Likely to inspire: Bob Pianta innovates teacher quality

Bob Pianta isn't afraid to say he has no idea what the classroom of the future will look like. Coming from the dean of UVA's Curry School of Education and a nationally-lauded builder of better teachers, that's pretty refreshing.

"We're at this intersection with technology," says Pianta. As critical to education as technology is however, there's this one other thing getting attention now: social skills.

The last 10 years in education, the focus has been standardized testing, reminds Pianta. "There's a re-conception of learning– critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, teamwork– these are things that happen for the most part by accident. Now we're recognizing the importance of these qualities, not just in business or education, but in human development."

Human development seems to be an underlying theme in all of Pianta's work, from way back at the beginning when he was a volunteer in high school in Connecticut. "I was working with this young guy who had behavioral problems in school," recalls Pianta, "and I was curious as could be about the genesis of those problems and how we could help him."

After teaching special education in middle school in the late '70s, Pianta got his PhD. in psychology. "Psychology and education go hand in hand," he says. Actually, for Pianta, almost every field goes hand in hand with education, and the Curry School has partnerships with UVA's med school, Darden Business School, and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. "Education intersects with all sorts of fields," he says, listing history, neuroscience, and economics. "This makes it a perfect sort of catalyst for innovation."

And that's why Pianta is a speaker in the innovators portion of the upcoming Tom Tom Founders Festival. Pianta came up with CLASS– Classroom Assessment Scoring System–the gold standard in measuring teacher performance that is used in every Head Start class in the country.

"Most of my work is watching teachers in the classroom," says Pianta. Malcolm Gladwell watched with him for a 2008 New Yorker piece called "Most Likely to Succeed," in which Pianta and his team pointed out teaching do's and don'ts from videotapes of teachers.

President Obama's transition team asked Pianta for recommendations on public education, and he advised in an op-ed, "Good teachers are key. If we want to improve our students' learning, we need to improve the quality of teachers and of teaching."

And how do we improve the quality of teachers? The man who watches teachers has a suggestion for new teachers: "Spend lots of time watching the kids and try to understand the perspective of those kids and their goals and motivation."

Sounds like those social skills again.


The Hook should dig a little deeper. Pianta may be a good researcher but as a dean he's been pretty controversial, starting with his decision to shut down the mental health counseling program back in 2007. Strange move for a guy who says psychology and education go hand in hand. Curry's seen a lot of turnover under his tenure.

I agree that the Hook needs to dig deeper, but not only into Pianata. The local media seems to have this enormous infatuation with hierarchy, as they seem to feature Deans and administrative leaders at UVA in their coverage far too frequently. Fine if they are dealing with administrative issues. But when dealing with scholarship and expertise, the talents of the faculty members typically goes well beyond and much deeper than that of the Deans. At REAL research universities the accomplishments of the faculty are highly celebrated, not those of the Deans and admins. And at such universities the buildings and roads are often named after great scholars and scientists (as well as donors), while at UVA they are almost always named after administrators. Third rate stuff really, and the Hook should do better.