Monday, June 30, 2014

The Mystery of Excellence

Diane Ravitch's recent columns about Ms. McLaughlin, one of the undeservingly employed terrible teachers of the Vergara trial, underlines one of the central problems of the whole teacher evaluation portion of the reformster dream.

Ms. McLaughlin won awards for teaching excellence not once, but twice in her career. And yet one of the plaintiffs found her to be grossly ineffective. Now, it's possible that there are factors at play here-- the plaintiff was reportedly recruited for the lawsuit by her only "effective" teacher, a teacher who was RIFed and whose job was then taken by Ms. McLaughlin. So, wheels within wheels.

But could it be possible that a teacher so many students found wonderful was a total dog for another teacher? Of course. Because as much as we think we get excellence in this country, excellence is still a mystery.

I don't imagine I'm God's gift to teaching, but I do okay. My feedback from students, both blind and personal, has been good over the years. But there have been years of my career when I was definitely less good, and there have been students who have been sure that I sucked hugely.

I had a colleague years ago whose students were sure they never did a damn thing in her class, that she was confused and disorganized and didn't know what she was doing. Yet those students came to me next, and invariably time after time I would ask a question about X, and they would answer it, and I would ask, "How did you know that?" and they would realize that Ms. McClueless had actually taught them a great deal.

And it's not just teaching. Every successful writer has devoted fans and an assortment of rabid haters. Every boss of a successful company has supporters and employees who would like to see him roasted slowly over a gas grill. And of course there has never been a political leader who was universally hailed as excellent.

How can someone be both excellent and terrible simultaneously? Mostly it comes down to different measures. If we measure strictly on writing skill, Stephenie Meyer is not awesome, but if we measure based on ability to generate revenue, Stephenie Meyer is a genius.

When measuring excellence, we use a wide variety of metrics. Some are irrelevant; my grandmother used to stop listening to any singer who was divorced, because a divorced person couldn't possibly sing well. Some not only accept bias, but embrace it-- if you are not on The Right Side, then everything you have to say must be horribly wrong. And some are just a matter of personal values. I may just want to hire somebody who gets the job done even if he's not very pleasant, while you may be as concerned about getting along with the person as getting the job done.

The problem with identifying teacher excellence has always been that we have a million ideas about what a teacher is supposed to do. Should Pat's kindergarten teacher make sure that Pat is happy and getting along well with others and maintaining a joyful attitude about life no matter how little Pat learns, or should Pat's teacher be making sure that Pat can master sight words even if it makes Pat miserable to do it? And if we're splitting the difference, where do we split it? And that's before we get to all the other expectations-- should my students learn traditional grammar (and how much) or should we spend more time on writing and what part of the canon (if any) should we read? Should my classroom be a free and open place where everything is filled with the spirit of free and open inquiry, or should it be like a tight, well-disciplined machine? And what's the proper balance of being teacher-directed and student directed?

We could play that game all day. You get the idea. We have a gazillion ideas of what an excellent teacher looks like.

Plenty of attempts have been made to use science-ish techniques to break down the traits of teacher excellence. People still disagree. Or rather, people still default to their own idea of what teacher excellence looks like.

The reformsters thought they had a solution. We'll just define an excellent teacher as one whose students get good scores on the Big Test. And now we're going to use Vergara-style lawsuits and new teacher-eval laws to cement that definition. You can have whatever definition of teacher excellence you like. The courts and the legislatures have the last word.

We could talk about why that definition of teacher excellence is small and narrow and not particularly good. But that's been covered. Let's talk about how it's reformsters shooting themselves in the feet again.

Remember how the whole Big Test thing worked:

Reformsters: We will give students a test to show exactly what they learned in the course of the year.
Parents:Well, that sounds like a good idea.
[Students actually take the test]
Parents: Damnl! I didn't realize that was how that was going to work. You want to do it some more?! Oh, hell no.

Reformsters can install new systems of determining teacher excellence, covered with a smoke screen about how this will "protect great teachers" and "guarantee a great teacher in every classroom." But when the random "ineffectives" start appearing and the public is seeing beloved Ms. Awesomesauce being canned because some system that nobody can really explain claims that she's no good, there will be noise. Particularly in smaller districts (we don't all teach in New York City, Chicago and LA) where teachers are well-known in their communities.

Reformsters keep making the same mistake. It's not enough to have a great sales pitch and convincing story about how well your super-duper plan is going to work. At some point, you have to deliver. From the promise of the Awesome Big Test (which was never going to work) to the promise of charter schools (which, operated for something other than profit, could have), reformsters have made promises they failed to keep.

The promise of evaluation-based staffing will be more of the same. When people see how badly it actually work, reformsters will feel the same kind of pushback that has them scurrying for cover on testing (umm... moratorium! yea, that's it!). The truly unfortunate part is that some large number of teaching careers will be derailed and uncountable could-have-been teachers chased away from the profession by the time that pushback happens. Reformsters are shooting themselves in the feet, but a lot of other people are going to get caught in the crossfire.


  1. Teaching is not just an art, sometimes it can be pure magic. Your description of your successes and not so successful connections are exactly what I have been saying to anyone who will listen. For every one student for whom I have "made a difference", there are probably several others who would say "meh" when asked about my impact. There are probably a few others who have flat out not liked me or learned anything. Teaching is personal. It's about connecting the curriculum in a meaningful way. When we talk about differentiating instruction to meet the individual learning styles of our students, we need to keep in mind that teachers have different styles of learning too and those differences translate into individual teaching styles. The reformers have no idea about any of this so they cannot begin to understand how their changes are affecting those of us in the trenches.

  2. We cannot all be Salvador Dali and exclaim that no one is qualified to judge our work.

    If teachers cannot and will not develop fair, accurate measures for evaluation, then they will continue to be at the mercy of the research-based, data-driven folks who invent metrics largely without their help. Saying "it's impossible to evaluate teachers, so we'll just use seniority" isn't working for anyone.

  3. Teaching will always be an art. The only way it can also become more of a science is to use research, but research based on cognitive science about how people learn, not data based on "outcomes". Data about absenteeism and graduation rates and test scores can't tell you how to improve because they don't tell you what works, what doesn't, and why. The emphasis should be on using research-based cognitive learning strategies effectively; education would improve and it would be obvious. The methodology used in evaluation wouldn't matter, and evaluation of outcomes doesn't tell you how to improve anyway. Current emphasis is all wrong.

  4. I agree that teaching is similar to art in some ways. But I don't think it's a good idea to travel down that path. Doesn't that imply that excellent teaching is only a matter of taste? A crucifix placed upside down in a jar of urine is art, and so is Van Gogh's "Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear." Are they equivalent, or of equal merit?

    Without some criteria, there are no excellent teachers, just opinions.

  5. No, no, teaching is not similar to art at all. It's not art, it has nothing to do with aesthetics. It's AN art, but you're right, I need to define that. What I mean by that is the dictionary meaning of "skill in performance acquired by experience, study, or observation" and "a special ready capacity that is hard to analyze or teach." Therefore it IS difficult to evaluate. But that doesn't matter. What matters is improving education. Data and metrics might be able to tell you some things students know and some they don't, but not why they don't know or aren't able to do what you think they should. The human brain is much more diverse than we think and people don't all learn the same way. Each teacher has a natural teaching style and that style might mesh with the learning style of certain students but not with others. One thing we could do is try to match up teacher and student learning styles, but again, that's difficult and principals feel they have enough scheduling headaches. But although there is a lot of professional literature out there on cognitive studies about how people learn, it's not taught or disseminated in a coordinated way. We need to figure out what strategies work with most students, so we can be as effective as possible, and also what alternative methods will reach the students who can't learn that way. That's where the emphasis on "reform" - which should just be called improvement - ought to be. It's the only way for teachers to become more effective for all students.