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great teaching takes true grit
January 31, 2010 7:07 AM   Subscribe

What makes a great teacher? Analyzing more than twenty years of data, Teach for America has found that great teachers had trained in their subject areas rather than in education, and had high "life satisfaction." They also demonstrated five tendencies: they
"constantly reevaluate what they are doing... they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls."
This last trait is measured by the Grit Scale, which has been shown to predict good outcomes in both teachers and West Point cadets. (Do you have grit?)

Not everyone agrees:
The Problem with Teach for America: 1, 2
True Grit
Why I Hate Teach for America
posted by anotherpanacea (133 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
Do you have what it takes to answer a survey the way the surveyor wants you to answer? YES! Then you would do well on the Path of Least Resistance scale.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:23 AM on January 31, 2010 [10 favorites]


More decent articles on TFA culture: "From the mouths of TFAers, Teaching is the Worst Job on Earth.

Anecdotal evidence: links above are from my friend's shared Google Reader articles - she, along with 1/3 of the people I graduated with, is doing TFA (or DCTF) and is living that life, but incredibly aware of its context. Other grads are far less aware, and, despite their six-month proximity to Georgetown education and their mansions, assume the privilege of imitating their black students as soon as they arrive home.

Indeed TFA and DCTF are placing organizations, whose commitment ends as soon as a grad is employed by a school. The best evaluation I've heard from the former friend is that TFA would be much more palatable if the recruiting process and training process were not so thoroughly conditioning - and yet the recruiting process and training process are what TFA is, and by the numbers, it's very good at both.
posted by tmcw at 7:26 AM on January 31, 2010


Teach for America, an organization whose purpose is to put people without education training into teaching positions, found that people without education training made the best teachers? Shocking news.

Also, their five tendencies aren't exactly groundbreaking.

"constantly reevaluate what they are doing... "
This is a tendency of all successful people in any field.

"they maintained focus".
This is a tendency of all successful people in any field.

"they planned exhaustively and purposefully"
This is a tendency of all successful people in any field.

"and they worked relentlessly"
This is a tendency of all successful people in any field.

"they avidly recruited students and their families into the process"
Well, that's good work if you can get it. It's pretty clear, to most people, that lack of family and student involvement is a huge problem in low performing schools; it's like they said one of the tendencies was "made their students smarter." This is an effect of good teaching, not a cause.

It might be a little obvious that I'm not totally on board with the TFA program, mainly because I think that there's little more presumptuous than thinking the key to changing inner city schools is untrained white people who teach for three years while polishing their resumes for law school, but this is weak, even for TFA.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:36 AM on January 31, 2010 [9 favorites]


I owe so much to the good teachers I had when I was young. The ones that didn't just teach a subject but helped develop skills and outlooks and ways of coping in the world. Which makes it seem strange that I spend more time thinking about the horrible bastard crap teachers who made my life a misery back then. Yay for good teachers, you're worth a billion limosines full of celebrity morons - but you'll never get paid the same as them (sorry).
posted by Elmore at 7:39 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Seems like there are two questions here being conflated as one:

1) Are grit, determination, and exhaustive dedication to students the things that make a great teacher?
2) Is TFA a good thing?

If a person answers "no" to question #2, it doesn't necessarily mean they disagree with the findings of the TFA study, does it? Or did I miss the correlation between the two in one of the links (not being snarky - honestly, maybe I missed it).
posted by billysumday at 7:40 AM on January 31, 2010


Obligatory Onion Link: Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major
posted by griphus at 7:46 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


President Obama and Arne Duncan want to give money only to schools/districts which link improved standardized test scores to individual teachers. Although it may be true that good teachers are linked to higher test scores (the article gives one anecdotal example of this), such linking is insulting to the profession and ignores everything else that happens in the classroom.

From the Atlantic article: The most valuable educational credentials may be the ones that circle back to squishier traits like perseverance.

Unfortunately, measuring good teaching is a notoriously squishy proposition. And the increasing importance of high-stakes standardized testing has, as anyone could have predicted, nudged out some very important parts of school: recess, arts education, and even some academics such as social studies and science, since math and literacy are the primary targets of these tests.

The good teachers, who are ultra-responsive to their charges and often change their lesson plans on the spur of the moment, according to the article, are engaging in processes discouraged by an increasingly ossified educational establishment.

I don't want to be a complainer. I love my job. And I realize that doctoring, running a small business, and just about every other profession is not as easy as it was twenty years ago. But if teaching continues to add more acronyms, procedures, paperwork, tests every year or so, as it has for my twenty years of teaching, things will only get worse.
posted by kozad at 7:53 AM on January 31, 2010 [8 favorites]


We don't need more people getting degrees in "education". This is our downfall.

The last link in the FPP mentions an individual who had an undergraduate degree in English, and then was sent off to teach mathematics at a high school, after having only a 2-week "math immersion" program. Preposterous. How can anyone expect this person to be an effective mathematics instructor, when she has no deeper understanding of the subject at hand?

If you're interested in more reading about mathematics education, I suggest you check out A Mathematician's Lament [PDF link]. As a mathematics educator myself, I found it to be spot on (if not equal parts depressing).
posted by King Bee at 7:54 AM on January 31, 2010 [11 favorites]


I think the reason why education as a discipline produces worse teachers is probably because it is (I'm not going to qualify this with a litany of caveats know that I am speaking only about averages and am confident {seriously} that the brilliant teachers that you are or know are an exception to the rule) one of the less rigorous disciplines. I bet if you did something like control for highschool gpa and sat scores you would probably see much of the difference melt away.

The point of this is not to bash education programs, sort of the opposite. They might well be the best way to get good teachers given the real world constraints. If you wanted better teachers you could probably make education programs arbitrarily harder but it's not like that wouldn't carry a pretty significant cost.
posted by I Foody at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


Okay, a few things here from the classroom. (I taught 4th grade, now elementary music, so there's my lens.)

The author's shiftiness on standardized testing, and measurement in general, is something to behold. Watch what happens in this passage on the subject:

... reliable data was hard to come by, and many teachers could not be put into any category. Moreover, the data could never capture the entire story of a teacher’s impact, Farr acknowledges. But in desperately failing schools, where most kids lack basic skills, the only way to bushwhack a path out of the darkness is with a good, solid measuring stick.

Just because you need a "good, solid measuring stick" doesn't mean you have one. Standardized tests are neither good nor solid as a measure of success in teaching or learning, yet even people who acknowledge this will, in the same breath, declare we'll have to use them anyway because we need something. This is like suffering from late-stage cancer and declaring that aspirin will cure it — because something has to.

This is not a minor point. Whole schools re-orient themselves towards success in testing. Students are being tested for graduation. Teachers are, the article acknowledges, facing having their salaries or their jobs pegged to test results. But who writes these tests? Who grades them? What do they capture? What kinds of successful students will test poorly? What kinds of remarkable teacher have other priorities than moving test scores (in sometimes fanatically focused skills) upwards? Do we just accept a whole lot of collateral damage and go full speed ahead with the testing anyway?

More importantly, since we're trying to measure teachers' "effectiveness" — effective at what? The obvious answer is "teaching," but that answers nothing. Neither does "student learning." Students learning what? How to do various skills? Which ones? Facts? Which ones? What is the point of education? What are we trying to accomplish? With that you can start taking your "good, solid measuring stick" and randomly bat the foliage to no particular effect.

And, for the record, asking a teacher to do a demonstration lesson on the days of the week in Spanish as a way of finding "great" teachers is like asking a would-be novelist to give handwriting samples. Those narrow, moment-to-moment skills in lesson execution are worth practicing, but they're trivial compared to some rather major issues. Specifically: Alright, enough. Back to Sunday morning lesson planning.
posted by argybarg at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2010 [63 favorites]


Or did I miss the correlation between the two in one of the links...

Well, as I see it the pushback is all a kind of ad hominem: TFA is for teacher accountability (rather than school accountability) and is supplying this research in support of the Obama administration's attempt to tie teacher pay to classroom outcomes (increases in student grade-level achievement). So if you're in favor of teacher tenure and prefer to blame the circumstances of the students for their poor performance then you'll see this as an attempt to undermine teachers who work with underclass populations.

It's all very much a piece of the culture wars over personal responsibility and merit pay and a host of other things that we prefer to think about in relativistic partisan terms, so people don't like it when somebody comes in and resolves some of the us v them nonsense with data.

The problem is that, right now, TFA has the data on its side. Sure, poor students do poorly, but some poor students do more poorly than others, and the correlations demonstrate that some teachers are much, much better at helping poor students improve. That means we can't just throw up our hands and point to structural racism and poverty, because teachers merit a large share of the praise or blame for actually enacting that poverty and racism by exacerbating mediocrity or rising to the challenge.

On the other hand, even data has to be massaged and interpreted, so perhaps TFA has an agenda that needs to be exposed. Right now, though, I don't see it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


TFA dropout here: unwilling to go into detail about my experiences because the organization is BRUTAL about managing its PR. Perfectly willing to personally go after critics of their organization, such as this guy.

The problem is that any successes are quickly credited to the organization, any failures (and they are legion) are placed squarely on the individual teacher for failing to work hard enough. Regardless of its successes or failures, TFA's culture is NOT a healthy one, and made more dangerous by their taking kids right out of college who often don't have a very good sense personal and professional boundaries.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:08 AM on January 31, 2010 [18 favorites]


So if you're in favor of teacher tenure and prefer to blame the circumstances of the students for their poor performance then you'll see this as an attempt to undermine teachers who work with underclass populations.

anotherpanacea, this is a very tendentious way to treat people who criticize TFA (which I don't love or hate). Don't come to MeFi to treat your fellow commenters this way.
posted by argybarg at 8:15 AM on January 31, 2010


Is there a web form version of that 'grit scale'? Do they really expect people sit there marking down answers on another sheet, then summing things up ourselves?

Or does my very asking that mean I just failed the test? :P
posted by delmoi at 8:17 AM on January 31, 2010


I understand that budgets can be cut, and that bureaucracy can be increased. But how do we do both at the same time?
posted by b1tr0t at 8:18 AM on January 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


this is a very tendentious

Eh? Bulgaroktonos, who I know in real life and like personally, made exactly this point above:

"they avidly recruited students and their families into the process"
Well, that's good work if you can get it. It's pretty clear, to most people, that lack of family and student involvement is a huge problem in low performing schools; it's like they said one of the tendencies was "made their students smarter." This is an effect of good teaching, not a cause
.

I'm not trying to be tendentious, because ultimately I find structural and institutional issues overwhelmingly important, but if you disagree with my point, please focus on and rebut what I've said that's untrue, rather than focusing on my tone.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:19 AM on January 31, 2010


I went through most of the education classes required of a teacher in the state of Texas and discovered I was unsuited for high school teaching in the student teaching phase, by which I mean I hated it with the fire of a thousand burning suns. I love history, but I don't want to teach high school history. I have a friend, a high school buddy of my husband's, who went through Teach for America after grad school in the mid 90s and is still teaching now. He's an award-winning teacher in his district and I've seen him work hard with kids in his off hours (Sunday office hours at Starbucks in the mall) while visiting him. It's really about getting good teachers in the classroom and you can get crappy teachers through teacher ed and good teachers through TFA as well as the other way around. But if you don't recruit from outside the teacher ed pool somehow, you'll never find people who weren't already considering teaching as a career.

One of the things I hated about teacher ed was the propaganda about how you had to put up with crap working conditions and significantly lower pay than you'd get in the private sector because it was a noble calling. The implication that you should martyr yourself to work in primary and secondary public education may be a functional delusion, but it's wrongheaded to say that anyone should have to put up with horrible working conditions and more importantly, subordinate their own best interests forever "for the children". The critique in the hate-ons for TFA that involve complaints about TFA advertising what working with kids for two years does for the teacher didn't ring true for me. How are you supposed to get people who don't want to be martyrs to try teaching if there's nothing in it for them?

The last link in the FPP mentions an individual who had an undergraduate degree in English, and then was sent off to teach mathematics at a high school, after having only a 2-week "math immersion" program. Preposterous. How can anyone expect this person to be an effective mathematics instructor, when she has no deeper understanding of the subject at hand?

Now I feel like I should go dig into the math anxiety study that was on the blue a while back and see whether they recorded how many of the math teachers with math anxiety went through a "math immersion" program instead of having an undergrad degree in math.
posted by immlass at 8:21 AM on January 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


Where are the TFA Mefites? Surely there are some and they will weigh in on this thread...

...where are they? They are in a meeting looking at a very colorful excel spreadsheet in a big meeting with their little IBM laptops out! They look pretty but they'll be in the meeting all day long! They are mostly white women right out of college.
posted by fuq at 8:27 AM on January 31, 2010


anotherpanacea:

What I heard you saying was that if you criticize TFA, it's because you favor teacher tenure and would rather blame students' families than make real change. Did I misread?
posted by argybarg at 8:30 AM on January 31, 2010


The Peter Campbell blog links provided great insight. I used to think teachers needed to just work longer hrs to ensure the kids were getting the help they needed, but that was stupid because I think it stinks to just treat them as workers rather than as people with families to manage and things to do. There's no way I would support making your job your entire identity and purpose in the name of social and economic justice or some other high minded bull because you fancy yourself as a Gandhi or Mother Teresa of education. That's stupid and unhealthy, and completely unrealistic.
posted by anniecat at 8:31 AM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


One of the things I hated about teacher ed was the propaganda about how you had to put up with crap working conditions and significantly lower pay than you'd get in the private sector because it was a noble calling.

Agreed, and the propaganda carries on throughout the profession. People give teachers the Noble Martyr praise and teachers give it to themselves. It's a hard job, but so what? Give us good working conditions and support, not gooey praise or self-pity.
posted by argybarg at 8:32 AM on January 31, 2010


Did I misread?

Yes. Here's what I said: "So if you're in favor of teacher tenure and prefer to blame the circumstances of the students for their poor performance then you'll see this as an attempt to undermine teachers who work with underclass populations."

The 'this' in this sentence refers to this phrase from the previous sentence: "the Obama administration's attempt to tie teacher pay to classroom outcomes." So there is no blanket dismissal of TFA criticism, though TFA does support the Obama administration's policy preferences using its data and research.

What I heard you saying...

Why you would 'hear me saying something' when you could just go back and re-read?
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:36 AM on January 31, 2010


Okay I'm a computer scientist and of course there's the issue of "When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail" thinking. But of course I think there are some good technological ways to improve education. It does seem like standardized testing (which requires computers anyway) is a poor way to measure teacher effectiveness.

Even if you can boost a kids standardized test scores one year, there's still a possibility of burning them out and making them hate education and learning. It's the same thing as a CEO taking over wallstreet and temporarily boosting the share price while hollowing out the company. Eventually the shares collapse but in the interim the CEO has made out like a bandit.

Any time you come up with a metric, people are going to try to maximize the metric, rather then what the metric is supposed to be measuring. In the extreme case in Texas teachers would let students cheat on standardized tests in order to boost their performance. (And by the way, it's bizarre how proud of their testing framework Texas is, they have one of the worst educational systems in the country)

The goal of education should be to turn out well educated students who are successful in life. But by the time that you can measure that, the teachers will be nearing retirement. It's just not practical.

But I think one thing that could be done to measure teacher effectiveness would be to actually record classroom sessions and then review them to see how 'inspiring' the teachers are, how engaged the students are by actually watching them. This is a technological fix because obviously 10, 20 years ago the cost to record all that video would have been prohibitive. A lot of people would hate this, for obvious reasons (and I'm against excessive surveillance in general)

And another thing is that computers and video-game style education could be leveraged to a far greater extent in classrooms. Take history for example. Kids could sit at a console and memorize facts via spaced repetition. They could watch documentaries to make the material less dry but in general isn't history mainly an issue of memorizing a bunch of facts on a timeline?

Natural sciences, at least how they're taught in elementary school are mostly just facts. They're not teaching kids how to do PCR or measure evolutionary distance. Fact memorization with science could work the same way.

Mathematics is another example. Kids could work out problems on a computer, and software could measure their proficiency in near real time and give them problems that keep them in their state of flow, and using spaced repetition to make sure will remember all the different techniques.

With all of these techniques you have an addictive points system to make kids want to boost their scores too.

And these systems would save teacher time too.

---

One big issue we have here is the fact that teaching, the way it's done now is very labor intensive. It requires a lot of people. It's fashionable to for education reformers to blame teachers, and obviously the bare some some of the responsibility. But so what? You've got to work with the people you've got. You can just go out and get better ones.

Any realistic education reform needs to deal with the teachers that currently exist, while perhaps trying to do a better job of recruiting better ones.

The other issue is parental investment. The state, I think, needs to do a better job of incentivizing parents to care about their children performance. Perhaps tax credits could be tied to educational attainment.
posted by delmoi at 8:48 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know a thing about Teach for America, but the premise that great teachers had trained in their subject areas rather than in education makes sense to me.

If you take someone who is knowledgeable about math, give them practical training on how to teach, and then weed out the ones who are bad at teaching (teaching being a skill like everything else), you'll end up with better math teachers than if you take someone who has had 4 years of the latest educational theory, but no practical training and no math skills and toss them into a school.
posted by madajb at 8:53 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


What I heard you saying was that if you criticize TFA, it's because you favor teacher tenure and would rather blame students' families than make real change. Did I misread?

I think you've got the if-then clauses reversed, which is hugely important; the argument was that IF you have an agenda, THEN you will criticize TFA, not the other way around.
posted by palliser at 8:56 AM on January 31, 2010


anotherpanacea:

First off, I am not your enemy. Treating each other to political-style contempt is a way to ruin this place.

So, having misread you, let me rephrase:

I am very suspicious of attempts to tie teacher pay to "classroom outcomes," which nearly always amount to test scores and a small handful of in-class evaluations. At the same time, I do not support universal or automatic teacher tenure, and I do not "prefer to blame the circumstances of the students for their poor performance."

In other words, not all those wary of TFA's agenda, or merit pay in general, are hidebound or whiny or resistant to change in the educational system. I, for one, keenly wish for education to change — but how it changes is of great importance.
posted by argybarg at 8:59 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I agree with all those bullet points -- as-well-as the one's in argybarg's addendum. One more thing a good teacher needs is a rebellious personality. Perhaps a few teachers don't need it: the ones that work in well-run schools (a tiny minority) -- schools that support what they're trying to do in the classroom. But even the best schools usually involve at least some politics and/or budget issues that create obstacles to learning.

A good teacher should believe that his classroom should be 100% about learning, and he should be deft at finding ways around impediments. He should either be really good at working within this system. Or he should be good at breaking the rules without getting caught. Or both.

Personal note: I do many things, at which I am mediocre. I am a so-so theatre director, a so-so writer and a so-so programmer. There's one thing I'm great at, and it's the only skill about which I feel comfortable bragging: teaching. I taught for twenty years, I loved it, it felt like my "calling," and I know I did a lot of good. God, I miss it!

I quit because I could no longer tolerate the being poor. I feel bad about this, and not just because it's selfish. I feel bad that I'm cheating myself out of doing what I love doing most. But the older I get, the more I'm addicted to my creature comforts.

So I get checks for all the bullet points except for this one:

they [work] relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the ... [menace] of poverty...

It's too bad, because about once a week, I think about downgrading my lifestyle and going to teach in one of the poorer public schools. I would do a ton of good to several generations of children who would pass through my classroom during the remaining 40 years of my life. But I'm too selfish.

Okay. That's my problem. But it's unfortunate, because if society invested in keeping me (or people like me) financially happy (and I don't expect to be rich -- just comfortable), the return would be tremendous.

(I keep waiting for some wealthy philanthropist -- e.g. Bill Gates -- to get this. Every once in a while, someone donates a zillion computers to schools. That's nice. But it would be wiser to create endowments for teachers. Maybe not for every teacher. I hate the idea of awarding bad teacher. But the endowment committee could create some kind of metric. Teachers could be nominated, and if they passed the screening, the would suddenly find their salary doubled. That would encourage all teachers to work harder!)

All the other bullet points are really hard to control. Perhaps there are ways we could make people more creative, more industrious, more rebellious, more community-spirited, etc. But that's a tall order. The one thing we can control, in theory at least, is how much we pay people. We could take a fraction of what we spend on, say, defense, and use it as a stipend to augment teachers' salaries.

I often wonder whether I'm alone. Whether most people like me go ahead and teach despite the impoverished lifestyle. If that's true, than fuck me. There are plenty of talented people out there, and it doesn't much matter if one guy chooses to waste his talent. But if there are lots of people like me -- and I suspect there are -- then we're depriving the country of an amazing resource.
posted by grumblebee at 9:00 AM on January 31, 2010 [8 favorites]


Any time you come up with a metric, people are going to try to maximize the metric, rather then what the metric is supposed to be measuring.

Which is why you need to take trends into account.
If a teacher has a class that under-performs its peers for a year, that could be the result of many things(particularly rowdy class, a crop of less capable kids, broken chalkboard, whatever).
But if a teacher has classes that consistently under-perform their peers over several years, then some serious review of that teacher is called for.

but in general isn't history mainly an issue of memorizing a bunch of facts on a timeline?


Dear God, no.
That is, unfortunately, how it is often taught. Which again, goes back to finding someone who is knowledgeable and teaching them to reach, rather than finding a teacher and making them learn history.
posted by madajb at 9:01 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I also know Bulgaroktonos; we are related by marriage (to each other), so it's perhaps no surprise that I agree with him, but I did DCTF and despite not actually lasting a year I think it's better than TFA, which is a huge statement since I think there are serious problems with DCTF as well.

Part of the problem is that what kids in difficult areas and low-performing schools need is consistency and people who will actually be there; for a lot of people, TFA is a stop on the way to something else so that, as Bulgaroktonos points out, law schools end up filled with people who already have Masters degrees in Education which they will never use again.

anotherpanacea's point that I find structural and institutional issues overwhelmingly important is also really good; part of the problem is that a lot of schools, at least in DC (which is where I have the most experience) are APPALLINGLY badly run, and even good teachers will struggle to teach in a school in which the administration does not support them. I've spoken about my experiences in DCPS before so I'll try to keep specific personal examples to a minimum, but suffice it to say that I am currently working towards a Masters in Teaching, but that long term I am interested in working in school leadership in some way (administrator, Department of Education -- something where I can help), and a big part of the reason for this is that there is so obviously a dearth of good administrators who are flexible and intelligent and experienced and actually have the ability and background to make things better. There are school administrators in DC (and doubtless other areas as well although I don't know from experience) who are just so out of their depth that they can't incorporate any new ideas or even really keep the school running on a day to day basis. I don't think the solution to this is to bring in teachers, even very intelligent and capable ones, with no experience who view teaching as one stop on a completely different career trajectory; I think what we need is people who will actually dedicate themselves to education and work to make things better on a whole-system level rather than working on a prestigious program for a year or so until they've done their time.

This is not to say that everyone in TFA is doing this; I'm sure there are plenty of people in it who remain dedicated to education and do great things, but I believe that the organization is structured such that this is frequently the outcome. I've known some smart, passionate, dedicated people who did TFA but, in fairness, none of them lasted a full year.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:09 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Treating each other to political-style contempt is a way to ruin this place.

I've said much the same thing in other contexts, which is why I don't understand why you insist on making this adversarial. The comment you're continuing to misread was only an attempt to explain to billysumday why disputes over the outcome-based evaluations frequently turn to ad hominem attacks against Teach for America. I stand by what I wrote, but I don't recognize my comment in your characterization of them.

There are a variety of viewpoints of school reformation, and its truly one of the hardest and most interesting policy problem in the nation, so I respect consistent and reality-based views. Yet somehow, you've decided that you and I are in disagreement, and thus I must be holding you in contempt. At this point, it is just your defensiveness and refusal to read me charitably that I find irritating: you've yet to formulate a position with which I can agree or disagree, except in formulating a reading of my words that is at odds with their plain meaning and intention. I don't see the value of the derail when there's a real debate to be had over the substance of the Atlantic article and the supporting documentation.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:10 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Any realistic education reform needs to deal with the teachers that currently exist, while perhaps trying to do a better job of recruiting better ones.

There are huge barriers to entry in public-school teaching, not many of which are useful measurements of how good a teacher the person is going to be. If you removed some of these, and also made it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers, you could actually shift some personnel.
posted by palliser at 9:11 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Okay, derail dropped, and probably my fault to begin with.
posted by argybarg at 9:15 AM on January 31, 2010


made it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers

Yeah, this is huge.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:17 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I often wonder if any state has seriously run the numbers on dropping out of the Federal education dollar race with its attendant Educational Theory du jour and charting its own course.

I know the Feds pour a ton of (my) money back into my state in the form of education funds, but is it worth the hassle?
posted by madajb at 9:19 AM on January 31, 2010


I smell maybe a fallacy in the article, in its assertion of "grit" as the key to teaching K-12. Individual perseverance is an attitude/approach that's successful for life problems in general; the article paints it as if TFA is resorting to first principles, because it did not discover a more specific methodology tailored to the problem at hand.
posted by polymodus at 9:23 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I often wonder if any state has seriously run the numbers on dropping out of the Federal education dollar race with its attendant Educational Theory du jour and charting its own course.

I don't remember for sure, but I'm pretty sure the answer is yes, at least for some local educational authorities.

There are also states that do ridiculous and counterproductive things, such as I think Indiana? Someone administers their tests in the autumn because it's a lot cheaper than testing kids in the spring, you know, after they have actually been in school for a while.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:23 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]



Any time you come up with a metric, people are going to try to maximize the metric, rather then what the metric is supposed to be measuring. In the extreme case in Texas teachers would let students cheat on standardized tests in order to boost their performance.


This.

This bedevils most professions with simple outcomes, much less the complex set of interactions involved in the molding of a child that have been reduced to test-scores and graduation rates.
posted by lalochezia at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2010


Individual perseverance is an attitude/approach that's successful for life problems in general...

Indeed: discovering the resource that makes great teachers doesn't necessarily prove that we'll have an infinite supply of that resource. We need gritty doctors and scientists and politicians, too. If there's not enough grit to go around, what then?

I've heard a statistic that we need 200,000 new teachers each year to simply replace outgoing teachers: what do we do if there aren't 200,000 perseverant college graduates next year? Our ongoing strategy has been to shunt the most ineffective teachers to deal with the poorest students, with predictable results. But the reverse strategy isn't likely to satisfy, either: rich people want their kids to have good teachers, too, and they can afford to pay for the privilege.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:43 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Grit and perseverance don't just come in the form of the teacher's personality; they can be embodied (or not) in the format of teaching and school in general.

As an example, any good musician has practiced a lot and probably sounded terrible in the early stages. Yet schools go a long way to discourage terrible outcomes for even a moment; it's a kind of hygienic reflex. A student doing a math worksheet is supposed to get them right, right away. Sure, there's a little head scratching, but by the time the class session is over, you've either failed or succeeded. And failure is just failure.

I would be interested to see students work through hundreds of math problems at a gulp, having been told: "You might not get these at first. Your first fifty or so might all be wrong. But keep at it until they start to make sense." It would give some teachers the hives, but it would be a more realistic model of how people learn.
posted by argybarg at 9:50 AM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


Our ongoing strategy has been to shunt the most ineffective teachers to deal with the poorest students, with predictable results.

This is definitely true, but part of the problem is that experienced teachers know better; I've known some excellent, experienced teachers who would have left the schools in which TFA participants work after a year or less not because they couldn't do it but because it is too exhausting to go in day after day and face the apathy and incompetence (on the part of school staff, not necessarily parents and kids) and the myriad problems facing the school. If you're an experienced teacher, you have options, and if you have the choice you're often not going to work in that sort of school environment because it is just so exhausting, mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

I have to go now and I've probably talked too much already for which I apologize but I will be following this thread with interest
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is there a web form version of that 'grit scale'? Do they really expect people sit there marking down answers on another sheet, then summing things up ourselves?

Or does my very asking that mean I just failed the test? :P
I opened up a spreadsheet for this purpose.

I took this to mean that I am gritty and perseverant, having successfully overcome the initial reaction of horror to having to do it myself, and therefore didn't bother with the rest of it.
posted by Flunkie at 9:55 AM on January 31, 2010


Yet schools go a long way to discourage terrible outcomes for even a moment; it's a kind of hygienic reflex. A student doing a math worksheet is supposed to get them right, right away. Sure, there's a little head scratching, but by the time the class session is over, you've either failed or succeeded. And failure is just failure.

Okay, sorry, I was about to go, but I really felt a need to respond to this. This is NOT how math is taught, at least not by competent teachers at this point. Math is much more focused on problem solving and thinking skills in addition to direct math problems. Good math teachers will do things like have the class spend the whole period working in groups on one complex problem to think about different ways to solve it. There's lots of writing and having kids explain their thinking, as well as developing strategies that work for them. Sure, there's memorization at some point, but AFTER the kids understand the concepts; we work to get them to realize themselves that 7 X 8 is the same as 8 X 7 instead of just telling them. Eventually for the sake of practicality they just need to know what the answer is, but before they memorize the multiplication tables or anything we work to make sure they know what multiplication is, how it is used and what they are actually doing when they multiply. OF COURSE kids make mistakes or don't understand; that's part of the learning process and good (or even competent) teachers know this and incorporate it into their teaching.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:00 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Any time somebody talks about the "difficulty in getting rid of underperforming teachers" line, it sets off my "has no idea what actually goes on in schools" radar*. Aside from the fact that public school tenure actually provided pretty minimal protection in most districts (basically, they just have to give you a couple U ratings in a row, then can fire you), most schools are currently in the process of getting rid of loads of good teachers, because there's no money to pay them with.


* This includes you, Mr. President
posted by Dr.Enormous at 10:01 AM on January 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


Standardized tests are neither good nor solid as a measure of success in teaching or learning, yet even people who acknowledge this will, in the same breath, declare we'll have to use them anyway because we need something.

I assert that you're wrong. I think this is more your lens than anything else. Your statement is probably true of music and other subjects which are in and of themselves not important and wouldn't be tested. The program is to track rate of change, not students' absolute level. I am much more interested in reading comprehension and math problem solving than any other goals.

This is not suggest a style of teaching or learning. I think that engaging a love of learning, thinking critically, focus, etc. are all very important and that they all will result in improvements in simple outcome measures. For example, a music teacher who shows kids how to focus on a task will result in students who do better at answering word problems.

But who writes these tests? Who grades them?

Do you have an objection to how these are done?

What do they capture?

Typically reading comprehension, math problem solving, and recall of background facts.

What kinds of successful students will test poorly?

Probably ESL, reading disability, anxiety. This is irrelevant for teacher compensation. Unless the school systematically tracks "doomed" students to specific teachers, everyone will get some, and little improvement will be noted regardless of their teacher. The teacher effect observed will be "average" not "zero".


What kinds of remarkable teacher have other priorities than moving test scores (in sometimes fanatically focused skills) upwards? Do we just accept a whole lot of collateral damage and go full speed ahead with the testing anyway?

I don't know, and yes. If school administrators aren't bright enough to deal with this data in a clever way, they could do a lot of damage. Then they get fired, too. We could probably use a metric for outing ineffective administrators as much or more than teachers. I also hope that these compensation schemes are implemented are a larger unit level (states) so that someone who understands the Ed research field can be the one at the switch. I just had this argument here and in the thread it links to if I've been too brief.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:06 AM on January 31, 2010


made it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers

And replace them with whom? Also, what Dr.Enormous said.

But I definitely agree that teachers should be trained in their subject area, not in "education."
posted by mediareport at 10:08 AM on January 31, 2010


I've been in the education field for the last 10 years or so: most (though not all) of my experience has been with adult learners (over 18). As I begin to pay attention to my own children's education the whole issue of what makes a good teacher has actually become harder for me to understand.

I started out teaching because I loved it and loved seeing what my students would do with their knowledge and I took pride in seeing their accomplishments. Teaching became harder and less fulfilling for me when the volume was cranked up and I had more classes, more students, more responsibilities. I suspect this is how it is for many public school teachers no matter what social strata they happen to occupy.

Later in my education career I became a program director of a university certificate program and was responsible for managing and evaluating a pool of about two dozen different teachers throughout the year. Here I had the relative luxury of having complete control of the hiring workflow. I would end up using a combination of student and TA feedback plus my own gut to determine who I would end up hiring back. From a completely selfish standpoint, I'm not sure if I could have lasted very long if this process had been out of my control (i.e. if there had been some sort of tenure system.)

On the other hand these were adult learners so this feedback cycle was easier to interpret. For children and teenagers there are inherent issues with this feedback as argybarg articulated well.

As my 3rd grader's public education begins to inch closer toward those standardized tests I become increasingly more conflicted. Looking at long term goals I want him on his high school graduation day to have a love of learning that will never go away. I do worry that the focus on this measurement of students and teachers moves away from that goal. At the same time I think testing can be an extremely valuable tool and in a general way I like the idea of being able to weed out under-performing teachers and rewarding excellent ones.

Ugh. I'm more confused now. Thanks Metafilter.
posted by jeremias at 10:10 AM on January 31, 2010


All of this could be solved by requiring Congresspeople to pass a standardized exam to get their jobs.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:22 AM on January 31, 2010


All of this could be solved by requiring Congresspeople to pass a standardized exam to get their jobs.

A suggestion.
posted by madajb at 10:28 AM on January 31, 2010


But who writes these tests? Who grades them?

Do you have an objection to how these are done?


Yes. In my state the standardized tests are graded by people (often college students) who show up for a three-day grading session and are given rubrics (a sort of decoder chart) by which to figure scores on the tests. Let's take the example of 5th grade writing, since I saw how this played out in a pilot version (I wasn't supposed to look at the non-pilot student essays). I saw some just terrible essays get the highest score and some very crisply written, efficient essays given a poor score. I had, in the end, no idea why, but I suspect that one element on the rubric was writing with a "voice." Students who began paragraphs saying "I bet you wonder why WEEEELLLLLLLLLL now I will tell you" had a "voice," while students who got to the point didn't. There were grading issues like this all up and down the line.

Either way, I heard from teachers who did some grading and were intensely frustrated that they were giving these wacky grades because they were only allowed to grade with the decoder chart and not their direct observation of good vs. bad writing. But what was the alternative? Accepting one grader's intuition? How do you grade writing fairly, subtracting out grader bias? Do you know a simple way or do you just expect it can be done by smart people?

I saw very poorly written questions in math and reading, questions I knew my 4th graders could have gotten in a flash if they weren't written in instruction-manual English. But how do you get a fair vetting process when the tests have to be kept secret and the questions are written by bureaucrats charged with dozens of missives about equity and correct language?

You might say these are anomalous problems from one state, but the chatter from the education world says otherwise. The tests, as a whole, are ineptly written and bungled in execution. And these are because of structural problems with the idea of big secretive standardized tests, not because of a few bad apples.

Unless the school systematically tracks "doomed" students to specific teachers, everyone will get some, and little improvement will be noted regardless of their teacher.

Well, schools do routinely shunt troubled or school-averse students to specific teachers. And schools in high-minority populations frequently have "gifted" programs that consist of All the White Kids. Again, you can choose to see this as an anomalous bug, but I see it as revealing of fundamental flaws in the system.

Besides, try this thought experiment. A teacher recognizes that a portion of his students are smart and capable and creative but test poorly. Perhaps they're students who need time and context and social interactions to get their ideas out, but flourish when they do. Or they get anxiety in test situations. Or they're terrific builders or designers but struggle with short written responses. Let's say that applies to about eight kids in the classroom. The teacher decides to orient his teaching to accommodate those students. They get to listen to group work and summarize the result in posters or displays. They get to work on long-form journals. They get to lead the class discussions now and then. And so on.

This teacher might get poorer results on tests emphasizing short-form answers, but has made a richer experience for all the students. The teacher down the hall, who spends all day emphasizing test performance, gets better results than my hypothetical teacher. Are you happy with this outcome? If not, how do you correct for it.

If school administrators aren't bright enough to deal with this data in a clever way, they could do a lot of damage. Then they get fired, too.

No, they don't.
posted by argybarg at 10:34 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I never understand surveys like Grit. Who in hell's name would answer all the questions with the obviously negative - I am not ambitious, I am always discouraged by setbacks, I am not a hard worker, etc. Are they for honest morons, is that it?
posted by A189Nut at 10:38 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes. In my state the standardized tests are graded by people (often college students) who show up for a three-day grading session and are given rubrics (a sort of decoder chart) by which to figure scores on the tests.

Perhaps that it is part of the problem because, to me, that is not a standardized test.
I think of standardized tests as "4+2 is A) 6 B) 8 C) -i" and "Montpelier is the capital of which state?"

Anytime a graders perception comes into the play, it becomes no longer "standardized".
posted by madajb at 10:41 AM on January 31, 2010


I think of standardized tests as "4+2 is A) 6 B) 8 C) -i" and "Montpelier is the capital of which state?"

How do you test writing ability in this format?
posted by argybarg at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2010


The teacher down the hall, who spends all day emphasizing test performance, gets better results than my hypothetical teacher. Are you happy with this outcome? If not, how do you correct for it.

Trends.
If a teacher has classes that consistently under-perform on year end tests, then something is up.
If performance on year end tests is part(not all) of a teacher's yearly evaluation, then a trend like that will be noticed.
posted by madajb at 10:46 AM on January 31, 2010


anotherpanacea: I've heard a statistic that we need 200,000 new teachers each year to simply replace outgoing teachers: what do we do if there aren't 200,000 perseverant college graduates next year?

No worries. While we definitely need 200,000 new teachers each year, nobody's hiring, so it won't matter if the Gritty 200k don't appear. Chicago just closed twelve public schools due to budget shortfalls, and it's happening all over the country.

mediareport: I definitely agree that teachers should be trained in their subject area, not in "education."

I'm finishing up my training to teach English/Language Arts at the secondary level. In order to qualify for certification, I have to have 51 credit hours in my subject (English) plus the 24 credit hours in "education." English majors who are not going into education require 42 credit hours in their subject (i.e. those who want to teach English have to have more English classes than those who want a degree in English).

I'm pretty sure that this is the nationwide policy, as Illinois allows teachers certified in Massachusetts to teach in Illinois, etc., because their studies and training are equivalent.

delmoi: isn't history mainly an issue of memorizing a bunch of facts on a timeline?

Oh, I really hope that was a joke.
posted by tzikeh at 10:46 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


How do you test writing ability in this format?

I'm not sure it can be, to be honest.

Perhaps shorter writing samples, where grader bias towards "voice" is less likely to have an effect?
"Rewrite this paragraph into something coherent"? "Summarize this article in 2 paragraphs or less"?

There's research out there on training computers to evaluate language, maybe they could be taught to decode the average 6th grader's essay on "What I did last summer".
posted by madajb at 10:51 AM on January 31, 2010


I have to have 51 credit hours in my subject (English) plus the 24 credit hours in "education."

That sounds great. But when I was a combined zoology/ed major, there was "Biology" and there was "Biology for Education Students." One of those was enough of a joke I dropped the ed major (tho later taught high school for 3 years). Perhaps that's changed over the years, but the same pattern held in all the majors I checked. The requirements to get certified to teach a particular subject were routinely easier and fewer than the requirements to get a degree in that subject.

That should never be.
posted by mediareport at 10:52 AM on January 31, 2010


But it would be wiser to create endowments for teachers. Maybe not for every teacher. I hate the idea of awarding bad teacher. But the endowment committee could create some kind of metric.

That would be fantastic, but it will never happen, because teacher's unions wont let it for the same reasons they are against testing in all forms. In the ideal union world, everybody gets exactly the same pay regardless of how effective they are, and raises are only related to how long your butt has been in the same seat.
posted by overhauser at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2010


Writing is a core subject. Take the test away and no one will teach it.

Aren't we likely to emphasize subjects that are easy to test? Even within subjects — math skills are easy to assess. Math reasoning is not. Again, in my state there has been a well-intentioned push to assess math reasoning on the Big Test, with some questions having a space where students show how they arrived at the answer, using pictures, words or both. But then we're back to the rubric and hired graders and all the dilemmas as in writing.

So, to make sure we're doing only easily testable subjects, we hand kids a test consisting of multiple-choice math problems, factual (not interpretive) reading-comprehension questions and fill-in-the-blank questions on some mythical pool of "facts every kid should know."

And this becomes the lever that moves school to a better place and tells us where the good teachers are? Depressing.
posted by argybarg at 10:58 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure that this is the nationwide policy, as Illinois allows teachers certified in Massachusetts to teach in Illinois, etc., because their studies and training are equivalent.

Having perused my state's (very confusing) teacher certification website, I don't see any requirement like this.
posted by madajb at 10:59 AM on January 31, 2010


And this becomes the lever that moves school to a better place and tells us where the good teachers are?

And your much better suggestion is?
posted by madajb at 11:00 AM on January 31, 2010


The thing that frustrates me reading about teaching / America's damaged schools is that the solution to the problem of attracting and retaining quality teachers seems pretty obvious:

1) Pay teachers more. A lot more. Teaching is a highly skilled professional career and should come with a commensurate salary. Teachers in Manhattan should be able to afford to live in Manhattan. Teachers in San Francisco should be able to afford to live in San Francisco. It shouldn't be assumed that a teacher with a middle class lifestyle has a better compensated spouse to support them.

2) Make classes smaller. No one can effectively teach to 40 students.

3) Build or buy better buildings for schools.

Or, to shorten it:

1) Throw money at the problem (I am not kidding).

A nation that can't suck it up and pay for that is necessarily a nation that fundamentally hates itself.

</rant>
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:02 AM on January 31, 2010 [14 favorites]


Writing is a core subject. Take the test away and no one will teach it.

My educational system did not include a "writing test" and yet we all learned to communicate fairly well.
Granted, I grew up well before the current mania for standardized testing, but I don't think your assertion holds true.
posted by madajb at 11:02 AM on January 31, 2010


2) Make classes smaller. No one can effectively teach to 40 students.

This, I think, is key.
We recently toured a private school for the child.

While the high school curriculum was mostly the same as an AP level public school, what really stood out were the class sizes.
12 kids in English, 14 in Chemistry.
posted by madajb at 11:07 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


A nation that can't suck it up and pay for that is necessarily a nation that fundamentally hates itself.

You may be onto something.
posted by jeremias at 11:12 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


In the current climate, subjects not on the test are thought of as optional and usually don't get taught. Science and social studies have fallen into this crevasse.

My much better solution? I would lobby for much, much greater change in the education system than will actually ever happen, at least from within or by legislation. I would like to see a system more like the merit badge system in Boy Scouts, with kids having to collect a certain number of core badges and some by elective. Kids would go to teachers who could help them learn what they need to learn to get their badges. No kids would be stuck with a crappy teacher, because no parents or kids would sign up with them.

In early years, yes, kids would be assigned to a school and teachers who supervised them. Over the years, the teaching would happen less in the classroom and more among mentors and in apprenticeships. The kids' work would be directed to help the world around them, so children gradually played real roles in the community. By age 18, kids are setting up databases or doing traffic analysis or doing construction of public buildings.

Student work would be evaluated by teams of teachers and community members. We'd use a combination of snap diagnostics, large projects and individual reviews to find out who's learning to read, who can write in a way that makes sense. Over that layer you'd find supervisory groups that looked at how much schools were accomplishing, measured by how much good work the students were doing. There would have to be layers of supervision and reporting to overcome the inevitable slacking and shortcuts.

I told you it would never happen.
posted by argybarg at 11:16 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I told you it would never happen.

Ok. And in the meantime?
posted by madajb at 11:20 AM on January 31, 2010


Previously, on TFA.
posted by availablelight at 11:22 AM on January 31, 2010


public school tenure actually provided pretty minimal protection in most districts (basically, they just have to give you a couple U ratings in a row, then can fire you), --Dr.Enormous

I'm curious as to what school system this applies to. It certainly doesn't apply in California. You can give teachers all the U and even V W X Y Z ratings you want, but you still won't be able to fire them.
posted by eye of newt at 11:23 AM on January 31, 2010


madajb: Having perused my state's (very confusing) teacher certification website, I don't see any requirement like this.

Can you link to the page for your state?

argybarg: Writing is a core subject. Take the test away and no one will teach it.

madajb: My educational system did not include a "writing test" and yet we all learned to communicate fairly well. Granted, I grew up well before the current mania for standardized testing, but I don't think your assertion holds true.

It is true. The subjects that can't be tested are being removed from the curriculum, one by one. It's not just budget cuts that have forced schools to drop anything but the four major studies--so much extra time is devoted to getting those test scores up that there isn't room for anything else on the schedule.

You Can't Tip a Buick: Teachers in Manhattan should be able to afford to live in Manhattan. Teachers in San Francisco should be able to afford to live in San Francisco....Throw money at the problem (I am not kidding).

Teachers in Chicago are required to live in Chicago. Don't know how it is in other states.

As for throw money at the problem--I couldn't agree more. The biggest argument public education hears about money is "the government keeps throwing money at the problem, and it doesn't get better, so that's obviously not the solution." The truth (and likely the most difficult thing of all to explain, and therefore something that will never be rectified) is that not nearly enough money has been "thrown" at the problem. To fix all of the things that don't work in the schools, from replacing bad teachers with good teachers, to lack of decent supplies and equipment, to the ability to fundamentally change the way our students learn, would take ten, twenty, thirty times more than the current federal budget devotes to the public school system. We can blah-blah-blah about Iraq and Afghanistan and the MIC, but no matter what was going on, everybody wants us to "fix the schools," but nobody wants to pay what it would take.

The focus on math and science isn't just because they're the easiest subjects to test (at the high-school levels for math and science, there is a right answer to each question), but because America is supposed to be Number One when it comes to all of the things people think depend upon math and science alone. For what much of the U.S. citizenry perceives as necessary to success, there's no observable inherent value in studying history or literature or anything "soft." Yet history shows us (hah) again and again that the eras in which we have made great scientific discoveries or industrial progress have also been the eras in which much great art and literature was created. Culture enriches and inspires both broad and deep thinking on all levels.

How to explain, in a sound bite, that having students spend time on Shakespeare can increase their chances of having a successful life, has yet to be discovered.
posted by tzikeh at 11:36 AM on January 31, 2010


I would like to see a system more like the merit badge system in Boy Scouts, with kids having to collect a certain number of core badges and some by elective.

I like this idea, argybarg, but everything after that was so completely different than what we have now, that you really need to fill in the details, especially how we get there from where we are now.
posted by eye of newt at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2010


overhauser: teacher's unions wont let it for the same reasons they are against testing in all forms.

What
posted by tzikeh at 11:41 AM on January 31, 2010


And in the meantime?

More local control over assessments. Make them public, not secretive. Make them informational tools, not punitive tools. At the federal level, give schools access to tools to monitor their own progress. Give them access to assessments so they can compare their own results with other schools. Provide all the data you can and make it open. Teachers, at least the good ones, really crave it. They just don't want it to be A) a secret; and B) a hammer.

Hiring and firing? Damned if I know. I do know that we-have-to-do-something-even-if-we-know-it's-bad is a terrible approach. Firing teachers on the results of their students' performance on narrow, secretive tests is worse than nothing.
posted by argybarg at 11:44 AM on January 31, 2010


I assert that you're wrong. I think this is more your lens than anything else. Your statement is probably true of music and other subjects which are in and of themselves not important and wouldn't be tested. The program is to track rate of change, not students' absolute level. I am much more interested in reading comprehension and math problem solving than any other goals.


imagine that a school is a factory and students are both one of the raw materials and the product of the factory i.e. students go into the factory and leave the factory out the other end. the teachers are the assembly-line workers. the workers are given the product in baskets (i.e. a class possibly several at higher grades.)

now, standardized testing is an attempt to apply scientific (i.e. statistically rigorous) quality control to the factory.

you want to measure how effective your workers are, but there is a huge (one of several) problem: you have absolutely no control over the quality of the raw materials. as a quality control scientist, can you even model the defect rate in the raw materials? and how do you measure the difference between an alcohol affected brain damaged product and a not-so-bright C student?

now, you say it doesn't matter: defects tend to cluster in poorly performing factories, we'll just measure the change. but over how long do you measure the change and how do you measure it? you already are in a bad position because it's hard to model the defects in the raw materials and here's a fun fact: new teachers often have exceptionally defective products dumped into their baskets! so, you can't really measure the additional defect rate over one year (the typical time each worker spends with a basket of product.) You could measure the change in the lows and peaks: i.e. a good worker will improve the lowest performing baskets or the highest performing baskets. But, how do you model what the baseline is for a low or a high, i.e. there is a limit to improvement of performance given the quality of the starting materials. Plus, as a statistical scientist you need lots of repetition to get good numbers: how do you feel about a ten year assesment of a teacher?

finally, the time to completion of a product i.e. the time the product spends on the assembly line is close to 18 years. given that some of the raw materials are exceptionally defective they may actually have to decline in order to get better: i.e. time spent in detention = time not spent learning = lower test performance (this is fanciful but anyway...)

now, anyone with any sense would start by getting a handle on the basic quality of the raw materials. private schools do this, charter schools can often do this, public schools categorically can't do this.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:45 AM on January 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Can you link to the page for your state?

http://oregon.gov/TSPC/index.shtml

The truth (and likely the most difficult thing of all to explain, and therefore something that will never be rectified) is that not nearly enough money has been "thrown" at the problem.

In my state, we spend over 50% of the General and Lottery funds on education. I'm not exactly sure how much more you think we should spend, but it seems like half the budget should be enough.
posted by madajb at 11:54 AM on January 31, 2010


you really need to fill in the details, especially how we get there from where we are now.

Wish I knew.

Perhaps there could be some vast MMORPG-type forum in which students could test out their skills and earn advances by submitting work they've done in the real world. Perhaps they'd take part in clans that cut across schools. Just a thought. I expect that virtual worlds and online learning are the only forms of learning with the potential to genuinely shake up institutionalized learning — decades from now.

I also know teachers need more roles, and they need to be able to have more job options than just A) classroom teacher; and B) administrators. Administrators typically do nothing much like teaching, and vice versa. Couldn't teachers coordinate each others' work, or devise projects to draw out the best in teachers, including the ones who seem bad? Right now, as a classroom teacher, you do your first year 40 times in a row and then retire.

I really don't know, though. Somehow learning has to be a public, community-based experience instead of a hermetic, institutional mystery.
posted by argybarg at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


So I didn't read all the above comments but I think there is a lot of confusion between cause/effect/forest/trees happening here.

I teach low-income students, and a lot of my colleagues go through Teach for America. Here are my thoughts:

1. The first thing on the list - that the best teacher didn't study education - is pretty meaningless unless we are comparing apples to apples. Teacher degrees are notoriously easy to come by and such a lower standard may mean that the holders of such degrees are just less competent in general.

2. The other four things, which form a list of things that good teachers do, seem true, if incomplete. But no one is born knowing how to do those things - they are learned. And in my opinion TFA does a poor job of training its recruits to do them.

3. The best teacher who teaches for two years reaches 60 kids or, in a middle school, maybe 200. The best teacher who teaches for a career reaches thousands of kids. It isn't a walk-on guest-star kind of gig and I am tired of seeing people who finally get good only to leave.
posted by mai at 11:58 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


More local control over assessments. Make them public, not secretive. Make them informational tools, not punitive tools.

This makes sense to me. I've never quite grasped the concept of "Well, your school is doing poorly, so we're going to let all the kids with involved parents transfer away. And oh, by the way, they're taking their per-student money with them".

Firing teachers on the results of their students' performance on narrow, secretive tests is worse than nothing.


How's that? If we do nothing, then the bad teachers stick around.
If you judge them on performance, odds are you will identify the bad teachers rather quickly and can eliminate them.
I agree that firing a teacher based on one classes performance on one test is a bit much.
But I can't agree with the notion that student performance on tests can't be part of a comprehensive evaluation of a specific teacher.
posted by madajb at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2010


But I can't agree with the notion that student performance on tests can't be part of a comprehensive evaluation of a specific teacher.

I agree with you here. There's a role for testing, although the boundaries of that role are so consistently violated I'm skeptical of them ever being used correctly.

But what tests? Evaluated by whom? How? And, crucially, what are the other parts of the comprehensive evaluation?
posted by argybarg at 12:05 PM on January 31, 2010


All I wish is that I'd had just one teacher like this. One per student, somewhere in their academic life.
posted by Evilspork at 12:13 PM on January 31, 2010


Maybe "grit" or toughness or testosterone or however you choose to characterize it is all you need to make it through a two-year stint at Teach For America.

But what about the long term? The inexorable march of time is going to turn that idealistic, energetic 23-year-old who will cheerfully stay up until 2 in the a.m. grading papers into a 35-45 year old with a serious relationship and kids of her own. She won't have the same idealism or energy. As grumblebee mentions above, she'll probably be a little more (rationally) selfish. At some point, she'll say to herself "Fuck those little monsters. I'm not doing office hours at the local Starbucks anymore. This is my Sunday and I'm spending it with the people I love, the people who matter most to me."
posted by jason's_planet at 12:15 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


But what tests? Evaluated by whom? How? And, crucially, what are the other parts of the comprehensive evaluation?
The test would, presumably, be whatever year end tests the state uses.
Evaluations would be conducted by the teacher's supervisor, as they are in just about every other industry.

As for what else could be be considered:
The supervisors evaluation, naturally. Maybe peer reviews? Student reviews? Parent reviews? Points for continuing education in a subject matter. Points for winning awards.

I'm not sure why this is so controversial for people. Evaluations are conducted of employees every day, why the teaching profession appears to feel there is no formula for checking the performance of a teacher is beyond me.
posted by madajb at 12:21 PM on January 31, 2010


The myth of the Hero Teacher is a product of America's class anxieties.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:25 PM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


overhauser: teacher's unions wont let it for the same reasons they are against testing in all forms.

What


Ha! I misspoke (misstyped?), badly. I meant, as you probably already knew, that they are typically against any kind of effectiveness testing, especially coupled to pay increases, which is what a lot of this thread is about.

I was trying to look up a link for the recent case where a local (to NYC) teachers union sued when the school district gave out bonuses to a group of teachers who got best teacher awards last year. And my (professors) union repeatedly brings grievances when successful professors get large pay raises to keep them from moving to other (non-unionized) universities. The attitude seems to be that merit should never, ever, be rewarded monetarily - with predictable consequences.
posted by overhauser at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2010


I'm curious as to what school system this applies to. It certainly doesn't apply in California. You can give teachers all the U and even V W X Y Z ratings you want, but you still won't be able to fire them.

Did you even read your own (sensationalist) link? It clearly states that California has greater protections for tenured teachers than most other states.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 12:33 PM on January 31, 2010


Evaluations are conducted of employees every day, why the teaching profession appears to feel there is no formula for checking the performance of a teacher is beyond me.

Funny, I worked in industry for years, and always got a written evaluation from my supervisor based on their observations of my performance, which is exactly what I get as a teacher. People like you are the exact reason teachers need unions; everybody seems to think they know how it should be done, and every new set of metrics and hoops to jump through sends more and more good teachers packing for another profession.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 12:38 PM on January 31, 2010 [7 favorites]


>>made it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers

>And replace them with whom?


Would have been nice of you to include in your quote the first part of my sentence, which referred to barriers to entry for teachers in the public schools. There are excellent private school teachers who would like to teach in public schools, but cannot, because of certification requirements that have no relation to ensuring a high-quality workforce. These requirements serve as artificial constraints on the labor supply, thus making teachers' jobs more secure, as everyone asks who will possibly replace them if they are fired. Take away the barriers to entry, and you'll have replacement teachers -- many of them with years of experience in private schools who are interested in the generally higher pay and better benefits of teachers in public schools.
posted by palliser at 12:39 PM on January 31, 2010


I'm not sure why this is so controversial for people. Evaluations are conducted of employees every day, why the teaching profession appears to feel there is no formula for checking the performance of a teacher is beyond me.

Production as a measure of an employee's worth is relatively straightforward in many jobs. The work the employee does can often be seen, spread out on the table, assessed. Teaching is a rare profession in which; A) your work is other people's work; and B) there is no simple agreement on the work that those other people do; and C) the work is done behind closed doors.

For instance, we could measure a surgeon's success at appendectomies by the outcomes of those surgeries. We could measure a debt counselor's success with other people by the number of clients who climbed out of debt. There's nothing so obvious or straightforward in education, especially if you value learning beyond rote facts and specific skills. (I do; don't you?)

You say: "The supervisor's evaluation, naturally." So: You are a principal giving an evaluation of a teacher. Tell me how you do it. I suspect that right away you'll see the troubles. You can watch a single lesson, and that might tell you something. But, as the article in the FPP points out, a charismatic and fun lesson isn't always useful. And how do you look over an entire year's teaching? What are you looking for? Do you just go by hearsay? Do you ask a 6-year-old if she likes her teacher? What do the parents know about their teachers? (Not bloody much, I'll tell you.)

And this is assuming you're a principal with a conscience and some skill. Nearly every teacher with some years under her belt has had a nightmare principal — vicious or incompetent or blatantly unfair or tyrannical. So how do you find out which ones these are, so they won't be evaluating?

And finally, yes, employees get evaluated every day. And every day, toadies and incompetents get promoted. Surely you've seen this?
posted by argybarg at 12:40 PM on January 31, 2010


Forgot to add: raising pay at the same time, especially for districts where the job is the hardest, would be a great way to get more applicants, too, as grumblebee suggested above.
posted by palliser at 12:41 PM on January 31, 2010


For what much of the U.S. citizenry perceives as necessary to success, there's no observable inherent value in studying history or literature or anything "soft." Yet history shows us (hah) again and again that the eras in which we have made great scientific discoveries or industrial progress have also been the eras in which much great art and literature was created. Culture enriches and inspires both broad and deep thinking on all levels.

But it isn't the case that "producing great art and literature" requires universal education in art and literature. If, say, 10% of the students in highschool got education in those fields we'd still have 30 million people with the needed education. Plus, it could be argued that people who are truly interested in those things will find time on their own, rather then on the state's dime.

I guess other then success in life there's also the issue of society as a whole, more people with a good broad-based liberal arts education would probably make for a better society, as well as (hopefully) better voters.

But the other question is: just like we don't need everyone to be a great artist, do we really need everyone to have a solid math and science foundation? Clearly most adults don't need to know much about science in their daily lives, and a lot don't need to know much about math beyond simple arithmetic. So why spend time teaching it?

The obvious answer is that by doing so in elementary school, we'll give kids a firm foundation to jump into any field they find interesting. Equality of opportunity requires that every kid get a good education. But, if we were to drop a bunch of kids and "give up" on them, funnel them into vocational training from an early age, what's the downside for the people on top? If 50% of the students get a "good" education, and 10% get a great one, then those 50% and 10% can easily fill the available jobs for people with that talent level. It's not fair but it's not harmful for society (beyond the people who's opportunities were cut off). Even if selection were done randomly rather then by talent at an early age.

In other countries, that's what happens. I've heard India, for example, focuses their educational resources on better schools in a way that lets them have lots of great schools while letting lots of students fall through the cracks.

Lets say, for example, we cut most schools budgets by 33%, but randomly doubled the budgets of half. That half would probably be able to do a fantastic job with the resources, and we would probably increase the output of high performing students nationwide. And of course you can pick different distributions as well.

I'm not saying it's a good idea, of course.
posted by delmoi at 12:44 PM on January 31, 2010


The awesome thing about teaching is that, unlike most other professions, almost anyone can make a cursory survey of the field and completely solve entrenched problems with a short list of suggestions.
posted by mecran01 at 12:53 PM on January 31, 2010 [9 favorites]


Well, this does not completely excuse know-it-all-ism, but it is true that most of us have conducted thousands of hours of compulsory field research, so we have some basis for having an opinion.
posted by chinston at 12:58 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


The awesome thing about teaching is that, unlike most other professions, almost anyone can make a cursory survey of the field and completely solve entrenched problems with a short list of suggestions.

Well, and in turn, many of those involved in the profession seem to think it's uniquely impervious to any outside assessment; neither observing classrooms nor testing students sheds any light on whether the teacher is doing something right. I guess each individual teacher is the only one who can tell how good they are, and should set their own terms of employment after a good hard self-assessment.
posted by palliser at 1:15 PM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


People like you are the exact reason teachers need unions; everybody seems to think they know how it should be done, and every new set of metrics and hoops to jump through sends more and more good teachers packing for another profession.

Gee, thanks for that constructive evaluation.
posted by madajb at 1:17 PM on January 31, 2010


>>Firing teachers on the results of their students' performance on narrow, secretive tests is worse than nothing.

>How's that? If we do nothing, then the bad teachers stick around.


The problem with firing teachers based on narrow, secretive tests is that it legitimizes the narrow, secretive tests as a valid measure of both the subjects or skills that schools should focus on, as well as students' performance in those subjects. The narrow, secretive tests are neither. Furthermore, this method only identifies teachers who are bad at teaching to the narrow, secretive tests, not bad teachers in general.
posted by stopgap at 1:21 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pay teachers more. A lot more. Teaching is a highly skilled professional career and should come with a commensurate salary. Teachers in Manhattan should be able to afford to live in Manhattan.

Where did this meme start that teachers don't get paid enough to live in Manhattan? I know plenty of teachers and TFA volunteers that live in Manhattan. Maybe they have roommates and they don't have children, but they live in fairly nice parts of Manhattan. Furthermore, they get great health insurance and if they stay in their career, a pension. They have more job security than most.

When you work freelance you have a chance to make a high salary, but you just don't get the job security they have. It boggles me how the teaching profession just continues to ask for more money, as if that is why people don't chose teaching. People chose things like business over teaching because you have the freedom to be creative and innovative, whereas old guard school administrations and ridiculous rules and testing programs preclude much of that in teaching.
posted by melissam at 1:31 PM on January 31, 2010


The work the employee does can often be seen, spread out on the table, assessed. Teaching is a rare profession in which; A) your work is other people's work; and B) there is no simple agreement on the work that those other people do; and C) the work is done behind closed doors.

This describes just about every office job I've ever had.
If a client fails to turn in their specs on time, whose fault do you think it is? Not the clients.
How many folks out there have bosses who don't really understand what they do, but judge them for it anyway? 

The point is, that all of us not in factories or retail are judged on a combination of tangible and intangibles, yet you seem convinced there is no way to judge a teacher.

I mean, maybe I'm getting it wrong and that's not what you really mean, but it sure sounds that way from this side of the conversation.

Tell me how you do it.

Again, the same way every other supervisor in every other office profession does it. A combination of metrics and observation.
How did the class do on the year end test? How's that compare with the other classes? Do the kids seem to like the teacher. Is the teacher getting along with colleagues. Do I get a lot of parent complaints? Do I get nice notes from parents about the teacher. Are the kids well-behaved? Are lesson plans organized and comprehensive? Do the kids sit and watch film-strips all day? Etc. etc.

Nearly every teacher with some years under her belt has had a nightmare principal — vicious or incompetent or blatantly unfair or tyrannical. So how do you find out which ones these are, so they won't be evaluating?

Everyone has had crappy bosses. Sometimes, you're going to get screwed, no doubt. Teachers should be immune from this?
posted by madajb at 1:40 PM on January 31, 2010


True Grit
posted by ihadapony at 1:44 PM on January 31, 2010


The awesome thing about teaching is that, unlike most other professions, almost anyone can make a cursory survey of the field and completely solve entrenched problems with a short list of suggestions.

1) "Hey, that computer thing can't be that hard. All ya do is sit in a chair and wack on the keyboard all day". heh.

2) I have a vested interest in making the education system better (not that it could get much worse in my state). I'm not claiming that any of the ideas I put forth are magic bullets, but the status quo isn't working.
posted by madajb at 1:45 PM on January 31, 2010


Any time somebody talks about the "difficulty in getting rid of underperforming teachers" line, it sets off my "has no idea what actually goes on in schools" radar*. Aside from the fact that public school tenure actually provided pretty minimal protection in most districts (basically, they just have to give you a couple U ratings in a row, then can fire you), most schools are currently in the process of getting rid of loads of good teachers, because there's no money to pay them with.

Hmmm.

Also, thread drift:

Here's a blog entry from a former Teach for America teacher listing some reasons for referral. My favorite:

March 15, 2004: “Will not stop making cruel comments to another student about that student’s late father. Given a stern and clear warning not to discuss this, he said, ‘I hate it when it’s raining; the tombstones get wet.’”
posted by BigSky at 1:46 PM on January 31, 2010


How do you grade writing fairly, subtracting out grader bias?

Break up the items into different graders and rely on the central limit theorem. Since we're assessing teachers on, say, 100 students x 15 short items x 3 year average the impact of an unreliable grader is minimal. It's much less a problem than the task of grading a particular student for graduation.

There are a bunch of ways to institute quality control in subjective assessments. For example you have a small % of items graded multiple times, and assessors who do not correlate well to others are ignored. If you can't get inter-rater reliability or test-retest reliability, you have a problem in your discipline.

Another trick is to rely on the extremes of the distribution. Even if you can't get people to agree on ranking the middle of the spectrum, you probably will get good agreement on what's terrible and excellent.

I saw very poorly written questions in math and reading, questions I knew my 4th graders could have gotten in a flash if they weren't written in instruction-manual English. But how do you get a fair vetting process when the tests have to be kept secret and the questions are written by bureaucrats charged with dozens of missives about equity and correct language?

The world beyond primary education has this figured out. The GRE has a huge library of questions which spend several years being evaluated on real tests before they're declared valid and actually used. Again, for assessing teachers it doesn't matter if a particular question is no good, because it will affect all teachers equally or at least average out.


schools do routinely shunt troubled or school-averse students to specific teachers

Then they must have some good guesses about who's "hard", and we can adjust for that. Similarly kids test into gifted programs. You would use previous / following years on the same kids to determine the impact of the teacher this year. If a kid doesn't learn over the course of many years either a) all his teachers were terrible or b) he's the problem. The data can answer this question.

A teacher recognizes that a portion of his students are smart and capable and creative but test poorly. ... Are you happy with this outcome?

Then they will have tested poorly in previous years. Teacher can do average by doing nothing about their testing abilities. However, I submit that he would be doing the kids a disservice to not help them overcome their testing anxiety, since like it or not there are many high-stress tests in their future.

The performance styles which you cite are problems, not valid alternatives. Being able to write a short reasoned response is a crucial skill, and being able to do something else well does not excuse its absence. The teacher is doing the wrong thing to not encourage them to learn to deal with this kind of problem. I will admit that this testing method does not capture long project ability well, but that is not a serious concern until secondary school. Given what I've seen in freshman comp classes at decent public universities, even later.

I would also suggest that the alternatives you give would do good things for their reading comprehension, which gives teacher points on the standardized test.


Then they get fired, too.

No, they don't.


This is a major portion of some federal applications. Accountability for bad management is important, and the same data which we use for teachers will tell us which schools do not function. Teachers will not get better with experience at the same rate, good teachers will not be retained, etc.


Writing is a core subject.

Writing the way writers and literature teachers think about it is not. I'm pretty utilitarian about what I want; you can assess direct clear writing much easier than "well written" narrative.

Math reasoning is not

I've graded primary and secondary math; it's not that challenging. The same above for subjective assessment work. The other great thing about math is that incorrect reasoning pathways produce objectively incorrect answers. Sloppiness counts against you, but that's life. Correctly reasoned and sloppy will get to right more often than not knowing what to do.


And this becomes the lever that moves school to a better place and tells us where the good teachers are? Depressing.

Had the teaching profession not utterly failed to reach this modest goal we wouldn't be talking about it.


In the current climate, subjects not on the test are thought of as optional and usually don't get taught. Science and social studies have fallen into this crevasse.

You can test recall of background, and you can ask questions that test understanding of method (which of the following data would answer this question ...). This pervasive belief that you can't measure student performance is not true.

Student work would be evaluated by teams of teachers and community members.

Which would have 100% of the problems you attribute to writing evaluations above. It would also be a recipe for buck-passing and excuses ensuring that no actual achievement took place.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:51 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]



you want to measure how effective your workers are, but there is a huge (one of several) problem: you have absolutely no control over the quality of the raw materials. as a quality control scientist, can you even model the defect rate in the raw materials? and how do you measure the difference between an alcohol affected brain damaged product and a not-so-bright C student?

Yes, I do actually understand experimental design and QA. 1) You test them when they go in. 2) The point is to compare teachers with similar students. You would match on SES, etc or even within-school for comparisons.


but over how long do you measure the change and how do you measure it?

No offense, but there is a field of education research. I'd comprare student trajectories over 5 years, and average teacher performance over as small a number as I could get away with. Secondary teachers often have as many as 100 students per year; after 2 or 3 years you have a pretty big chunk of data.


new teachers often have exceptionally defective products dumped into their baskets!

1) This implies that whoever is doing the dumping can accurately predict what will happen. I want the same information they have. 2) You could and should restrict the ability to "dump" students, since that's a horrible practice. Everyone should have the same opportunity for a good teacher. 3) That would be uniform across new teachers, and therefore easy to model.

You could measure the change in the lows and peaks: i.e. a good worker will improve the lowest performing baskets or the highest performing baskets. But, how do you model what the baseline is for a low or a high, i.e. there is a limit to improvement of performance given the quality of the starting materials.

That's why you look at trajectories. I don't think that you've thought this through.

given that some of the raw materials are exceptionally defective they may actually have to decline in order to get better: i.e. time spent in detention = time not spent learning = lower test performance (this is fanciful but anyway...)

You are correct that this makes no sense.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:52 PM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Low income students see no utility to school, because they see few or no role models -- other than, ironically, their teachers -- who use what's being taught, who profit by having learned.

A simple corrective to this would be to allow students to directly and immediately profit from their studies -- by paying them. Either directly, or more practically (to forestall shakedowns), by paying families or giving valauble prizes to students.

You want front row seats to the next Hannah Montana concert? All those tickets are owned by the school board, and go to class valedictorians. To cut down on nerd-bashing, and to make top students more popular -- and thus emulated -- each valedictorian gets to bring a friend.

You live in the projects? Families of students with kids in the top 20% of students get preferential choice of the larger or more desirable apartments.

Want an Xbox? Everyone who gets a "B" or better in algebra gets ab Xbox. (At $300 retail, that's still less than 4% of average per-pupil spending in the US.)

Right now, schools are profitable for teachers and test authoring companies. Make them literally profitable to students.
posted by orthogonality at 1:53 PM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


It doesn't matter how much you dick with teacher evaluation, testing, etc. etc. As long as our society continues with this insane belief that you can cut budgets year-after-year, your kids will continue to get ever-worsening educations. I don't care how many Super Teachers you manage to churn-out, without a school environment conducive to effective learning in the 21st century, they are still going to fail. Sorry, but it really does come down to money. If you close schools, eliminate programs, cut-back lunches, fire teachers, shorten the school day, and crowd more and more kids into the classroom, you're working against your vaunted goals.

"Do more with less" is probably the most self-destructive lie that has been perpetrated on this country, and especially education.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:11 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Did you even read your own (sensationalist) link? It clearly states that California has greater protections for tenured teachers than most other states.
-- Dr.Enormous

Yes this is true for a state with over 10% of the US population. And that is why Obama specifically targeted California, withholding almost a billion dollars of funding. It worked.
posted by eye of newt at 2:22 PM on January 31, 2010


The awesome thing about teaching is that, unlike most other professions, almost anyone can make a cursory survey of the field and completely solve entrenched problems with a short list of suggestions.

Well of course, right? Almost everyone went to school so they all have years of experience!

--

Also, this debate about whether or not it's possible to measure teacher performance. Of course you can. Duh. And also of course you can measure writing ability.
posted by delmoi at 2:31 PM on January 31, 2010


One of the applicants for the job opening at my school is a TFA teacher. Why is she applying to an independent school when she's been incredibly successful at the inner city public school where she started out three years ago? Because she wants a life and doesn't want to burn out. Folks, it's wonderful that you all remember that insanely dedicated teacher you had years ago, but there's something wrong with expecting all teachers to be that good and that dedicated and that obsessive, unless you are offering a wedding with Jesus as part of the bargain.

. . . says the woman who is consumed by her teaching job of seventeen years. Yeah, I know.
posted by Peach at 2:48 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Had the teaching profession not utterly failed to reach this modest goal we wouldn't be talking about it.

Who made this goal? Oh that's right, the right wing noise machine targeted teachers and teacher's unions about fifteen years ago because they got in the way of government paid private schools, most of the parochial.
posted by Brian B. at 3:17 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Folks, it's wonderful that you all remember that insanely dedicated teacher you had years ago, but there's something wrong with expecting all teachers to be that good and that dedicated and that obsessive, unless you are offering a wedding with Jesus as part of the bargain.

Exactly.

And Jesus isn't nearly the catch he used to be, at least in the developed countries.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:22 PM on January 31, 2010


This might not fit here but my mom, a 30 yr public school fourth grade teacher had over 23 former students show up at her funeral service. Five months ago. And I moved two boxes of gifts former students had given her. Most wrapped in old papers.
posted by Cedric at 3:27 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Who made this goal? Oh that's right, the right wing noise machine targeted teachers and teacher's unions about fifteen years ago because they got in the way of government paid private schools, most of the parochial.

Demanding achievement in subjects which are both easy to measure and crucial to success in life is not the sole province of the right. Basic math skills and reading comprehension are the most important things for everyone to have and also pretty easy to measure. Were it the case that these subjects were a-OK I think that there would be much less call for massive testing to guide teacher and administrator quality assessment. I certainly would see less benefit.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:04 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


robot made of meat:

I suspect that if we hashed this out we'd find we hold very different notions of the aims of education, and of what good outcomes look like. One point I return to, over and over, is that we assume that this basic issue, of what education is meant to do, has been settled. In fact people unwittingly hold quite opposite and irreconcilable notions, yet all want their hands on the controls.

I will say that you are envisioning an exceptionally high standard of quality in the statistical analysis. Yet in my experience the degree of quality assurance in educational statistics has been utterly childish. The idea that states or school districts will, as you suggest, go to great lengths to establish inter-rater reliability or finely separate student trajectories from background noise is too utopian to figure into the discussion.

Many of the tests currently in use were written by experts in educational research who, abiding by the acknowledges standards of their profession, were assured that these tests would be properly graded, evaluated in a careful context and, above all, used as diagnostic tools and not as incentives or triggers for funding. Then the state boards snatched them up and utterly misapplied them without a second thought.

If you want to dream of really finely applied statistical analysis and what it could do for education — well, it still isn't my dream, but at least it isn't a nightmare. But in this world, with our shortcuts and political pressures and our budgets, it will never happen. So, to my mind, we have to reckon with the kinds of outcomes we can expect instead: end-of-year tests with high stakes for the students; teacher salaries pegged to simple metrics with low sample size; and pinched, narrow utilitarian curricula that fail to do what education ought to. (And what is that again?)
posted by argybarg at 5:12 PM on January 31, 2010


a robot made out of meat

I think you vastly underestimate the problems with longitudinal measurement of the type you're suggesting. You are correct that the only way you could get at this is with growth modeling - measuring students' change over time (their trajectory), and then seeing whether the identity of their teacher is positively or negatively related to the change.

But we run into a couple of problems. First, change scores (post-test score minus pre-test score, or this year minus last year) is a statistic shot through with so much error as to drown out most of what you're looking for. It's only when you have three, four, five data points that you start to get real measurement of change. Even if you go with three, you have to add an entirely new round of testing per year.

Secondly, those repeated measures have to be on the same scale - which means you have to give the identical test three times. If you give different tests (for example, the fourth grade test and the fifth grade test), you have to be able to set a conversion from one to the other, and that introduces another huge source of statistical error.

Next, you have to assume that the underlying growth is linear. (If you'd rather not assume this, you're going to have to add yet more repeated measures and estimate acceleration along with growth and status). But not all growth is linear. Sometimes, as a teacher, you plant a bunch of unrelated seeds, none of which matters on its own until they're all in place - and then there's a sudden burst of growth. Sometimes you teach the magic-bullet trick that helps kids get the right answer without really understanding what they're doing: there's a sudden jump in growth, but after that it's level or drops as kids flounder without deep understanding.

Then you need to correct for all of the other possible effects that might covary with your variable of interest (that variable being the effect of that specific teacher). If you're going to correct for SES, and second-language status, and a host of other effects, you need more statistical power. You get to the point where you don't have a sample size to include everything you need to include.

Next you need to assume that the very act of measuring (or of tying to the results high-value outcomes like salaries) will not change the reliability of your measurement. A policy shift like that can change the reliability of measurement if the proportion of teachers trying to game the system changes. If the proportion of teachers who try to teach to the test or otherwise game the system increases, you may end up eroding the reliability of your measures.

I have seen nothing in the national conversation which suggests that those in a position of authority have any sense of actual longitudinal methodology. The fact that only now are a small handful of states besides Tennessee beginning to even look at longitudinal analysis suggests that the policy is coming before the science.

Disclosure: I worked as a statistical analyst under Singer and Willett, have published work using longitudinal data analysis, then gave up that work to become a public school teacher.
posted by Chanther at 5:32 PM on January 31, 2010


Folks, it's wonderful that you all remember that insanely dedicated teacher you had years ago, but there's something wrong with expecting all teachers to be that good and that dedicated and that obsessive

I never had one of these.
I had a series of competent, perfectly adequate teachers who supplied a decent, useful education.
They were paid well enough and the school budget was suitable to the mission at hand.

I'm not sure when the nation veered off-track as it seems to have done, but I am sure that not giving the nation's youth a worthwhile education is going to come back and bite us in the ass.
posted by madajb at 6:03 PM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


As a teacher I obviously don't hate teachers. But I really hate ed. schools and the stranglehold they have on both the practice and theory of the profession.

First off, everyone in graduate school (in America) knows that by far the easiest path to a PhD is through the ed. school. They have to keep churning out "flavor of the week" pedagogical theories in order to justify their sinecures, so as a teacher starting out you get bombarded by a slew of different and often contradictory educational theories (Google whole language vs. phonics for just the tip of the ice berg).

The fact is that just as students have many different learning styles, teachers have different teaching styles. And good teachers will recognize their own approach and try to vary it as often as possible, employ new approaches, mix things up on a routine basis, etc. But for years ed. schools have been trying to manufacture "the one" theory of pedagogy, but deep down they really don't want it because it would make them useless. Because really, they are useless. Teaching is one of those things you really have to do for a few years to recognize if a) you're good at it and b) you like it. Ed. schools were supposed to expedite this process, but honestly -- talk to anyone with an education degree and ask them how much they really got out of their ed-related coursework.

So I definitely think that ed. school credits should take a backseat to actual experience in one's field, be it math, science, English, or what have you.

My king-for-a-day idea? Make having a Master's (or obviously a PhD) all you need to apply for a public school position, instead of the tedious certifications and crappy credit hours of ed. school.
posted by bardic at 6:11 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Mathematician's Lament referenced above is excellent. Thanks King Bee.
posted by gruchall at 6:26 PM on January 31, 2010


I think we should just throw more money at the problem.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:41 PM on January 31, 2010


I work as a department chair in an independent school. My teachers--especially the high school teachers--don't have to have ed degrees to get their jobs. Therefore, the ones who don't have those degrees try to somehow re-create what they thought teaching was when they were students. It takes years to break them of the "sage on the stage" habits, and to break them of the punishing of the weak, and the focusing on the gifted, and the reliance on the textbook, and the delusion that they are better teachers than everyone else on campus. Some of them never learn, and some of the worst "Dead Poets Society" frauds are fondly remembered by their students because kids value surviving an awful situation and they appreciate characters.
posted by Peach at 7:04 PM on January 31, 2010


Oh, and I got a LOT out of my ed school coursework, but I went to one of the best ed schools in the country and studied with brilliant people who believed in applying what they advocated and in working in the schools.
posted by Peach at 7:07 PM on January 31, 2010


I took enough credits in a pedagogical field, Second Language Studies, to qualify for a minor. One of the things that impressed me about it was the quality of the teaching by most of the TAs who were handling almost all of the classes. It struck me that all of my other professors and TAs had been trained in their own field, and had figured out for themselves, as best they could, how to actually teach it. Some did better, and some did worse, but I suspect that if they'd had some training in the practice of teaching, they would have been better at it.

I would say that a good teacher should be trained in the area they intend to teach first, then in the process of teaching. That second process should also be designed to weed out the people who don't really have the aptitude to teach. It seems to me that now days that weeding out is done in the early stages of a teaching career, after a potential teacher has already invested a lot of effort in the project. Better to do it earlier so they can switch paths before wasting time and effort.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:00 PM on January 31, 2010


Thank you Metafilter, for providing a platform for an intelligent discussion on a topic that will always resist absolute answers...well, that would include most of our topics here, wouldn't it?

Is teaching an art or a science? If it is a science, measurable results would provide answers to all of these well-meaning questions.

If teaching is an art, scientific evaluation would be a risible proposition.

Most of us agree that teaching is a little of each. I would argue it is more of an art than a science. I was not a very good teacher for my first few years, despite my credentials in both my major and a boatload of Ed courses. It took experience to become a good teacher, just as it took experience to become a good jazz pianist.

Japanese students study English for many years, but they cannot speak the language very well, and are very shy about trying. Metaphorically, this is similar to learning the subject area and the latest pedagogical theories, without experience in the classroom.

One needs both subject mastery and, somewhat less so, information about the latest pedagogical theories and practices.

But it is only through years of classroom experience that one develops a teaching style that works.

Here is what has worked for me, as one who has finally become a good teacher:
1. Loving the children, and getting to know them, as much as one can. A small teaching load helps with this, of course.
2. Constantly learning about one's subject matter from, in no particular order, books, the Internet, and the students themselves.
3. Always keeping in mind what you want students to master, and structuring lesson plans accordingly, changing plans from year to year (although certain things work so well they can be repeated endlessly).
4. Teaching students in bite/byte sized lessons, with overarching frameworks in mind, secretively or not.
5. Always give evidence of having fun on the job. Some days this may be harder than others.
6. Similarly, try to make students excited about the subject, even if they don't even want to fucking be in a classroom in the first place.
7. Be honest.
8. Remember what it was like to be a kid.
9. Most people have no idea what being a teacher is like, having grown up on the other side of the teacher's desk. So, don't worry about what "they" say.
10. Yes, it is a calling. (The pay isn't great, but you may be able to buy a house; you will have health insurance, and you have a lot of vacations.) You will make a difference in the lives of others, and you will never have a boring day, ever.

I am looking forward to tomorrow's work on metaphor. I think metaphorical thinking is one of the grandest achievements of our species, although, unfortunately, I will not have a chance to bring evolutionary aesthetics to bear on tomorrow's discussion....although a little innuendo is never off the table...
posted by kozad at 8:24 PM on January 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Grit is also apparently how Richie Rich's family amassed their incredible fortune.
posted by blueberry at 8:58 PM on January 31, 2010


First, change scores (post-test score minus pre-test score, or this year minus last year) is a statistic shot through with so much error as to drown out most of what you're looking for. It's only when you have three, four, five data points that you start to get real measurement of change. Even if you go with three, you have to add an entirely new round of testing per year.

I don't see why this would need to be true. We also get to average over the 60-100 students. Empirically, teacher effects are huge. For the rest of the reply, I'm going to just point out that this kind of analysis is already done and not by amateurs.

Secondly, those repeated measures have to be on the same scale - which means you have to give the identical test three times. If you give different tests (for example, the fourth grade test and the fifth grade test), you have to be able to set a conversion from one to the other, and that introduces another huge source of statistical error.

An additional parameter common over 100,000 kids is not a "huge source of statistical error". Hell, use the ranks.

Next, you have to assume that the underlying growth is linear

Um, no I don't. Even as brutal a transformation as just ranks would probably work. Linear (or generalized linear) is nice, and would make a good first approximation, but you can definitely fit nonlinear growth models. You're overstating the difficulty that this produces.

Then you need to correct for all of the other possible effects that might covary with your variable of interest (that variable being the effect of that specific teacher). If you're going to correct for SES, and second-language status, and a host of other effects, you need more statistical power. You get to the point where you don't have a sample size to include everything you need to include.

A) those would all get sucked into baseline
B) Even if they affect the natural rate for that kid, you can follow a kid for several years
C) The best way to deal with confounders is to locally randomize and make teacher comparisons within schools or districts. That'll only work for the classes which everyone takes and require multiple teachers, but I'm ok with that.
D) Measuring each kids income language etc is hard, but measuring an aggregate to adjust the school-effect isn't.

If the proportion of teachers who try to teach to the test or otherwise game the system increases, you may end up eroding the reliability of your measures.

Attempts at gaming are probably inevitable.
A) This isn't an assumption though, I get to see data after everyone starts.
B) There is always the possibility of checks to detect it. You retest or interview two kids per school, and if they cheated the principals are fired.
C) The tests in reading and math are so close to what I actually want that aside from multiple choice skills, they practically can't help but legitimately improve the students.

I have seen nothing in the national conversation which suggests that those in a position of authority have any sense of actual longitudinal methodology.

Duncan's a smart man. The world of econ and ed research knows about this. Our elected officials are stupid, but they're going to do something. I'd at least like to put it in the hands of DoEd technocrats.

I worked as a statistical analyst under Singer and Willett, have published work using longitudinal data analysis, then gave up that work to become a public school teacher.

Heh, then you should have brought up how the sub-units (students) interact in the classroom and complicate each other's growth. I'm also willing to take the testing as a first pass which suggests which teachers need to be evaluated for inadequacy / stellar awards rather than the final say. My better half taught secondary maths, I went to grad school and worked for Abbott Labs on clinical trial and device data instead.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:21 AM on February 1, 2010


Demanding achievement in subjects which are both easy to measure and crucial to success in life is not the sole province of the right.

On the contrary, Republican theory is morbidly embarrassed by public education and they tried everything to privatize it with vouchers, but voters balked (perhaps remembering the experience fondly in social terms, or suddenly finding out that their church had no school program). This is the right's revenge, to label one school at a time as failing in order to make their point that government education is only useful as a training exercise. There is no better way to limit public education expectations than by controlling the funding purpose for it.
posted by Brian B. at 6:22 AM on February 1, 2010


I know plenty of teachers and TFA volunteers that live in Manhattan. Maybe they have roommates and they don't have children, but they live in fairly nice parts of Manhattan.

I'm not a teacher, but speaking as someone who also has a roommate and also does not have children - this kind of lifestyle carries a slight stigma with it in the rest of the country, from people who wonder when you're going to "grow up" and own a place on your own. Or at least rent on your own. Living with a roommate (one which you are not actively in a relationship with, anyway) is kind of seen as something that people are only supposed to do temporarily until they get a "real job" or buy a home. If you're still living with a roommate when you're in your 40's, people start to look at you a little funny. There's juvenilizing affect that you start to resent after a while.

...Even if you don't care about that, it does sometimes get tedious to always have a roommate underfoot and you want the damn place to yourself.

Of course, if you have no other economic choice, that's just the way it goes. But it'd be good to have that be a choice rather than a necessity.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:45 PM on February 1, 2010


a robot made out of meat

I strongly disagree with you, and repeat that you underestimate what would be required for good measurement. To pick on two, the shrug-and-just-transform-the-data approach leads to shoddy models, and the statement "these would all be sucked into baseline" is utterly absurd.

However, I will focus on the area in which you and I seem to be in agreement:

I'm also willing to take the testing as a first pass which suggests which teachers need to be evaluated for inadequacy / stellar awards rather than the final say.

This is what I think testing is, indeed, good for. Testing should be the canary in the coal mine for underperforming students, teachers, and schools - but since measurement of this type is so imperfect, I do not think it should be the sole determinant. It should be (in the case of low test scores or flat growth trajectories), the red flag that makes someone higher up the food chain begin to investigate.

I do remember a time in education when no accountability and no common metric existed, and when the strength of a school or teacher or student was argued by mere assertion. I think the idea that schools need to understand and use data is very important, as a means of raising questions that must be answered: "Why is this student failing?" "Why is that teacher getting better results on these tests?"

But statistics are imperfect, and not all aspects of good teaching or of what it means to be educated are quantifiable. I oppose any system which assumes that they are.
posted by Chanther at 6:02 PM on February 1, 2010


a robot made out of meat: "1) This implies that whoever is doing the dumping can accurately predict what will happen. I want the same information they have. 2) You could and should restrict the ability to "dump" students, since that's a horrible practice. Everyone should have the same opportunity for a good teacher. 3) That would be uniform across new teachers, and therefore easy to model.

Restricting 'dumping' is a common practice. It's also hated by parents & students, and is given as a reason why everyone who can afford it avoids public schools. Why? Because, in the interests of fairness, disruptive students are mixed in with others. Students who demand a great deal of attention and need a great deal of remedial education are put in with promising students who are then ignored and given meaningless work because the teacher can't simultaneously teach two different classes at the same time. Teacher performance is then judged on how well every student fulfills extremely low requirements, thus making sure that the teacher gets the message: all your efforts should be directed at the lowest-performing students-- the others can float along.

The road to hell, etc.
posted by alexei at 11:24 AM on February 2, 2010


I strongly disagree with you, and repeat that you underestimate what would be required for good measurement. To pick on two, the shrug-and-just-transform-the-data approach leads to shoddy models, and the statement "these would all be sucked into baseline" is utterly absurd.

I think that the null model is useless, and that your reflexive attribution of problems to data before it is even collected is utterly absurd. I also have to point out that test based measures of teacher effectiveness are not new.

Of course, yes, results should be validated with a gold standard before they are widely used.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:02 PM on February 2, 2010


"Reflexive attribution of problems to data"? The elementary maxim of statistical methodology is "You cannot fix by analysis what you have bungled by design."

It's clear we are not going to agree on the larger issue. If someone shows me a design that works, I'd gladly say I'm wrong. But there's a history here - the statistics and analysis that have gone along with practically everything related to No Child Left Behind have ranged from suspect to outright mendacious. People get so hung up on the policy questions that they don't realize that there are methodologies in use - some of which are a matter of law - which are actually mathematically wrong.

I completely agree with you about the gold standard. I have seen nothing remotely approaching the gold standard in the way educational tests are conducted and analyzed in this new era of testing. The fact that people are talking about growth models is a step in the right direction, but growth models require real longitudinal design.

And if we're talking about taking methodologies that are already suspect, and making teachers' salaries dependent on them . . .

Anyway, thanks for the discussion, and I'll let you have the last word, if you like.
posted by Chanther at 8:23 PM on February 2, 2010


Sure, I think that it's imperative that we develop a merit system for teachers and administrators, and therefore we should be thinking hard about the cleverest ways possible to do so and collecting pilot data. The education system in general is very much opposed to that idea, and seems to have an overriding faith that no such system is possible, no such data should be collected, and that lawmakers will mandate that only the dumbest solutions be used. It's rather like the general right wing stance which argues that because lawmakers and government workers are so incompetent (which everyone seems to believe about everyone else) public service $x, including education, should be abolished. It starts by assuming that because there are examples of something not working that it is impossible to ever make it work, so we shouldn't try and we would be better off without it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:59 AM on February 3, 2010


And if we're talking about taking methodologies that are already suspect, and making teachers' salaries dependent on them . . .

Those salaries are not currently assigned from on high; they are dependent on the amount of time that the teacher has been teaching in the public schools, as well as the size of the local community's tax base. And most people think that's working poorly -- that it's neither effective in encouraging better performance nor fair to the people who are doing a better job and getting paid less.

I don't think anyone thinks that any salary can be set in a way that perfectly captures the value of the work provided. It's just that most people also recognize that when a salary is set according solely to time served, it's an invitation to be a seat-warmer.
posted by palliser at 12:52 PM on February 3, 2010


[salaries] are dependent on the amount of time that the teacher has been teaching in the public schools

Time served is a very objective measurement, and for the vast majority of people, the longer they do something, the better they get at it. Over the course of time, there's also a tendency for people who can't do a job adequately to leave the field.

It's not 100% accurate, but compare it to the kind of favoritism that is rampant in systems where "merit" is measured by the approval of a supervisor. Even the best-intentioned supervisors tend to reward those who reflect their attitudes, and punish those who don't.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:12 AM on February 6, 2010


We want to pay nothing more than we do (or even less!) to educate our kids. We want teachers to work 80 hour weeks and not have a life.

Any reason we can't have two teachers in each class (teaching only 40 hrs) or, god forbid, have smaller classes?
posted by filmgeek at 2:32 PM on February 6, 2010


We want to pay nothing more than we do (or even less!) to educate our kids.

No shit. We have people in my state seriously suggesting that teachers should work for free on 17 Fridays out of the school year to help balance our budget.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:06 PM on February 6, 2010


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