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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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Kathy Traylor's picture
Kathy Traylor
Teacher, seventh grade math

I know I'm effective when the teachers above me say, "I can tell which students you've taught, they are well-prepared for the next level of math." The parents may thank me, the students may grumble about the homework and weekly projects, but the higher-level teachers have a real grasp of whether I'm doing my job, i.e., am I getting students to understand and apply the math concepts? How can this be translated into a "pay for performance" structure? That's a difficult question.

Linda's picture

I really enjoyed reading this post. We get so caught up and focused on scores and grades that we forget about some of the things that make a teacher great. Part of our job is teaching kids to be good people, being good role models, teaching them to have fun, and loving them. I think that one of the best ways to judge a teacher is to ask the students what they thought of the teacher. We assess the kids all of the time, why not have the kids assess us. I believe that giving students a survey at the end of the year to allow them to rate you and give you tips is a great way to become a better teacher.

Susan's picture

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.

Cameron @EDUCTO's picture

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.

Kathy Traylor's picture
Kathy Traylor
Teacher, seventh grade math

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!

If student surveys are used as part of pay for performance evaluation, they will have to be very carefully constructed so as to have students focus on what they learned and how they learned it, rather than if the teacher gave easy homework or easy A's or tasty treats or fun-but-meaningless projects.

BTW, Some of the most valuable feedback I got from surveys was that they liked solving problems and working though example problems in groups rather than individually. Since then, I have always had tables, rather than individual desks, in my classroom, to encourage students to work together.

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