] Inevitably there are skeptics when I show this clip. They think this isn’t what teachers are supposed to be doing during classroom time. They think it’s demeaning to ask students to practice banal tasks. The activity treats students like robots, they charge. It brainwashes them when it should be setting their minds free.” [Lemov then calculates that McCurry has saved 63 hours per year, which can be used for instruction. McCurry’s] “short investment will yield a return in learning time of roughly 6,000 percent, setting his students free to engage their minds several thousand times over…. There isn’t a school of education in the country that would stoop to teach its aspiring teachers how to train their students to pass out papers, even though it is one of the most valuable things they could possibly do (Lemov 2010, 7-8).
This anecdote, which occurs in the opening pages of the book, is highly revealing about the values endorsed by Lemov. Two phrases are emblematic of his attitude toward contemporary education schools: effective teaching strategies are “beneath the notice” of these theorists, who would not “stoop” to teach them. Both of these words figuratively position schools of education above effective teachers like McCurry, implying a hierarchy in which education theorists are elite. Their elite focus on theory and condescension toward the practical is presented as an obstacle to the teaching of techniques that are actually effective. Similarly, the hyperbolic language Lemov uses to describe skeptics’ concerns – words like “brainwash” and “treat students like robots” – portrays critics as irrational and idealistic compared to the “objective” calculation Lemov uses to refute them. It is worth noting, however, that Lemov uses the language of business – McCurry’s “investment will yield a return” – when describing McCurry as the foil to education schools’ elitism. Indeed, McCurry worked in management and technology consulting before he came to teaching, so he does in fact bring a business background to the profession. Lemov’s hierarchical language paints him as a champion of anti-elitism, but his antidote to academics’ snobbery is the adoption of business leaders’ language and values. He is merely substituting one form of elitism for another, not challenging hierarchy.
The fundamental premise of Teach Like A Champion is that teachers must have absolute control over their students. A guiding idea of the book is “100 percent compliance,” or the expectation that “students do as they’re asked without ever seeming to think about it” (Lemov 2010, 168). To that end, Lemov has identified Five Principles of Classroom Culture: Discipline, Management, Control, Influence, and Engagement. Lemov defines these terms in somewhat unconventional ways. Discipline is teachers’ incorporation of lessons that “teach their students, step by step, what successful learning behavior looks like” (Lemov 2010, 146). This applies not only to academic skills like note-taking and studying, but to noncognitive skills like walking in line and sitting properly. For example, in the following video (narrated by Lemov), a new teacher rehearses how she will teach her kindergartners to stand up, telling them exactly how they should move and insisting that they smile at the same time.
Management is the transactional use of rewards and punishments (Lemov calls them “consequences”) to reinforce these behaviors. Control is a teacher’s “capacity to cause someone to choose to do what you ask, regardless of the consequences” – in other words, a teacher’s ability to enforce compliance by leveraging personality and relationships with students rather than transactions. Lemov argues that “there is no way to ask that does not fall somewhere on the spectrum between [control and passivity].” Between the two, control best “supports freedom”: he can let his children run free on the street because he knows that, should an unexpected danger arise, they would immediately heed his command to stop (Lemov 2010, 148). Influence is the process by which students internalize the beliefs that guide disciplined behavior. In other words, a student who has internalized the desire to succeed academically will act in disciplined ways without the teacher asking her to. Finally, Engagement is keeping students busy with “productive, positive work” which leaves them “little time to think about how to act counterproductively” (Lemov 2010, 149). In other words, Engagement comprises the daily activities that a teacher designs to instill the belief system described in the “Influence” principle.
These five principles are not so much separate ideas as five sequential extensions of the same idea: the teacher must create a classroom culture that inculcates in students a single way of behaving connected to a single set of values. The five principles are a model which progresses from instruction to enforcement to internalization. The primary emphasis, then, is conformity to the teacher’s demands. For example, if “students do as they’re asked without ever seeming to think about it” and have “little time to think about how to act counterproductively,” students’ ability to question rules, disagree with a teacher or the group, or form their own ideas about how their classroom culture should operate is minimized. There is no room for intellectual dissent or critique in a champion teacher’s classroom. The five principles echo the Hampton Idea: Armstrong believed that if students (and prospective teachers!) performed manual labor in the classroom, they would internalize attitudes of submission and diligence, which in turn would prompt them to act in a way that served their white employers’ ends of their own accord.
Furthermore, Lemov’s insistence that control supports freedom implies that children can only have freedom if they know the “rules of the game” – that is, if they know which fixed boundaries and immutable realities demarcate their realm of possibility. A child in such a classroom culture may neither ask why her classroom must be as it is nor imagine a different reality. It is also unclear what freedom children actually gain from such boundaries. If the rules of the game pronounce a correct way to sit, talk, walk, and even what facial expressions to use, what choices are children “free” to make? Is it really freedom if children internalize teachers’ beliefs, so that they “freely” choose to do as the teacher wishes? Not one of Lemov’s techniques suggests that teachers give students choices or allow them to decide how they will use class time, so it is unclear what freedom would actually look like in a champion teacher’s classroom. Such a culture exemplifies what Joanne Golann calls “working-class behavioral norms.”
Golann’s conclusions apply to Teach Like A Champion: some (although not all) of Lemov’s techniques illustrate the behavioral norms that Golann identifies as working-class. One example is Technique 23, Call and Response, where a teacher asks a question and the whole class responds in synchronization. Lemov writes: “There’s an outstanding hidden benefit to Call and Response: students respond to a prompt as a group, exactly on cue, over and over again. And it makes this kind of on-cue compliance public…. It makes crisp, active, timely compliance a habit, committing it to muscle memory. This reinforces the teacher’s authority and command.” Call and Response might be seen as an example of “Engagement” – the kind of task that a teacher has students do so that they internalize certain values. The language in this passage mimics language that might be used to describe a factory, hearkening back to the Progressive Era belief that schools should resemble factories as much as possible. Responses are automatic (“on-cue”) and repetitive. Lemov’s phrase “muscle memory” places an emphasis on the physical, rather than intellectual, component of the response, almost as if the students are doing manual labor instead of academic work. He emphasizes that students act “as a group” and that compliance be made “public” – if a student answers incorrectly or out of sync, the whole class will immediately notice. Finally, Lemov’s unabashed centering of the “teacher’s authority and command” suggest that teachers must maintain absolute power in the classroom. This strategy is useful, according to Lemov, because students internalize the value of responding to orders.
Most importantly, Lemov explicitly likens the Teach Like A Champion pedagogy to a policing theory that many argue is responsible for mass incarceration. First of all, a technique in the first edition, “Sweat the Details,” encouraged teachers to apply the “broken windows theory” of policing to their classrooms (Lemov 2010, 195). This theory advocates that in impoverished neighborhoods (often communities of color), police harshly punish small infractions, like graffiti or broken windows, to prevent more serious crimes. Since 2015, this theory has been pinpointed as the cause for police brutality and mass incarceration of African-Americans; it has become widely condemned in the light of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Remarkably, in Teach Like A Champion 2.0, published in 2015, any mention of the theory, or even the “Sweat the Details” technique, is conspicuously absent. The change clearly reflects a newfound unwillingness on Lemov’s part to advocate a theory that is seen as the ideological backbone of an overly punitive and racially discriminatory regime. Still, the premise of the broken windows philosophy is closely tied to the premise of the Five Principles of Classroom Culture or the focus on minute behavior: minor cases of non-compliance or defiance should be suppressed to prevent major ones. Though less explicit now, the ideology underlying Teach Like A Champion remains closely intertwined with broken windows policing.
Another major change in Teach Like A Champion 2.0 is that Lemov includes a chapter on discussion. In the first edition, every single example of classroom dialogue is an interaction between the teacher and a student. The teacher asks a question and calls on a student to respond, then asks a second question. In examples of dialogue (either from real lessons or hypothetical ones), it is rare for a student to give a lengthy response: even in the chapter called “Challenging Students to Think Critically,” a student never gives a response that is longer than eight words (Lemov 2010, 242). The second edition has a technique called “Batch Process,” with a blurb that reads: “Give more ownership and autonomy to students – particularly when your goal is a discussion – by allowing for student discussion without teacher mediation for short periods of time or for longer, more formal sequences” (Lemov 2015, 336). The idea that students should have “ownership” or “autonomy” over what happens in the classroom is simply never mentioned in the first edition; ownership belongs to the teacher. Still, the place for discussion in the classroom is limited. Lemov suggests that teachers keep student-to-student discussions limited to one or two minutes; if a teacher plans to allow a longer “Socratic discussion or fishbowl seminar,” they should only schedule these activities “once a month or twice a semester” (Lemov 2015, 337). The fundamental structure of classroom activity is still the teacher asking students short, often fact-based questions. Teach Like A Champion 2.0 removes or softens some of the most glaringly obvious examples of working-class behavioral norms, but there is no real change in the underlying pedagogical philosophy.
Public Discourse on Teach Like A Champion
The major publicity for Teach Like A Champion came from Elizabeth Green’s 2010 article in The New York Times, “Building a Better Teacher.” The article describes the failure of teachers’ colleges at length, arguing that they emphasize “broad theories of learning” over the concrete teaching methods codified by Lemov. A disparaging anecdote tells of a teacher who “took courses in children’s literature and on ‘Race, Culture and Class’; one on the history of education, another on research, several on teaching methods. She even spent one semester as a student teacher at a Chicago elementary. But when she walked into her first job… she discovered a major shortcoming: She had no idea how to teach children to read” (Green). She describes Lemov’s work as the antidote to such an overemphasis on theory. Notably, Green fails to identify the values espoused in Teach Like A Champion. Lemov’s five principles of classroom culture are never mentioned by name; instead, Green describes Lemov’s central innovation as the belief that teachers should “succeed in capturing [students’] attention and getting them to follow instructions.” This is a commonsense proposition that inaccurately captures Lemov’s commitment to teachers’ authority and control. Green’s bland description of the values underlying Teach Like A Champion allows her to dismiss Lemov’s critics as “romantic.” Green’s article, which was important in raising public awareness of Teach Like A Champion, popularizes the notion that Teach Like A Champion is just a set of successful techniques, not a set of values that could be debated. Perhaps this has contributed to the lack of academic or journalistic criticism of the book.
Criticisms of Teach Like A Champion exist largely on the blogs of progressive teachers who find the book’s prevalence in their own school districts troubling and its advice at odds with their own teaching experience. They point to two major problems with Teach Like A Champion. Their first charge is that Lemov’s insistence that teaching is merely a series of techniques actually lowers the quality of teaching instead of raising it. Ray Salazaar, an English teacher in Chicago, writes, “The book glorifies teachers who do the minimum. In truth, these techniques are rudimentary classroom-management approaches—not championship teaching…. Classroom management is a basic part of teaching. Champion teachers help students analyze, synthesize, and thoughtfully evaluate.” In other words, the book’s overemphasis on classroom management as the centerpiece of teaching is directly responsible for its reliance on recall over critical thinking skills. Peg Robertson, the founder of United Opt Out National, also argues that the focus on uniformity undermines the teacher’s ability to personalize her teaching methods to her students: if the whole class must take notes, answer questions, or organize their binders in the same way, students cannot choose the strategy that works best for them. She advocates for students to have some say in the routines and structures that govern the classroom, contrary to Lemov’s five principles of classroom culture. Furthermore, Robertson sees Lemov’s focus on order as overemphasized: “true learning is inherently messy,” and excellent teachers know how to use that messiness for positive ends. Finally, Sam Chaltain explains that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, because good teaching springs primarily from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”
The second major critique of Teach Like A Champion is one that could easily escape a reader’s notice unless they watched the accompanying DVD: almost all of the teachers featured are white, and almost all of the students in the videos are Black or Latino/a. This lends an uncomfortably racialized element to the power dynamic between teacher and student that Lemov espouses. Ilana Horn, a professor of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University, worries that “methods like those promoted in Champion emphasize the control of Black and Brown bodies by White teachers instead of the celebration of children’s own ideas,” especially since school discipline can be disproportionately harsh toward children of color and mimic mass incarceration techniques that debilitate urban communities of color. Salazaar suggests that the emphasis on control is a consequence of white teachers’ internalized fear of children of color:
At last summer’s workshop where I was supposed to train for my championship belt, out of all the DVD clips we watched, only two had black teachers in front of black students. I raised my hand and said, “It’s interesting that these are the only clips where the teacher looks comfortable and happy.” The white presenters’ faces looked at me expressionless, paranoid. They searched the crowd for a neutralizing comment…. Lemov’s strategies highlight the paranoia that many white teachers, and some teachers of color, feel when they enter our schools. They fear.
In this anecdote, the white workshop leaders training teachers in Teach Like A Champion techniques demonstrated an unwillingness to engage in a conversation about race and perhaps even discomfort with Salazaar, a person of color. Robertson, Salazaar, and Horn were all troubled by the following video, where one teacher unsmilingly snapped her fingers at students if they were sitting the wrong way and another suggested to a student that she had gotten the wrong answer because she was not working hard enough. They saw such actions as signs of teachers’ racialized fear and hostility toward their students.
Perhaps the most insidious facet of Lemov’s claim that he is non-ideological is that very few people have publicly discussed the racialized nature of the pedagogy or the videos. Placed in their proper racial context, the Teach Like A Champion techniques can read like a modern-day version of the “Hampton Idea,” where children of color are taught not to challenge authority explicitly to protect a white power structure. (It is worth noting that every member of the Relay Board of Directors is white, as are sixteen of the seventeen members of KIPP’s Board of Directors.)
Revamping Graduate Schools of Education
The Relay Graduate School of Education is a large-scale implementation of Teach Like A Champion. First, it shares Doug Lemov’s disdain for schools of education: its admission booklet boasts that Relay “explodes the traditional, course-based paradigm that has been adopted by traditional schools of education over the past century.” Indeed, according to Thomas Arnett of the Clayton Christensen Institute, the goal of the original New York City program was partially to free new teachers in their schools from the need to attend time-intensive graduate schools whose ideas did not align with their charter networks’ ideas, while still meeting the New York State requirement that all teachers attain master’s degrees (Arnett 2015, 11).
The school also brings the values of the business world to teacher training: Arnett praises it for bringing “startup” culture to teacher training (Arnett 2015, 1). All students at Relay are either beginning full-time teachers or in residency programs developed by charter schools; most of their in-person training will take place at their school, and Relay coursework is done online or through weekend meetings in order to maintain a low-cost business model. Fully half of Relay residents’ grades depend on their students’ test scores. This emphasis on evaluating teachers based on “results” rather than their thinking is a point of pride with Relay. In the “Our Approach” video below, Atkins proudly boasts that students film themselves teaching instead of completing reading or writing assignments. The curriculum is structured around Teach Like A Champion techniques: one New York Times reporter visited a class entirely devoted to the “Right is Right” technique in the book. The idea is that teachers-in-residence learn skills, not ideas, so that they can immediately use what they learn in the classroom.
Relay has been far more controversial than Teach Like A Champion, perhaps because it directly threatens the enrollment numbers of traditional graduate schools of education. Teachers argue that the intellectual side of their profession makes it rewarding: in The New York Times “Letters to the Editor,” one teacher deemed Relay “a vocational school” (much like Hampton!) that deprofessionalizes and undervalues teaching as a career. Another writes that although more practical teaching instruction is certainly warranted, theory should not be removed: “a profession encouraging longevity and dedication, not to mention lasting and significant human relationships, must have a basis in theory.” These teachers ask whether graduates of Relay will stay in the field if they see it as devoid of intellectual challenges. Carol Corbett Burris’s guest column for The Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” education blog worries that a teacher-training program run by CMOs will only expose prospective teachers to one way of thinking about education: “Teacher education programs should bring together a diverse group of teacher candidates — from both city and suburb, and from private, charter and public schools.” Burris’s concern is that the teaching strategies developed for teachers in urban schools of color and those used in white suburban schools will become more and more divergent, exacerbating the differences in behavioral norms that perpetuate inequality.
The Future of Teacher Education?
Despite vocal criticism, the Relay Graduate School is expanding: the MAT program currently enrolls almost one thousand students, and its national management plans to open five more campuses in the next two years (Arnett 2015, 15). This exponential growth rate suggests that Relay – and teacher-training programs like it – have the potential to be a major force for change in the education world. As the Teach Like A Champion philosophy becomes more widespread and methods of implementing it in schools become more institutionalized, we should call for more rigorous analysis and questioning of its underlying values. Undoubtedly the book has been useful to many educators, and there is certainly value in discussing teaching in terms of concrete strategies. However, the emphasis on a pedagogy of obedience and order, down to the minutia of students’ behavior, can reinforce race-based and class-based behavioral norms.
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