What About Alejandro?

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.

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11 thoughts on “What About Alejandro?”

  1. Excellent question. I think we need a mix of effective and awesome teachers, and principals wise and experienced enough to know the right ratio for their students and their school. Awesome teachers also need good mentoring so that they can become more effective without losing their awesomeness. No one wants to learn from a robot. My son had an awesome 2nd and 3rd grade teacher who was fired mid-year on the pretense of not being organized enough (maybe he didn’t turn in his lesson plans on time, who knows. This was before the testing mania took hold.). The kids were heartbroken (there was no warning, no communication. He just disappeared after winter break. Later he sued the school.), the parents were outraged (this was in the People’s Republic of Cambridge), and the whole school erupted into 2 years of very unpleasant political tumult, questioning the principal’s judgment (she new and reacted like a deer in the headlights, and ultimately was replaced). The end result: many families changed schools.

  2. There’s some quote out there that goes something like “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” I’m worried that what many multiple measure evaluation systems that have stakes to them are doing are getting rid of the relational qualities of teaching. Yeah, I think that might be taken into account partly in student/parent surveys, but it’s usually such a tiny percentage, like 5%, of an evaluation. Even doing an evaluation with %s will indicate what we value – test scores? principal evaluation? parent/student survey? contribution to school? Is it so precise?

  3. yup – our notions of a “good teacher” are just outmoded, sentimental, fuzzy and useless unless that person also produces measurable results

    i humbly submit that libraries and the internet are for individual betterment — for the person who wants to expand their horizons and explore the world thru texts and images or just explore. wander in, wander out. think about math, or think about wheel of fortune, whatever.

    but schools are created for society’s betterment, not for any individual’s well being. schools are for the collective shaping of young people and other students into (what we hope are suitable) citizens and effective competitors in the real world of employment and comfort. and the price of failure is that the collective society has to support those who can’t successfully compete, whether thru charity or government programs or emergency rooms. and i think we all — even the most disenfranchised — want to have a system that creates the fewest number of indigents?

    “Ben” is a terribly sad case, but at best, an anecdote. Schools, and particularly public schools, are vehicles for the transfer of wealth from the present community to the future community, and from those with more means, to those with less means. (i know, the broken property tax system and hardened teachers unions etc have corroded those missions. but we can and will get back to basics.) unless we have shared, crisp, data-driven, measurable methods to determine whether education is indeed preparing people for the always competitive and highly nepotism-driven future, then all we are doing is spending huge sums of common wealth on coddling kids into an unprepared, uncompetitive leap into a hard and getting harder world — and sending ourselves a huge bill for propping up a growing pool of the disenfranchised

    one “Mr Chips” does not a valuable, scalable system make. and sad as it may be, losing one “Mr Chips” — or many Mr Chips — does not a valuable, scalable system unmake.

    my $0.02

    1. I hear you–and I do agree that if teachers as a collective are just coddling kids without teaching them anything, then we are not educating anyone.
      My concern is that “crisp, data-driven, measurable methods” are much, much trickier to develop than it might appear. The development of language, for example, is anything but crisp. Every word we speak connects to our own personal inner experience with that word. The word “chair” connects to your inner image of a chair. The ability to think analytically about ideas, abstractions and literature is exponentially more complex and connected to inner systems of meaning. These are extremely difficult to measure. They are also connected to emotional states like trust and willingness to access difficult emotions. If you and I are going to have a discussion about gun control, for example, and my brother was shot in the front yard (he wasn’t, this is for the sake of discussion), that personal experience will color my views. But I need to be willing to access that experience and trust you enough to access it with you in order for us to have a discussion about it. This is an extreme example, but it’s true of virtually any meaningful discussion, political, literary or philosophical, that might be had in a classroom. And measuring this kind of thing is, in my opinion, incredibly difficult.

      And I agree strongly that students need to be prepared to compete in a nepotism-driven, highly competitive world. My concern is that our data-driven methods may not be preparing students for that world because they tend to be focused on standardized test prep without addressing the social-emotional skills they’ll need to navigate that world. Have you read Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”? I thought it was a really interesting, non-partisan look at the complex network of skills kids need to be competitive (or even stay afloat), and why kids in poverty especially need these skills. A teacher like Alejandro may not be teaching math well (and he’s an extreme example, I admit) but he may be addressing social-emotional needs in a way we can’t measure yet–and may never be able to.

      And that’s my $0.02!

  4. I was reading recently–in an entirely different context–about our culture’s obsession with the measurable. Yes, the craze has overtaken education, but I also find it in healthcare. We measure how often people wash their hands, how often physicians complete appropriate documentation, how often heart attack survivors are readmitted to the hospital, how long each physician spends per patient, etc. With all of these demands, however, clinicians are time-strapped and unable to do what everyone knows is good but no one can measure: engage with their patients, care about them, and take the time to help them make solid decisions about their healthcare.

    Things that are measurable naturally consume our attention because if we have data, we can create a specific action plan to address that data point if we don’t like it. Since we have test score data, we naturally focus on improving the weak areas, and before we know it, test sores are driving our entire approach to education. The fluffier things–e.g. Alejandro’s characteristics as a teacher–don’t get that sort of attention because they aren’t represented in “objective” data that everyone can agree upon. While Ben surely admired Alejandro, I imagine certain administrators did not share Ben’s high view of him. Without data to frame a discussion, it’s just hard to get everyone on the same page–especially when it comes to things like pedagogy or the doctor-patient relationship. Nevertheless, I often wonder what we are giving up in our relentless focus on what is measurable.

  5. Seems like Alejandro inspired people to take on the challenge of going to college. Sounds like Alejandro built relationships with his students and created a connection to school and higher learning that they were able to internalize. Is there a crisp and efficient way to to do that or to measure that? What would we count? How many times a smile of discovery was visible on a student’s face? How many times thoughts of suicide were swept away from a young person’s consciousness and replaced by hope? We could also count and then subtract the amount of dollars saved by not having to utilize emergency room services to deal with whatever medical form the suicide(s) would have taken.

  6. We really can’t just stop with the question, “What about Alejandro?”. We need to try and figure out these inconsistencies. If he was so good in the classroom were his students learning anything? Was he just coddling them? If you speak to a student is it clear that they are filled with misconceptions or lack an understanding of the material?

    Or are the tests not capturing what Alejandro was delivering?

    How are Alejandro’s students fairing now? Are they consistently worse off then other students?

    We need to dig deeper into these inconsistencies as they may point us in the right direction. You can’t ascertain deeper patterns from just one example, but it can help you develop better hypotheses around what those deeper patterns might be.

    1. It’s so interesting to think about trying to find a deeper understanding of the inconsistencies in teacher excellence. The solutions you propose make so much sense. They are also really time-consuming–which is something I think our quick-fix society needs to understand. So many of the solutions I hear about these days produce nearly instantaneous results. This is helpful to parents who want to know where to send their 8-year-old right now, not when that child is 35. I frequently hear that parents “don’t have time to wait.” And as a parent, I totally understand that. On the other hand, as a society, if we really are serious about building a deeply excellent educational system, we may have to wait. The truth is that it may take time.
      Writer Mike Rose has some really thoughtful insights on the question of what we measure:
      http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com/search/label/at-risk%20youth

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