How do you know when a teacher is doing a good job? Are schools doing enough to insure that we have effective teachers and that we're supporting them? These questions are on the table in school districts nationwide as debates over teacher evaluation policies heat up. Most Americans say they have confidence in public school teachers, but most also think teacher preparation programs need more rigorous entrance requirements, and about half want student test scores counted as part of a teacher's job evaluation.
In fact, studies of parents, teachers, principals, students and the broader public -- research conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Kettering Foundation, Ed Sector and other independent groups -- suggest it's time for a more inclusive and nuanced conversation about what good teaching is and how we judge, nurture and support it.
Nearly everyone has had at least one or two spectacular teachers along the way. Most of us can also think of a teacher or two who was monotonous and uninspiring, maybe even callous and cold-hearted. But the crux of the teacher quality debate today is whether we have a teaching corps that successfully helps students develop the skills and habits of mind to become educated, competent adults -- adults who can build careers and fulfilling lives, adults who will be good neighbors and citizens.
So, what really counts in teaching? What are the best practices? What kind of training and support will actually produce the teaching corps our kids deserve?
Unfortunately, the research isn't as clear as you might think. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Jal Mehta suggests that we don't actually have a well-developed understanding of how to train, evaluate and support effective teaching. He believes the field lacks a "widely agreed-upon knowledge base." Moreover, he points out that " training is brief" compared to other professions, and "the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields."
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation must have reached much the same conclusion when it launched a multi-year project videotaping thousands of classroom teachers in action to "better understand what great teaching looks like, and the types of measures that can provide a fair assessment of teaching aimed at helping every teacher be their best."
Sometimes the political debate seems to center almost exclusively on the idea of judging teachers based on student test scores. Teacher surveys show that most see a place for standardized testing in education, but most also consider student engagement in class a better measure of their own performance. An analysis by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation suggests that most parents see low test scores as a red flag that something is wrong, but many also question whether good test scores by themselves actually show that children are learning and thriving.
What other kinds of questions should we include in teacher effectiveness discussions? Here are some nominees:
So much of today's teacher quality discussion centers on finding reliable ways to measure how effective a teacher is in teaching skills and how to apply those measures to teachers across the board. Given our limited understanding of the art and science of teaching, this is work that needs to be done.
But in our drive to delineate what we mean by "effective" teaching and to hold schools and teachers accountable, we shouldn't overlook the human dimensions of the job. They may not be as easy to measure, but that doesn't mean they don't matter to kids and schools.