AMTE: Interview with Deborah Ball on role of research, policy makers

Deborah Ball
Deborah Ball

An Interview with Deborah Ball on the Role of Research in Conversations with Policy Makers

Summer 2012 AMTE Newsletter

Deborah Ball currently serves as Dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, where she is also the William H. Payne Collegiate Professor and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. She received the 2012 AMTE Excellence in Teaching in Mathematics Teacher Education Award. Lately she has had a number of conversations regarding teacher education with high profile U.S. leaders, such as President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan.

On behalf of the AMTE Research Committee, Laura Van Zoest interviewed Deborah Ball on March 13, 2012, about the role of research in those types of conversations. The following are some highlights from that interview. Except for the headings, all the words are Deborah's.

Professional Training for Teachers

Often the conversations I have had recently have been about the fundamental importance of professional training for teachers; how it is really important to make sure that people who enter the classroom are capable of doing effective work with kids. I think that many people are aware that teacher effects can be large; that's the positive side of the interest in value-added models. People have become aware that research has shown that skilled teaching has really significant effects on kids' abilities. That's the good news. The bad news is that, in general, policymakers have heard over and over that there is not good evidence that teacher certification makes a difference, or that teacher education makes a difference, or professional development. Instead, people hear informally about all these beginning teachers who aren't skillful, and then they see research that suggests that you don't get a real edge by graduating from teacher education or by having professional development. That sound bite has come through often and clearly. And it is actually research-based; there is research that shows that an alternative program can sometimes get better results than a university education program and that professional development doesn't make a particularly big difference in teachers' effects.

I don't think it has helped us much to push back by pointing out limitations of that research. It is worrisome for us to not realize that there's been a problem in demonstrating that professional education really matters. That is our responsibility.

The Importance of Evidence

When people talk about scaling up best practices, they are loath to consider things we might identify as best practices of teaching or teacher education if we don't have good evidence that they actually are best practices. People are looking for persuasive evidence that we know that certain teaching practices are high leverage, for example, or certain ways of helping teachers learn to do their work improve their students' learning, and we don't always have it. I would caution against assuming that the whole world believes only in randomized control trials, however. I don't think that's what I'm hearing. Instead, I think there is space for us as a field to be trying to figure out what are different kinds of warrants for what kinds of claims, and what is persuasive evidence for what sorts of things.


Sometimes it isn't about research at all, but about considering how to be educative in the discourse. For example, the math examples that I've overused until everyone is sick of them have a lot of power for making a point in a small amount of space or time. If you want to say there's actually a special way of knowing math that's different from just being good at it, all you need is one of those examples where you show them that they know how to multiply two numbers, but they have no clue about what the kids were doing. That's really persuasive for legislators and other policymakers. So similarly, if we want to convey that we're intentionally focused on clinical training, it isn't persuasive to say that we have a clinical model or that our students are out in the school all the time — most people don't know what that means, and everybody says that anyway. Instead we need to convey to them what we are doing and how it will prepare better teachers.

You may have seen the video of a beginning teacher being coached in how to do guided reading in an elementary class. It is a very short video, but has been very compelling for non-experts to see —― Oh, that's what you mean by coaching, and to begin to understand that it wasn't just letting a teacher go out to a classroom and try stuff out. By watching the teacher educator interrupt her every few words to say, ― Now back up. What were you trying to say? How were you holding that chalkboard so the kids can see?' they get it; they can see.

They can see two things. They can see that they couldn't teach, because what the intern is being coached to do they wouldn't be able to do. So that's a nice message. And they can see that the teacher educator is doing something that would — you don't even need to wait for the evidence — you can see that getting that kind of training improves the likelihood that the intern is going to be able to manage this thing called guided reading. We need to think about similar examples in mathematics teacher education. If we learn to have good taste about what is a really good example, we will be able to build up a small set of compelling examples as a community and be very persuasive.

Focus on Teaching Content to Kids

When I talk with policymakers, I look for opportunities to use the research on content knowledge for teaching to tell them that one of the things research has shown is that the kind of content knowledge you need is not what people think it is. We're caught between people who don't think subject matter is the most important thing and people who think it is the only thing. And we're actually balanced in the middle, and we need to think about how we can talk so that we're actually refuting both of those extremes. So, it is important to say that there is a huge body of research (see the National Math Advisory Panel Report for specifics) that shows that despite how common sense it may seem, majoring in the field isn't any guarantee that somebody knows math well enough to teach it, and you have to know to say that it is about knowing it well enough to open it up for kids. But at the other extreme, there's no way to imagine that teachers can be good with helping kids learn math when they're just good at managing the classroom. So both are important: it's important to have a lot of math background relevant to teaching AND it's important to know how to manage a classroom. The work of teaching is actually in the middle and really hard. Really good examples help, but when you talk with policymakers or reporters, you also need really good skills at communicating the ideas so they understand. It's like teaching—you need to think, ―What is it they're assuming? What is already convincing to them?‖—it is like we are designing little instructional moves ourselves when we‘re talking.

The bottom line is that teaching is all about teaching content to kids. Yes, it's about relationships; yes, it's about classroom management. But if we're serious that kids are supposed to improve their achievement, then teachers actually have to be skillful at teaching the content. So content knowledge is something there's a lot of data on, and I think we could use that over and over again, and even find ways to make sure that we know how best to represent those studies, because it is a big bundle of stuff. That would be one thing I think all of us should be really fluent at doing. It's one of our strongest bodies of work out there.

Submitted by the AMTE Research on Mathematics Teacher Education Advisory Committee

Corey Drake, Michigan State University, Chair,