Monday, September 24, 2007

Tunnel Vision: What Does It Mean for a Teacher to be Good?

Each day this week, I'll focus on the issue of teacher effectiveness.

Imagine that you were rewarded for doing a particular part of your job well, while other equally important components remained unacknowledged. It's likely that you would begin to focus your time and attention on the rewarded task and shortchange the unrewarded one. Herein lies the problem with the dominant conception of teacher effectiveness today, which assumes that the only goal of schooling is to raise students’ test scores.

Public schools, like most organizations, have many goals. Certainly, a central goal of American schools is to prepare children for their futures through improving their academic skills.

A second goal of public schools is to prepare children to become active citizens in a democratic society. Students, at the very least, must have the social skills and academic tools necessary to serve on a jury, vote, and understand the rights and responsibilities implied by our social contract.

A third goal of public schools is social mobility. The social mobility goal sees schools as breaking the link between parents and children. In this view, schools level the playing field by providing a venue in which each student can showcase his natural talent and merit. (See David Labaree for a fuller discussion of these goals.)

While they are not mutually exclusive, the three goals introduce very different metrics of educational success. However, the current policy debate about teacher quality, which privileges students' standardized test scores as the sole measure of teacher performance, is strangely out of sync with the longstanding American acknowledgement of the multiple goals of education.

To be sure, America needs students with strong academic skills, and we need good teachers to get there. But since the doors of our first common schools swung open, public education has been about more than academic achievement. Before moving forward with plans to identify and reward effective teachers, we must first answer a critical question: what does it mean for a teacher to be good?

We want our children to grow up not only to be skilled workers, but good citizens, good neighbors, and good parents. Social and civic development are important for each of these goals. Even those unconvinced about the intrinsic value of these non-cognitive skills would agree that task persistence, flexibility, eagerness to learn, and civic mindedness matter because they can boost academic achievement. (And if you are interested in the economic return to non-cognitive skills, see this summary of Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman's recent work.)

Unfortunately, current proposals to measure and reward teacher effectiveness solely on the basis of test scores leave these important education goals out of the picture, and strip away much of the stuff of good teaching. According to these proposals, a good teacher is simply one that increases students' test scores, and such teachers should be rewarded financially.

The danger of an exclusive focus on academic benchmarks is that teachers may overemphasize academic development at the expense of the other goals of education. This would be a loss not only for individual students, but for society at large.

As local, state, and federal policymakers design teacher incentive policies, they should address the full range of skills that constitute good teaching. We need to develop strategies to assess teachers' contributions to these other goals. In all other professions, one's boss, colleagues, and clients weigh in on job evaluations. Schools should adopt similar techniques to assess teachers' effectiveness in promoting skills not measured by standardized tests. Principals, colleagues, and parents all have a role to play in this process. But ignoring these skills altogether comes at too high a price.


Michael said...

It's bad to only reward one part of job performance, albeit a major part, but it's worse to offer too few rewards for any part of excellent performance - which is what we do now.

High academic achievers tend to be good citizens... they vote more, commit less crime, and they teach themselves about the issues of the day. Sounds like a good argument for being concerned about test-scores.

Its hard to raise test scores very far without teaching non-cognitive skills such as discipline, love of learning and how to get along with ones classmates.

Lastly, raising test scores for lower performing kids is the single most important way to increase social mobility.

But yes, I agree that we should reward teachers for other things than just test-scores.

TC said...

I am looking forward to the rest of the posts on teacher effectiveness. You seem to have a lot of common sense in your assertions. Why can't policy makers have common sense?

loonyhiker said...

It is a shame to only rate teacher effectiveness by test scores. I have seen so many teachers who have improved students' self concept, their willingness to try, instill honesty and integrity and many other things that can not be tested on standardized test!

Anonymous said...

I agree that there is much more to teacher effectiveness than test scores. Looking at test scores alone is missing a lot of what teachers do. Students being able to perform at level is certainly important, but there are other skills that are just as worthwhile that aren't measured by test-taking.