What’s Effective Teaching?

I demand an effective teacher in every classroom!  Don’t you?  Earlier this year in Los Angeles, students in the Vergara v. California case testified in court about horrible, uncaring, sometimes verbally abusive or demeaning teachers who truly damaged them.  Those teachers should leave.

They need to be replaced by effective teachers.

But wait…

What do I even mean by an “effective teacher?”

Right now in this country, we are all about “effective” teachers.  The Vergara v. California lawsuit hinges on students’ constitutional right to an effective teacher.  The students’ stories on the stand were genuinely heartbreaking and horrifying.  Scientists, meanwhile, testified to the enormous virtues of an effective teacher and how much better students fare when they have one.  They whipped out charts demonstrating the truth of this statement.

Here’s what they didn’t do: define what they meant by “effective teachers.”

The students were simply bearing witness to their own experience, something that can’t be scaled or quantified because it’s personal and human.  I think we all share their outrage–an emotional state that calls us to action.

But what are we actually going to act on?  What are we going to do?  What are we going to require?

The problem comes in whenever anyone tries to define what they’re talking about with evidence.  Nobody’s going to verbally abuse students when an evaluator is present.  Nobody’s going to sit indifferently reading a magazine during an evaluation even if they do that every single other day.  So here’s what people generally mean when they talk measurably, not anecdotally, about effective teachers: they generally mean teachers whose students have demonstrated growth on test scores.

The problem with that definition is that as a nation we just threw out all of those very same state tests because we found that they don’t correlate with any meaningful measure of student success, including cognitive growth and 6-year college graduation rates.  Students were graduating from high-performing charters with dizzyingly high test scores…and then crashing and burning in college at rates not that dissimilar from students without high test scores.

In addition, college professors have been complaining that their incoming freshmen cannot read, write or think–not just despite their high state test scores but because of all the time they spent in drill and kill prep for those state tests in high school, leaving them woefully unprepared for college, dependent on adults for measurable rewards and incapable of understanding complexity that does not offer clear correct answers.  Like, uh, life.

Which is why almost every state in the U.S. has thrown out standardized state tests.

And yet the ability to produce growth on those tests–the tests that we have all decided are not only unhelpful but possibly damaging to critical thinking–the ability to produce that growth on obsolete tests remains, as far as I can tell, the single working definition of an “effective teacher.”  And we are all in a lather these days to institute national Common Core tests on which, implicitly, teacher effectiveness will now be measured but which have created a firestorm of opposition among teachers, parents and students because they are so deeply flawed.

In other words, are we ready to say I demand a teacher in every classroom who can produce growth on obsolete, possibly detrimental tests or tests still under construction that everyone seems to think are deeply flawed?

The question of how to define “effective teaching” is not abstract.  It has enormous real-world implications in the classrooms and lives of students.  If this California lawsuit succeeds, and even if it doesn’t, a lot of teachers are going to be hired and fired because of their presumed effectiveness.  In New York, teachers are going to be given bonuses and put on “Master Teacher” tracks based on their presumed effectiveness.  It matters how we define “effectiveness” because teachers who fit that description will be the ones teaching our children; teachers who don’t will be gone.

Almost anyone, including me, will tell you that we need some form of “multiple measures” definition that includes some kind of test or assessment to indicate growth in subject knowledge as well as classroom observations of teaching in action and peer and student surveys.  But the devil is in the details here.  As someone who has participated in a pilot evaluation system, I can tell you that there are some gigantic and serious problems with current iterations of multiple measures systems:

1.  Many subjects do not and never will have standardized tests, including arts classes and any classes for high school seniors.  Under Common Core, only math and English will have standardized tests.

2.  Non-standardized tests, in other words tests or assessments developed by teachers, are considered by many (not me, but this is what I hear) to be too subjective and too prone to corruption.  What if a teacher sucks?  How can she develop a good test?  What if her administrator also sucks?  What if they develop some test together in collusion so they both look like geniuses?

3.  In subjects where a standardized test will always be inappropriate, like drama or an interdisciplinary course, portfolios–generally considered the gold standard of meaningful assessment in humanities–are too time-consuming and expensive to score (again, this is not my point of view–this is what I have been told).

4.  Classroom observations sound great but in my experience are extremely problematic.  Current rubric-based standards are based on techniques that are considered effective because of their correlation to the production of high test scores on the very tests we all just threw out.  The way these rubrics are currently administered requires teachers to demonstrate all techniques on a single occasion (something that is currently being amended) and to teach in a single style (something that is not being amended).  My own experience at being asked to teach this way is that though I did learn many useful techniques, those techniques were not always appropriate for the actual, on the ground situation in which I found myself on any given day, making it extraordinarily frustrating to have to enact those behaviors anyway.  On the whole it was demeaning and profoundly depressing to find myself in a profession in which my day was reduced to a series of gestures and utterances I was required to produce regardless of whether it made sense for my subject matter or my students.  Almost any teacher I’ve asked has said that rubric-based effectiveness techniques are very useful for guiding bad teachers to improve their teaching–but can actually be damaging to experienced teachers who have moved beyond basic classroom management, who know how to impart information and who want to experiment more deeply with curriculum.

5.  Peer surveys are a disaster.  They sound great–most teachers will tell you that at a school, “everyone knows” who the good teachers are.  But being asked to rate your friends and colleagues anonymously, in a way that will affect their pay, is a nightmare. When you know that the teacher next door is working 10 hours a day to support her two children and you see her every afternoon working with kids who stay late even though she’s so tired she can hardly stand up, are you really going to score her low so that she might be ineligible for a tiny raise she desperately needs because you don’t think she posts an objective on her board every day, or because she disagrees in public with administration, not always politely?  Really?  I mean, to be honest, if a person says “yes” here, forgive me but I do not want to work with that person.

6.  Even student surveys are problematic.  The questions on those surveys are a reflection of what the survey-makers have decided is effective teaching, so the ones I’ve seen do not focus on relationships or inspiration or being a role model or taking time to listen outside of class–they focus on things like “my teacher doesn’t waste time on transitions between activities” and “there is always a clear objective in this class.”

So what’s left?  I don’t know.  I do believe we can work something out.  But for now, as far as I can tell, there is no working definition of effective teaching nor is there any meaningful way to measure it that does not exclude a lot of people we’d actually like to be in the classroom, experienced but idiosyncratic teachers and teachers who take time to listen to their students.  For examples of the wide range of styles in teachers, look at Dennis Danziger at Venice High and compare him to Catherine Stine at Animo Leadership.  Compare Kristin Damo at Locke High to Jeremy Michaelson at Harvard-Westlake.  Compare Jennifer Macon at Cleveland Humanities Magnet to Barry Smolin at Hamilton Humanities Magnet.  And read about Cynthia Castillo’s life-changing moment in Laura Press‘ class long ago, a moment that started her on the path to becoming the extraordinary teacher she is today.  What definition of “effective” would be big enough to include all of them?  Who would be excluded?  And how would that benefit our students?

And much as I want to protect students from the kinds of abuse and indifference that the plaintiffs in the Vergara case described, none of the teacher quality measures we’re currently talking about would really necessarily prevent a lot of that.  I’m also scared that we’re now demanding “effective teaching” legally, because the next step is enforcing that decision, which means hiring and firing based on standards we have not defined but that are “known” by those doing the hiring and firing.  If those standards are scores on obsolete or brand-new, incomplete tests, that’s a problem.  And if those standards are not scores on obsolete or brand-new, incomplete tests, what are they?  Who is going to decide?

Let’s try to define the problem before we enforce the solution.

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5 thoughts on “What’s Effective Teaching?”

  1. I am sympathetic to the problem of measuring the effectiveness of each teacher in the middle of the performance range and even to distinguish the best from the mediocre. However, isn’t it likely that the worst teachers are bad by every conceivable metric and, if so, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to get them out of the classroom and then to fire them?

    1. Absolutely. No argument here. It seems to me that basic standards of firing people with cause can and should apply, without going to rubrics and an elaborate system. But the demand for effective teachers is more problematic, especially as seniority is eliminated. Who then will be retained? Who will decide? How? I do believe some sort of system needs to be developed. My concern is that we are a long way from a healthy, functional system that makes sense, and the collateral damage will be teachers and students who do not conform to rigid standards. The fact that a system is scalable does not in itself make it helpful.

  2. What function does school serve? Is it a structural necessity of this society to produce good workers? Thinkers? Lovers of learning? All of the above, or separate goals for different sections of people?

    Do students have access to counseling and/or grievance procedures? They should.

    What exactly are teachers expected to do? Are we expected to be capable professionals with autonomy and academic freedom or are we expected to be technicians and clerks?
    How can a review process be created when we don’t know what the role of teachers is in this society anymore? Some think this…some think that.

    And…All fields contain a-holes…why would teaching be any different.

  3. I agree with you Ellie…that we are a long way from a functional system…and I am adding the observation that it is across the board.

    I am reluctant to get into conversations about ‘how do we get rid of the bad teachers’ though-only because I don’t want to add to a generalized demonization of teachers that is prevalent right now. Nationally. You have written about some amazing teachers in Los Angeles, and there are many dedicated people in the trenches. All over the country. I have met some of them in my recent travels. I would like to concentrate on ways to keep them.

    This push to hold teachers responsible for defects in the system spreads to bad teacher outcrying…or sweeping aside the older and experienced for the “fresh and new”. And less expensive.

    Then we have more money for technology gadgets perhaps. (Or pretty new schools, some built on toxic heaps). They can be useful, even fantastic, but this is not what is needed to fix the defects in the system.

    Unity of purpose would be good. Toward a clear vision. And equity.
    We could start by demanding a national task force comprised of teachers instead of basketball players and businessmen.
    .

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