MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today, the Obama administration did something that many people had been demanding for years. It called for a reduction in standardized tests. Parents and teachers have been complaining that so much testing stifles creativity and real learning in classes. But others say there's another problem in the classroom that hasn't been talked about so much - inexperienced and poorly prepared teachers. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, says many young teachers are thrown into the classroom without the core skills they need, and she wants to change that. As part of our series "50 Great Teachers," Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio has this profile.
SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: The story begins around 1980. Deborah Ball was an elementary school teacher in East Lansing, Mich. She'd been teaching for about five years, and especially when it came to math, she felt like she just wasn't getting any better at it.
DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: I felt like I was really thoughtful. I really tried to make the stuff make sense to them. I used examples but - and tried to make it connected to their life. But they would forget things as fast as I taught them to them. So on Friday, they could do it; on Monday, they would've forgotten.
HULETT: Ball spent the next three and a half decades thinking about that. She's still thinking about it. She continued to teach elementary school until the early '90s. But she also went back to school, got a PhD in education, became a professor and now she runs one of the top Ed schools in the country. She's kind of a rock star in the world of teacher education. But she's still honing her craft as an elementary school teacher.
BALL: Don't just answer the question. I want you to explain your thinking. So write down your reason for both answers.
HULETT: For two weeks each summer, Ball teaches math to kids heading into fifth grade. And she has an audience - dozens of teachers in bleachers and in an overflow room watching closed-circuit TV - are watching her. It's part of a program she started in part to help teachers grappling with that same question she had all those years ago - how do you get students to not just give right answers, but really understand math?
BALL: OK, are you ready to see the picture?
HULETT: The 28 kids sitting at tables in this room have two rectangles in front of them. Both rectangles are divided into three parts with one part shaded. But one of the rectangles is divided into equal parts; the other isn't. I'm not going to say too much more about this problem or you'll just reach for the dial. I'm just going to go ahead and tell you that the answer for that second rectangle - it's one-fourth. But most of the kids, they think it's one-third. Ball asks students to come up to the board, say what they think the answer is and explain why. A girl with black-rimmed oval-framed glasses steps up.
BALL: Your eyes should be up on Madison(ph) right now.
HULETT: Madison is in the one-third camp.
MADISON: Because when you do fractions, you count, like - so how many, like, squares you say there are. And then the one that's shaded, you would put that there. So that's how you would know if it was one-third.
HULETT: Ball doesn't tell Madison or the rest of the one-third kids they're wrong. She just listens, closely, gives them all the time they need to think and raise questions. Finally, one kid, Mitchio, says he didn't get one-third. He got one fourth. He comes up to the board.
BALL: Turn around now and tell the class what you said and what you just did.
MITCHIO: I just added a line to make it a proper fraction and...
HULETT: By now, we're 18 minutes into the discussion about this math problem. A student has given the correct answer and explained how he got there. But Ball still isn't even acknowledging Mitchio is right. She wants to find out what other kids think about Mitchio's answer. And this is one of the cool things about watching Ball teach. There is so little and yet so much going on. Finally, after 22 minutes, Ball repeats something Mitchio said that gets to the heart of this math problem.
BALL: The parts have to be equal to identify a fraction.
HULETT: The parts have to be equal to identify a fraction. That's what Mitchio showed his classmates at the board when he took a piece of black tape and gave that second rectangle four parts instead of three. A few minutes later, during a break, Ball says that was the thing that was throwing kids on the math problem. They'd never seen a shape that wasn't already neatly divided into equal parts.
BALL: And that's the question we never ask kids in school. We just get them to give all those right answers because we give them drawings that are already divided correctly, and we never stop to think huh, maybe they don't really get this.
HULETT: It's that question - is this kid really getting this? - that was nagging Ball decades ago as an elementary-math teacher. And it's one she'd like more teachers to ask more frequently. Noncy Fields teaches fourth grade a few miles away in Ypsilanti. She was watching Ball during the fraction lesson, and she's actually been to several of these summer teaching sessions. Fields says watching Deborah Ball in front of a classroom has totally changed how she teaches.
NONCY FIELDS: Oh, my God. I'll tell you exactly how it's different from me. I was almost married to the textbook - the math textbook - and I felt like I welcomed right answers.
HULETT: Wrong answers - she wanted nothing to do with them.
FIELDS: Now I'm looking for those misconceptions, those misunderstandings - that's when I dive in and I do my best work.
HULETT: The University of Michigan is not a school that churns out thousands of teachers every year. By that measure, it's actually a pretty tiny program. But Deborah Ball has had a big influence on the national conversation about teacher quality.
BALL: I'm really trying hard to dispel this idea that, you know, teaching is something you're born to do and it's somehow natural to everyday life. I don't think either of those things is true.
HULETT: What Ball is trying to model at U of M is a system where future teachers have to demonstrate they can do some core things, like present a math problem and lead a discussion about it before they're safe to practice. She says pilots, doctors, plumbers, even hairdressers don't learn on the job, and teachers shouldn't either. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.