Smart Teacher? Hard Teacher? Passionate Teacher?

Apr 26, 2013 | posted by Jason LaTurner, Research Associate, Brenda Arellano, Research Associate & Shana Shaw, Research Specialist, SEDL

Think about your favorite teacher. Who inspired you? From whom did you learn the most? We asked this question at a SXSWedu presentation this spring. Audience members shouted out things like, “I learned a lot”, “opened my eyes”, “allowed me to soar,” and “colored outside lines.” They also described their favorite teachers with words like accepting, persistent, passionate, empowering, good classroom management, content experts, accountability, and fun.

Academics, politicians, reformers, and local and state education agencies have attempted to measure teacher quality, and some have even instituted policies based on these measurements. Although the statistical models used to gauge teacher quality have increased in sophistication and precision, they are still in the early stages of development, as are the processes to obtain quality data links between students and teachers. Therefore, we should take a cautious approach to the technical and practical outcomes produced by statistical models designed to gauge teacher effectiveness. Additionally, we should recognize that not all teachers can be assessed by these methods.

The discussion on teacher appraisal is heated because states and districts are linking student test scores to teacher performance and using the data to make decisions on pay, promotion, and retention of teachers. These high-stakes consequences can limit useful conversations on the pros and cons of these tools and how they could best be used in practice. There is real pressure, because of legislation in many states and new federal funding streams like Race to the Top, for states and districts to quickly develop and implement appraisal systems that measure teacher effectiveness. The notion that teachers should be held at least partly responsible for how their students achieve makes sense, but what is the best way to do this?

At SEDL we work with education leaders to outline the benefits and costs associated with implementing various measures of teacher quality as well as the methodological/data requirements and the policy implications of each model.*  Through our efforts, we have found that a critical and often neglected first step is to establish a definition of “teacher quality.” How can you assess something as complex as teaching if you have not defined what you should measure? There are three categories in which teacher quality is measured, including (1) teacher qualifications (2) teaching quality and (3) teacher effectiveness.  Each category is measured in numerous ways that vary in complexity and validity.

Teacher qualifications such as degree, certification, and content knowledge are all aspects of “quality” that are possible to measure but, problematically, are assessed before a teacher has ever entered the classroom. These criteria are the ‘highly-qualified teacher” definition that originated from the No Child Left Behind legislation enacted in 2001. Additionally, these criteria do not guarantee good performance or, more importantly, demonstrate whether or not students are learning.

If we look at teaching quality, or the quality of the act of teaching, we can begin to see how well the teacher can actually teach. Teaching quality is typically measured by observations – usually conducted by a principal – that include a feedback loop which allows teachers to not only find out how well they are teaching but also provides opportunities for them to improve their practice. This method is widely used and was recently linked to student learning and growth in the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study. Some of the challenges with observations are that they can be expensive and time consuming, and principals aren’t always able or willing to give differentiated, finely-grained feedback.  As a result, nearly all teachers receive a satisfactory evaluation.  In the last few years, however, many districts and states have begun to implement more rigorous observation tools to produce meaningful conversations around teaching practices.

Recently, a number of measures have been used by states and districts to help determine the level of teaching effectiveness, which is generally defined as the amount of student learning that results from teaching.  Teacher effectiveness is measured in a number of ways including: how much students’ scores change on standardized tests, whether teachers help students meet  learning objectives, and students’ perception of teachers.  If and how we should measure teacher effectiveness using these methods has generated controversy from varied sources, including educators, politicians, reformers, academics and the media.  Being mindful of these opinions, we should remember that the lack of a useful and effective teacher appraisal system may effect students, especially those who have the most acute need for quality teaching to help bridge achievement gaps.

While the use of these methods for the purpose of appraising teachers is relatively new to the field of education, they hold promise as tools that can shift the focus from the teacher to those they are teaching. Ideally, education leaders and policy makers will develop systems that both provide useful feedback to teachers and result in more students learning.  While we might not ever be able to scientifically measure whether a teacher is “fun,” “passionate,” or “colors outside the lines,” we should still employ the best methods available to examine indicators of teaching quality that have the highest association with student outcomes. If our goal is to ensure that all students have access to high-quality teachers, it is important to consider both the practical implications and the unintended consequences of the policies we create and the methods we employ to measure teacher effectiveness.

About SEDL
SEDL is a private, nonprofit education research, development and dissemination organization based in Austin Texas. SEDL’s mission is to strengthen the connections among research, policy, and practice in order to improve outcomes for all learners.

*Work done by our colleagues at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders and particularly by Laura Goe have been exemplars for us in this process.

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