I purchased this book after reading the glowing feature article in the New York Times praising Mr. Lemov and his work. The article in the Times suggested that Mr. Lemov had visited a diverse array of schools "across the country", that Mr. Lemov had methodically determined which teachers were unusually effective, and that he had then thoroughly catalogued strategies used by those effective teachers.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. It turns out that for the New York Times, "across the country" means "from Rochester New York, to Newark New Jersey - with an occasional side trip to Washington DC or to Boston." Mr. Lemov's schools are a very narrow selection of charter schools, mostly the fourteen schools in the "Uncommon Schools" network for which he is managing director. Of his 14 schools:
* Nine are in Brooklyn;
* Three are in Newark, New Jersey;
* One is in Rochester, New York;
* One is in Troy, New York (near Albany).
The schools in his book are a very narrow sliver of the American educational experience; they are all almost carbon copies of one another. Lemov shows no interest in, or even any awareness of, how race, ethnicity, immigrant status, or student gender might influence best practice in the classroom.
Lemov's book is based primarily on the fourteen schools in the network he manages, which he has a powerful commercial motive to promote as schools of excellence. He does occasionally mention other schools he has visited - which are almost always charter schools in cities around New York State, such as the Brighter Choice School for Boys, in Albany.
EVERY SCHOOL in this book is a charter school.
EVERY SCHOOL is located in the urban Northeast.
Now, people in New York and northern New Jersey may see no problem here. Mr. Lemov writes with the breezy arrogance that comes so easily to urban New Yorkers. He shows no awareness that what works for students at charter schools in New York may not work for students in regular public schools in Tulsa or in Toledo or in Chino, California, or for that matter anywhere in the rural South or mountain West. What's striking about the book is the complete lack of interest in even the possibility that what works in Brooklyn might not work in Tulsa or in northwestern Ohio or in southern California.
EVERY STUDENT in the videos is wearing a uniform - in fact, they're all usually wearing the same uniform, because almost all the videos were filmed at the Uncommon Schools network of charter schools. But uniforms are never mentioned in the book. Mr. Lemov seems to assume that all students wear uniforms - or more precisely, he's never considered what it would be like to teach at a school wear students don't wear uniforms. He does not seem to have visited any school where students don't wear uniforms; in fact there's no evidence in the book that he's ever visited any school that isn't a charter or a private school. Has he ever considered whether students who refuse to attend charter schools requiring uniforms might also refuse to learn according to his simple rules?
EVERY STUDENT appears to be in grades 3, 4, 5, and 6. There are certainly no high school students in any of these videos. Again, Mr. Lemov rarely mentions how best practice might vary as a function of age, with one exception: he mentions his "Age plus 2" rule, according to which a student's attention span equals their age plus 2. Thus, according to Lemov, a 12-year-old has an attention span of 14 minutes. Lemov shows no awareness of research demonstrating that girls have a longer attention span than same-age boys, indeed he has no interest in gender differences - which is strange, considering that two of the 14 schools in the Uncommon Schools network are single-sex schools: a girls' charter school and a boys' charter school, both in Brooklyn. But he never considers any of the arguments against single-sex schools, e.g. that the single-sex format teaches students that segregation is OK in public schools. He shows a complete lack of interest or awareness of any gender issues whatsoever.
CLASS SIZES are often quite small in Mr. Lemov's charter schools. Video clip 9 shows just seven children in the entire classroom; clip 22 has just eight children; clip 23 has just 6 children; clip 24, just 7 children; clip 25 has six boys and no girls. It's great that Mr. Lemov's network of charter schools is able to offer such small class sizes. But would these techniques work as well in the real world of public education, where teachers often have to manage a classroom of 28 kids or more? Mr. Lemov offers no evidence on this point. The question doesn't seem to have occurred to him.
The most disappointing aspect of the book, however, is simply its sheer lack of substance. There is simply nothing new here; nothing that most teachers don't already know. Lemov is, to his credit, well aware of this shortcoming. As he states (on p. 5), "Many of the techniques you will read about in this book may at first seem mundane, unremarkable, even disappointing. They are not always especially innovative." Truer words were never written. For example, Technique #1 is "No Opt Out" which means, very simply, that teachers should not allow students to say "I don't know" in answer to a question. The video illustrating technique #1 was filmed at an all-boys charter school in Albany. Would this technique work equally well with girls? We have no way of knowing.
Technique #22 is the "Cold Call". Here it is:
"Call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hand."
Combine Technique #1, No Opt Out, with #22, and you have teachers calling on students who haven't raised their hand, and then insisting that the student answer the question even if the student says "I don't know." Does Lemov recognize how such techniques might feel to some students as though the teacher is bullying or harassing them? Has he considered that these approaches might not work well with, say, Latina girls?
My recommendation: put this book aside and instead read Diane Ravitch's outstanding book "Death and Life of the Great American School System." Ravitch's book will teach you, among other things, that one size does not fit all, and that quick-fix teach-by-the-numbers methods are seldom effective in the long run.