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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

At the end of a school year, there are so many measurements which could indicate that a teacher was "effective" -- graduation rates, grades, test scores -- quantifiable and ostensibly objective. Whether a teacher was effective must definitely be measured by how much his/her students' learning increased over a period of time, but it can not be the only measurement.

This year, I have a simple formula to categorize an effective teacher, based on a very raw maternal assessment, but perhaps that's the best kind. I know without a doubt that my son had a very effective first grade teacher at his Oakland public school this year. And I have the evidence. Here it is:

#1. The "data" overflows from two paper shopping bags and demonstrates his learning over the year. An array of writing shows how in the beginning of September, he couldn't really write a sentence, but by February, he was writing paragraphs. His math assessments show increasing mastery of skills and concepts. But most importantly, he can sort through the piles and recognize his own growth and talk about his process of learning. My takeaway: The student of an effective teacher has documentation of learning over a course of time and can explain it.

#2. A secondary pile of data took the form of creative and artistic projects that his teacher integrated into content areas, especially into their study of science. This spring, they did an intensive project on the seashore and used a variety of materials to create all kinds of creatures and representations. They wrote in a half a dozen genres (poetry, short stories, and expository) and conducted experiments. But in the bags there was more evidence of this learning: a cardboard loom with a yarn weaving, a batik, ink prints, handmade paper, watercolor paintings, handmade books, a paper mache globe, and a series of haikus. In summary: An effective teacher integrates the arts into content areas and gives students experiences with a range of media.

#3. All this concrete evidence is good, and then there was this, on the second day of summer vacation: "I'm kind of glad it's vacation and kind of not because I already miss my friends and I'm really going to miss Ms. ____." This statement was not an anomaly to how he spoke about his teacher this year. Consistently, his feelings about her were positive -- and I knew the feeling was mutual. As both a mother and teacher, this is an equally important measurement of effectiveness: An effective teacher likes her students and her students like her.

Big surprise! I knew all of this already! During my 12 years teaching, I worked to develop my capacity at ensuring that my students could cite their growth in learning, I integrated the arts and met different learning styles, and I always liked my kids. Yet this year, I came to value the qualities of an effective teacher in a different way than I have before because this was the first year that my son had a truly fantastic teacher and I felt constantly grateful. It's such a different (and scary) experience being on this side of the education equation -- the side where it's your baby that you're sending off to a stranger everyday.

Valuing Qualitative Data

The question that's burning in my mind at the end of this year is how we, as parents and teachers, can continue insisting that these other qualities be valued as much as testing data. They're hard to measure and tedious to gather the indicators, but we could start with inviting children to share their feelings and reflections more often.

Here's what my son just blurted out when I asked him why Ms. ____ is a good teacher:

"She's a good teacher because she takes us on really fun field trips, she had fun projects that we did, she sang the silly birthday song to me, she taught me a little bit of multiplication, she gave me challenging work, she taught me interesting stuff that I had never known before, she taught me how to read fluently, and she read me great stories."

If in one quick response a seven-year-old can cite engagement, kindness, and community building, rigor and high expectations, skill development and relevancy as indicators of an effective teacher, then imagine what kids might say if we gave more of them a chance to share their assessments of their teachers on a regular basis. That data would speak volumes.

And, I just discovered, such an endeavor is planned in the Memphis, Tennessee schools where student feedback will constitute 5 percent of a teacher's evaluation. If it's done well, I'll be a big fan.

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Patrick Groff's picture

I am a longtime teacher, and teacher educator. From that perspective, I do not find any of the conclusions by Ms. Aguilar to be convincing ones. I conclude this in regard to the impressive need at present for school officials to employ a reasonable and fair manner to determine which teachers deserve to be fired at the tend of each school year. At present, these are the instructors who work with childlren from lower-income families. To the other extreme, teachers who are lucky enough to be assigned to handle youngsters who live in upper-income homes only rarely suffer the above indignity. Until when this nefarious practice is ended, I find commentary such as that by Ms. Aguilar irrelevant at this point in time.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

[quote]I have sometimes had my 7th and 8th math students complete an anonymous survey using Survey Monkey. I tell them that I have been evaluating them all year, now it's their chance to evaluate me. We do it in the computer lab, where they are less likely to be silly or vindictive than they would at home, but I stand at the door where I cannot read what they are typing. I also assure them that whatever they put will not affect their grade! [/quote]

Kathy - I'm so glad to hear that you use Survey Monkey and that you solicit input/feedback from your students. That's so empowering for them and it's such great modeling for you to ask for that kind of feedback. I also asked my students to feedback all the time and it was so useful. Sometimes it was hard to read/hear, my students were so honest and didn't ever seem afraid of retribution - but so helpful. I made many adjustments based on their comments. Thanks for sharing!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

[quote]Elena, I enjoyed your article. We share a similar narrative. My daughter's second grade teacher this past year is awesome and my daughter loves her...but she's loved all of her teachers throughout her academic career and has been favored with great teachers so far.

My question for you is one of context. I agree that student feedback should be a component of the evaluation narrative, similar to what already happens in higher education. However, do you believe that feedback needs more context on what the learning goals were for the year? If students can cite and demonstrate their learning for the year in context of what they needed to accomplish seems more meaningful to me...otherwise students may reflect only on the halo moments where they enjoyed or disliked their learning the most. Would love your thoughts.[/quote]

Cameron - thank you for your thoughtful comment. There's so much for me to think about that actually, I think this issue will be my next post! I absolutely agree with you that feedback/evaluation needs to be in part based on what was learned/the goals for the class. There's too much danger that such evaluation could only become a popularity contest (already too much of a problem in high school). Thank you for raising these points. I need to think more and then write! And I'm so glad your daughter had a great teacher! It's such a relief for us parents.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

[quote]Great post, Elena. I think you do a great job of capturing the magic that happens when a teacher is doing a great job.

But what about when a teacher isn't doing a good job? When they give tests on Chapters 10-12, when the kids have only been taught up to Chapter 8? And then they tell them to do the best they can? Or when they lose completed assignments, only to find them the next semester and refuse to adjust the grade? Or play solitaire during class? Or tell children of a certain religion that it's a cult? My kids experienced all of these in high school, and the teachers were never called on it. If it didn't happen when the Principal visited once a year (if at all, as veteran teachers didn't get visits according to the contract) then it wouldn't be part of the evaluation.

I wish there was a way to communicate issues such as these without fear of retribution. We've seen teachers who were called on things take it out on the kids who were brave enough to speak up. My kids wouldn't risk that.

I wish all teachers were like your son's.[/quote]

Susan - thank you for your comments. You raise the big issue question these days, and one that I've thought a lot about. I think this will be the follow up, next post.

My son has not always had great teachers - last year (kindergarten) was really, really hard. However, in order to answer the question, "what do we do about the ineffective teachers?" we need to have a sharper, clear definition of what an effective teacher is - and so one way to address the issue is to make well-known (and come to agreement on) the qualities we want to see, that we must see in our kids' teachers. The more we can describe and make public the good, the more we can push back on the ineffective.

We have a long, long way to go until all of our kids have fantastic teachers who respect their intellects, cultures, backgrounds, religions, needs, etc - at times it's exhausting and demoralizing.

Thank you for your comment. I'm going to think about this more and respond in more detail.

Chris Miraglia's picture

Great article Elena. I borrowed an idea from Larry Ferlazzo who teaches in Sacramento. At the end of each unit I send a survey out to my students via Google Docs so they can evaluate my teaching. As I tell them, I receive an evaluation from my administrator once every two years, but what I value the most is their input. I emphasize the need for them to be as objective as possible in the evaluation process, but I also require them to evaluate their own effort. I ask questions that relate to my teaching strengths and weaknesses as well as which part of the unit was the most engaging. Most students are fairly honest, although when I shared this idea with other colleagues, they said there was no way they would have their students do the same. I truly think that through this process I have a better handle on what I need to improve on. I would also welcome the process of peer evaluation as I think that when done by a person who can constructively evaluate teaching, one only stand to gain.

kim's picture

I need to print this article and put it above my desk at school!!! AMEN!!! I teach Title Reading and I can't tell you how many times I've been to an intervention meeting where all the other teachers are discussing how this student should be in special education and are just not 'getting it'. I show them so much data from how that student started at a level D in reading and is now reading a level H 18 weeks later! A huge jump and a big growth. No, that student is not on grade level and much intervention is still needed, but that data is showing that the student is ABLE to grow and IS growing!!!! Wonderful article...can't wait to share it with my co-workers!

Yvonne Lemard's picture
Yvonne Lemard
Technology teacher from Jamaica

And if they love me and we have fun classes but they can not answer the concrete questions on the exam ...?

or what if they complain all year but ace the examinations!

Liz Droessler's picture
Liz Droessler
Sr. Administrator-Arts Ed

Elena - thank you for sharing your perspective. I support your evidence - particularly # 2. Moreover, I appreciate your response to Susan about ineffective teachers.

While it does not include a student input option, our state (NC) has adopted a new teacher evaluation instrument that has great potential because it is designed as a growth model. The categories include "developing" "proficient" "accomplished" and "distinguished." Check out page 5 of http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/profdev/training/teacher/teacher-eva...
where the new vision of teaching is identified. Though not explicitly identified, the arts fit naturally into this model. The arts teachers in our district do not seem to have much difficulty demonstrating their effectiveness through artifacts. As teachers and administrators become more familiar with the details of the rubric, I hope classroom (non-arts) teachers will see they can engage a variety of learners through arts integration.

Thank you for sharing - I've followed your blog for several weeks but just discovered how to post a comment.

Corah's picture

My state recently just passed a teacher evaluation that uses the state standardized test. Now I teach 4th grade where we have the standardized test, but what about those grades where they don't? How are those teachers going to be evaluated? Will it be an equitable evaluation to mine? Also on my mind is how comparative it will be. I work in an urban district, ~70% of the students in my school are on free lunch. With that comes a whole host of problems, hunger, crime, language issues, special needs, abuse, homelessness... as a teacher am I to be held responsible when my class of hungry, sleep deprived, non English speaking students don't improve as much or do as well as the wealthy suburban districts? I know I've put in all I can but I should not be held responsible for their home life failings.

Lettecia Kratz's picture
Lettecia Kratz
English Language Acquisition teacher, K-8 in Denver, CO

And the brain research supports this too. If the student perceives that the teacher likes them, they are more engaged and learn far better. We also know this is true with metacognitive strategies such as tracking progress over time in a way that the students themselves understand and can articulate their own grown. And the arts integration piece is similar. The more connections we make while learning something, and the more parts of the brain we engage, the deeper our understanding and the longer our memory of it. For more info see Joann Deak's work, or the Gurian Institute.

Also, fyi Denver Public Schools is working on a new teacher evaluation structure that includes student perception, and many other indicators. My school is piloting it this year so I'll let you know what I find out about its implementation!

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