Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Teaching Effectiveness

The Times used a statistical approach known as value-added analysis, which rates teachers based on their students' progress on standardized tests from year to year. Each student's performance is compared with his or her own in past years, which largely controls for outside influences often blamed for academic failure: poverty, prior learning and other factors.

No matter what you may think about standardized tests, they are the only measure we have.  In theory, the best way to measure teacher effectiveness would be to look at lifetime earnings and social outcomes of their students, but that would require massive amounts of data to separate the effect of individual teachers, and you would not get results until after the teacher was dead.  Standardized tests do measure knowledge, and a good teacher will result in children who know more.  'Teaching to the test' may be demeaning for a good teacher, but often it is the only way to force a bad teacher to do anything.  The best teachers are those who teach they way they want to, teach a lot of stuff, and still get students who know everything on the standardized test.

Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas. Rather, these teachers were scattered throughout the district. The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools.

I wonder if this will change as measurement improves.  Right now, poor students have about the same teacher lottery ticket as rich students.  But if school systems get better at identifying and rewarding good teachers, that might change.  If measurement only results in moving teachers around, the results could be bad.  But hopefully good measurement will mean that the average quality goes up a lot as bad people are either fired or told how to improve.

Many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers' effectiveness were not. Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students' performance.

Other studies of the district have found that students' race, wealth, English proficiency or previous achievement level played little role in whether their teacher was effective. 

So what did?

 On visits to the classrooms of more than 50 elementary school teachers in Los Angeles, Times reporters found that the most effective instructors differed widely in style and personality. Perhaps not surprisingly, they shared a tendency to be strict, maintain high standards and encourage critical thinking.

 But the surest sign of a teacher's effectiveness was the engagement of his or her students — something that often was obvious from the expressions on their faces. 

Engaging with students is a black art, one that I am still working on.  But anyone can be more strict and maintain high standards.  Encouraging critical thinking is hard, because you have to actually know what it is, which few people do.  But it is something you can put in a curriculum and lesson plan for teachers to follow.

Many teachers and union leaders are skeptical of the value-added approach, saying standardized tests are flawed and do not capture the more intangible benefits of good instruction. Some also fear teachers will be fired based on the arcane calculations of statisticians who have never worked in a classroom.

People in private industry get fired all the time because of 'arcane calculations' like failing to meet sales targets or production quotas.  Public school personnel decisions seem to work mainly on politics and how much the principal likes you.  Is it any wonder that we are failing our students?  The only way to run an effective organization is to measure output well and reward people based on that measurement in a consistent way.

Teachers are afraid of evaluations like this, but if used well they can be a great tool for self-improvement:

Even at Third Street Elementary in Hancock Park, one of the most well-regarded schools in the district, Karen Caruso stands out for her dedication and professional accomplishments.

A teacher since 1984, she was one of the first in the district to be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In her spare time, she attends professional development workshops and teaches future teachers at UCLA.

She leads her school's teacher reading circle. In her purse last spring, she carried a book called "Strategies for Effective Teaching."

Third Street Principal Suzie Oh described Caruso as one of her most effective teachers.

But seven years of student test scores suggest otherwise.

In the Times analysis, Caruso, who teaches third grade, ranked among the bottom 10% of elementary school teachers in boosting students' test scores. On average, her students started the year at a high level — above the 80th percentile — but by the end had sunk 11 percentile points in math and 5 points in English.

Caruso said she was surprised and disappointed by her results, adding that her students did well on periodic assessments and that parents seemed well-satisfied.

"Ms. Caruso was an amazing teacher," said Rita Gasparetti, whose daughter was in Caruso's class a few years ago. "She really worked with Clara, socially and academically."

Still, Caruso said the numbers were important and, like several other teachers interviewed, wondered why she hadn't been shown such data before by anyone in the district.

"For better or worse," she said, "testing and teacher effectiveness are going to be linked.… If my student test scores show I'm an ineffective teacher, I'd like to know what contributes to it. What do I need to do to bring my average up?"

I get the impression that this is a dedicated woman who really wants to help her students but has no clue how to actually do it.  The educational establishment has steered her in the wrong directions and crippled her teaching effectiveness:

During recent classes observed by a reporter, Caruso set clear expectations for her students but seemed reluctant to challenge them. In reviewing new vocabulary, for instance, Caruso asked her third-graders to find the sentence where the word "route" appeared in a story.

"Copy it just like it's written," she instructed the class, most of whom started the year advanced for their grade.

"Some teachers have kids use new words in their own sentences," Caruso explained. "I think that's too difficult."

She dismissed the weekly vocabulary quizzes that other teachers give as "old school."

I expect that she will improve her teaching style based on these test results, and that everyone will be better off.

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