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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Good Teachers Do What?

News for teachers! It's taking $45 million, scores of social scientists, and 3,000 teachers over two years to find "new" ways of distinguishing good teachers from bad. Their preliminary research findings follow: "Teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their charges learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year, as measured by gains on standardized test scores." (Sam Dillon, "What Works In the Classroom? Ask the Students," The New York Times, December 10 2010)

The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, part of the $335 million Gates Foundation effort to overhaul the personnel systems in schools. 

Students involved in the research have filled out confidential questionnaires developed by Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard researcher who has been refining student surveys for more than a decade. The survey attempts to define the learning environment that their teachers create. After comparing the students’ ratings with teachers’ value-added scores, researchers have concluded that there is quite a bit of agreement.

1. Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement, “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” tended to be led by teachers with high value-added scores, the report said.

2. The same was true for teachers whose students agreed with the statements, “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” and, “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class.” 

"Few of the nation’s 15,000 public school districts systematically question students about their classroom experiences, in contrast to American colleges, many of which collect annual student evaluations to improve instruction," Dr. Ferguson noted.

“Kids know effective teaching when they experience it,” Ferguson said. “As a nation, we’ve wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts.”

Now some 20 states are overhauling their evaluation systems, and many policymakers involved in those efforts have been asking the Gates Foundation for suggestions on what measures of teacher effectiveness to use, said Vicki L. Phillips, a director of education at the foundation. (Sam Dillon, "What Works In the Classroom? Ask the Students," The New York Times, December 10 2010)
One notable early finding, Ms. Phillips said, is that teachers who incessantly drill their students to prepare for standardized tests (so called "drill and kill") tend to have lower value-added learning gains than those who simply work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics.

Teachers whose students agreed with the statement, “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test,” tended to make smaller gains on those exams than other teachers.

The "New" Findings

And this is "new"? As a high school teacher, I remember initial struggles with various methods of instruction and problems with crowd control. Fresh from college and new to the classroom, I quickly found a few "bad apple" students can annoy a teacher and completely disrupt the learning environment, making it impossible to accomplish anything in the classroom. College had not prepared me for the initial deluge of antics and booby traps set by jokers and those intent on mayhem.

With improved preparation and the fear of facing a bad administrative evaluation, I quickly adapted to my role as a classroom teacher and a classroom disciplinarian. In fact, when I thought about my best teachers in high school, I came to the conclusion that those who demanded attention and expected a high level of achievement ranked highest in my memory. The challenge, for me, became how to construct lessons that not only kept students busy and attentive, but also made them use critical thinking skills.

I found that when students have a personal stake in their errors, they tend to seek more answers and to take pride in correcting their own work. Many teachers do not use theory to complement content. Instead, they take it for granted that students will stumble upon the threads that hold subject matter together. It's quite possible that most teachers choose not to confront higher level learning processes themselves. Maybe they don't even know how. How can these instructors teach effectively until THEY process HOW BEST to teach the lesson?

Nothing much "clicks" in a strictly fact-based curriculum. "Busy work" is time consuming and hollow, but busy, inquisitive thinking is time well spent. A student who reasons will adapt to many different new and challenging situations while widening his understanding of a subject. Isolated facts do not meld together and tend to flow through the collective sieve of the brain in greater and greater numbers as distance from their acquisition increases.

My long-held contention is that to find out what is going on in the classrooms of any school, a person should ask the students. Even if the students have difficulty articulating the differences between "good" teaching and "bad" teaching, they understand the learning (wealth of or lack of ) taking place in the classroom. I urge one caution about believing student judgment: for many students, their best teachers become apparent only after they mature.

I hope Mr. Gates finds the project successful in overhauling personnel systems. I think I might have saved the study a million or two if I would have gotten a call from Gates upfront. You see, the students exceed all teacher's expectations when the teacher structures opportunities that both engage people and challenge them with new learning experiences. "No, we're not having study hall today. Yes, we are doing something. And, you need to listen because you may miss something important."

"The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate 'apparently ordinary' people to unusual effort.  The tough problem is not in identifying winners:  it is in making winners out of ordinary people."  ~K. Patricia Cross


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