Disrupting the Teacher Opportunity Gap

Saphier, Jon. (2024). Disrupting the Teacher Opportunity Gap. 

Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.

After 60 years as an educator, 45 as a change agent in public schools, Jon Saphier has written a book for leaders like no other. It acknowledges the premier missing element in educational reform: high-expertise teaching understood in all its range and complexity. Then he presents a multifaceted long-term plan for improving classroom teaching across the board in any district. This plan integrates clear images of high-expertise teaching with specific leadership skills to build a learning organization. It is a how-to book that considers the full range of processes that  can be engineered cohesively to impact continuous teacher and leader learning.

Jon is one of the most ethical people and consummate professionals I know. His long-time commitment to learning, synthesizing research, and working with every level of SES and grade organizations has produced the best resources I use as a guide.  If Dr. Saphier has published it, it is correct and credible. He is my go-to foundation.

This book is a synthesis of over fifty years of research and practice that WORKS.   If practitioners, leaders, and governmental officials want to know how to make education work for all, READ THIS BOOK.  It is a step-by-step guide for people at every level to help us all learn.

Years ago, Jon published an article, “Good Seeds Grow in Strong Cultures.”  It is as valid today as it was in 1985 (ASCD).  It lays out twelve elements of building the learning culture in schools. Find it, Read it.

A few years later, Carl Glickman wrote an article (1991 ASCD), Pretending Not to Know What We Know.  We keep trying to reinvent the wheel when we have the information to do what we say is our goal.

Both of these articles supported what Ron Edmonds said in 1970s.  “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do this. Whether we do it or not must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we have not done it so far.’’ In my opinion, this is about will, not skill or knowledge. Jon’s book provides the juice to translate that will into action.

And here we are these days, arguing over a specific programs that will be give us best practice.  My belief is, we don’t need best practice, we need best PRACTICES. Plural.  This is one of the reasons I often return to Dr. Saphier and his book, High Expectations Teaching (HET) (2017).  We know efficacy is the major driver in learning.  That is both for educators and students.  HET provides fifty ways to help students believe they have able brains and acquire the tools to prove it .  Please don’t tell me it won’t work with “these” kids.  I have been part of schools who can make it happen for all kids.

We complain that students are not reading.  As for principal for over forty years, I see that educators are not reading.  Nor are policy makers.  As Mark Twain said, those who don’t read have no advantage of those who can’t. Quoting Carl Glickman, “The first task of restructuring, confronting our own professional knowledge, is not easy, but it is likely to produce the courage to improve, at least in a few good schools.”

Effective teaching is not a set of generic practices, but instead is a set of context-driven decisions about teaching. Effective teachers do not use the same set of practices for every lesson.” (Porter and Brophy 1988).

Back to the book.

Jon Saphier systematically goes through suggestions, supported by research, that people at every level can take to increase learning for all.  It is more important for people to agree on a plan rather than debate and argue about the best plan.  Angeles Arrien told me before she passed, “if your job is changing the world, GET UP, TODAY IS A WORKDAY!”

The book has are suggested plans for every part of the educational community:  Policy Makers, Boards of Education, district leaders, site leadership, etc.  The specific plans can be implemented with integrity and a vision for a preferred future.

Chapter 3 gives a way to build a learning culture.  Performance based measurement alone is not going to leader to increased learning.  If you doubt this, what has the last three decades taught us. Europe and Asia continue to outpace the U.S.  Building the adult culture also gives models for students to follow.  Knowledge workers don’t do well in a Kick A$$, Take Names culture.  Amy Edmondson’s work in psychological safety is paramount for a learning culture.

The need for leaders.

McLaughlin & Talbert are quoted, “We have never seen a school that achieved anything significant for students without a good leader.”  James Comer of Yale said, “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”  Figure 3.5, page 71 is a good visual about what people think is a good teacher compared to what it actually takes to be a good teacher.  On page 82 is a list of descriptors on how leaders improve teaching.

There are many studies that identify leadership is the second most important element after the classroom teacher influencing student learning.  In chapter 9 Saphier addresses the evaluation system.  People like people like themselves.  However, that may not be the best way to evaluate knowledge work. I, Bill, have found Stakeholder Centered Coaching (SCC) by Marshall Goldsmith and Frank Wagner as the most effective way to supervise, evaluate, and grow leadership.

Whether it be supervising site leaders, district administrators, or superintendents, SCC has been shown to produce a ninety-five percent success rate if the leader has the courage, humility, and the discipline to follow through.  Art Costa asked me, a principal at the time, ‘what are you doing to create a mentally stimulating environment in your school?’ I responded, ‘I have to do that too!’ Art smiled and said, ‘if you aren’t doing that for staff why do you think they will do it for students?’  He was right.

High Expertise Teaching is the critical variable in producing student learning.  When coaching district leaders, I often ask how much time do they devote to teaching, learning, and leadership in their meetings?  The usual response: it is on the agenda, but we run out of time.  Saphier’s book offers suggestions in Chapter 10 to consider.  Chapter 11, page 225, continues to supply essential questions to increase awareness and possible actions to elevate student learning.

Courage is important for leaders. That is why SCC coaching requires courage to be successful. Chapter 13 is full of specific ways to strengthen our courage to act in behalf of student learning.  The book continues to discuss superintendent roles, regional leaders, etc.

Finally, this book is a roadmap with specific actions to take at every level to focus on student and staff learning.  I have only scratched surface of some of the effective ideas in Saphier’s book.  So, in the final analysis I say:

  • The research and plan are in this book.
  • We can do this. Here’s how.
  • We do know enough. Let’s begin.
  • We can start today at every level.
  • We are in this together for a better future.

“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Neil Postman


“If your job is waking up the dead,”


Angeles Arrien