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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: How Long Does It Take To Become a “Good” Teacher Using the “Churn and Burn” Model?

Asking this question of an artist, musician, actor, engineer, doctor, or lawyer would produce answers ranging from at least five to ten or more years of work in each of these professions. Even assistant professors in universities seldom come up for tenure before five to seven years.

If you look at world class athletes, scientists, musicians, and other professionals, the empirical finding is 10,000 hours of practice helps to account for their winning awards and being at the top of their game (and don’t forget talent, opportunity, and aid from friends and family). (PDF The Making of an Expert).

Of course, one cannot expect every teacher to be world-class so let’s say that it takes half of 10,000 hour rule to be a sufficiently “good” teacher where principals and parents want that teacher in their school. Five thousand hours amounts to 5 to 6 years of teaching experience. Here’s the math: 180 days a school year X 5 hours a day of teaching= 900 hours a year X 5 years = 4500 (6 years means 5400 hours of classroom work).

Yet since 1989, Teach for America (TFA) and other alternative organizations (The New Teacher Project) recruit recent college graduates for urban schools for only two years. The theory behind this brief time, according to Kevin Huffman,  then TFA Vice-President for public affairs, is:

That we will bring in great people who will have a tremendous impact on the kids they are teaching and who will go on for the rest of their careers to have an impact on root causes that cause the gap in educational outcomes in this country.

TFA gives recruits a summer of lectures and practice and then newcomers march into full-time posts in largely minority and poor schools. During those two years, there is very little support for the neophytes so the “practice” they engage in–called daily teaching–is seldom examined by others. No surprise then that just over half of TFAers who complete their commitment leave teaching with 15 percent staying at least five years

This “burn and churn” strategy introduces cadres of high-energy, idealistic newcomers who exit after a few years only to be replaced by another wave of novices. While such a strategy has been terrific in creating a revenue stream for graduate programs in schools of education, the success of such efforts in helping mainly low-income minority students is, at best, highly uncertain. Why?

Because signing up for two years means that by the time you leave the classroom, you still have not mastered the craft much less the art of teaching or being able on a daily basis to get students to ask questions, raise issues, and learn beyond what the text says.

Only by the end of the fourth or fifth year of teaching do most newcomers become competent and confident in figuring out lessons, knowing the ins-and-outs of classroom management, and taking risks in departing from the routines of daily teaching. Of course, there is variation among teachers in whether it takes five years or less, depending upon the person and the setting. Nonetheless, by that time, most teachers will have mastered the craft. They will have developed a repertoire of practices that fit their subject and students, and, by the end of four or five years, can make substantial changes in classroom structures and lessons.

By this time, experienced observers can tell whether teachers have mastered their craft, become virtuosos in daily performance or cultivated active student learning and inquiry. None of these is easy to acquire. All take years of practice in classrooms.

Yet the “burn and churn” strategy of attracting newcomers into teaching only to see thousands exit to be replaced with another cadre of novices is hard on urban students. Surely, these neophyte teachers learn the rudiments of the craft in two years but students seldom profit from such turnover.

I am not arguing for newcomers to pledge their lives to a career in teaching. I am arguing for those media savvy organizations who attract recent college graduates and mid-career professionals to enter teaching would understand that two years teaching is insufficient to have “a tremendous impact on the kids.” These low-income, largely minority “kids” need teachers who have mastered their craft, who are committed to spending at least five years in classrooms.

I doubt, however, whether policymakers who see two years of experience as sufficient time in urban classrooms will demand four or five years as a minimum commitment. The present theory of shuttling wave after wave of inexperienced teachers through urban schools is similar to the corporate strategy of bringing in inexperienced, lower-paid employees into restructured businesses because they are expendable employees. “Burn and churn” is a corporate tactic ill-fitted to improve either academic achievement or learning in urban schools.


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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...