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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.

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