Thursday, February 9, 2012

Teacher Evaluation

The Diane Rehm show 2nd hour today was about teacher evaluation, centering mostly around the research of economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff (show guest) from Columbia. They measure how much teachers add value by comparing teacher's students' test scores with their incoming test scores. Their conclusion is that the top 5% of teachers in this value added measure have dramatic impacts on their students' lives. They have a website with much more info about their research.

Good teachers are good for students. Huh. Who knew?

Seriously, though, of course what they are claiming that they can now identify these teachers using much-maligned test scores.  I am not familiar enough with their research to rip it to shreds professionally, but critical thinking would seem to raise several problems quickly.  Where these discussions always seem to go is that now we know whom to fire. Finally! I love (sarcasm) how in a discussion about dramatic student improvement, there is no thought given to teacher improvement. Of course, it's not really a growth mindset in terms of the students, either, but rather an idea that they are in the control of these good or bad teachers. It inspired this cartoon, based on my favorite Sydney Harris cartoon.

I went immediately from there to a mentoring meeting, where after a brief discussion of international humor, we began talking about how we self-evaluate our teaching. Here's what a half-hour led to:

We noticed that the majority of these were student outcomes, instead of teacher behavior. The question arose: do we assess these characteristics that we care the most about?

Furthermore we came up with some (also student-centered) monitoring questions for ourselves:
  • Are the students equipped for the activity?
  • Do the students know what they are hoping to achieve/where they are hoping to get to?
  • Are students getting more independent?
  • What can the students do?
The big question was raised: how do we know if these things are really about effective teaching or are they just what we want?

I'm not suggesting that this, finally, is the teacher evaluation system for which we have been looking. Instead, I want to suggest that this kind of teacher conversation is what will lead to better teaching.  Follow it with a chance to see each other teach, and talk about these criteria based on common experience. In other words, improvement in teaching is much like learning in any area.


  1. I have a question about a couple of the criteria which relate to students understanding where they are headed. I totally get that this is reasonable in many contexts, but I'm not as sold on them as on the rest of the list. In particular, when using guided reinvention activities, I feel like I don't really want students to know where they are going. If they do, then there's no point to the "reinvention" part of the process.

    Am I off base? Misunderstanding the purpose of the criteria?

  2. I've been there, too. I find that where a little surprise is a bonus to the lesson, I can phrase generally enough so that the objective serves as foreshadowing rather than a spoiler. For example, TLW generalize solutions of quadratic functions could be a lesson that finds the quadratic formula.

    Even still, what I most want is the student to leave knowing what they were learning. Before I became more intentional with objectives, that happened less often.

    All that said, I added very little to these myself. I was more trying to lead the discussion. My main point of writing this is to try to encourage teachers to have these discussions, regardless of their conclusions. Intentionality will improve teaching.