As I begin my quest, my first piece of business is to round up some 11th grade English teachers to observe in the classroom, having decided that a narrow subject focus will help me see differences more clearly (for a longer explanation, click on “Gatsby?” on the toolbar.) I fire off emails to…well, basically everyone I’ve ever met. While waiting for responses, I run into Ben*, an intensely energetic guy in his early thirties who teaches math at a large public school in the Valley. Ben is a rational guy, a believer in evidence and logic, and until recently he always believed a great teacher should be able to produce measurable results. Right?
And then he met Alejandro, who’d taught math for 20 years at Ben’s school. He was a mentor and role model to his students, an “awesome, awesome teacher,” according to Ben. Every year, former students of Alejandro’s, now grown and with families of their own, would come back and tell Alejandro that he’d inspired them to finish college.
The year Alejandro retired, teachers’ test scores were made public. Alejandro’s students had the worst scores in the entire school system.
“All of a sudden, I started to doubt everything I believed about test scores,” says Ben, agonized. “I was like: wait a minute. Education reformers would have kicked him out of the classroom. Michelle Rhee would say a guy like that shouldn’t be teaching. But I’m sure that guy saved kids from committing suicide.”
As I write this, the idea of teacher evaluations is erupting in controversies all over the country. Unions are blocking them. Parents are demanding them. High-performing charter systems are already using them. Most of these evaluations are based to some degree on a teacher’s ability to raise test scores using what’s called a Value Added Model comparing them to similar students across the state.
Because almost everyone agrees that test scores alone are not a fair measure of teaching, most of the evaluation models I’ve seen are what’s called Multiple Measure, meaning they’re also based on classroom observations, peer reviews and student feedback. Great. In theory.
For me, the problem comes in because most of the classroom observation models I’ve seen score a teacher on a rubric that requires a specific, high-energy, goal-oriented style of teaching in which you must put a measurable objective on the board every day, hold each student to it, make sure they can reiterate it if asked, then measure at the end of the class whether they’ve mastered this objective. This style of teaching is widely regarded as effective because it has been linked to rises in test scores. In other words, as far as I can tell, though it’s one step removed from the tests, it’s still essentially still based on tests because what’s being observed is whether a teacher is creating conditions in which test scores are likely to improve.
For me, this goal-oriented style had some major upsides, but also changed my relationships with my students in a way I wasn’t sure was positive. It also required me to project a personality I could not sustain and felt was false, a brisk, efficient person nothing like my actual self, since I am in reality a daydreamy nerd with food on her shirt who loves reading and writing and really gets a kick out of teenagers.
Even outside of my own experience, I can’t help thinking that though a teacher like Alejandro could learn these high-energy techniques and raise test scores, by doing so he would also change his relationship with his students. And this new relationship, with Alejandro’s new peppy, on-task persona—would kids see him as a role model now? Would they trust him enough to tell him their problems?
This is not a rhetorical question. I agree that there should be some kind of accountability. We’ve all heard horror stories of indifferent teachers, crazy teachers, teachers who can barely tie their shoes. I once had a Geometry teacher who was learning the material as he went but really struggling with it. When he got frustrated because the math didn’t make sense to him, he’d turn bright red and throw erasers. I once had a teacher who used to jump up on the heating vents and invite the boys to look up her skirt. And don’t even ask me about Mrs. Bailey, my terrifying, enormous first grade teacher who locked my friend Nancy in the supply closet for an hour because she talked too much.
But if a teacher is great with kids, inspiring them and literally saving their lives, should an awesome guy like Alejandro really be kicked out of the classroom if his test scores are bad? How can you measure awesomeness?
What I’m beginning to see is a discrepancy between the idea of an “effective” teacher, someone who produces measurable results like a rise in test scores, and what most of us intuitively perceive as a “good teacher,” a warm, compassionate, inspiring person who invests deeply in his or her students’ personal well-being. Are we as a culture overvaluing the first because it’s measurable, while undervaluing the second because it isn’t?
Or are our notions of a “good teacher” just outmoded, sentimental, fuzzy and useless unless that person also produces measurable results?
But if that’s true, why does it sound so dystopian?
* Ben asked me not to use his real name.