assessment, accountability, and other important stuff

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Labor Day is one of those times each year when memories of my father come flooding back.  Dad was a high school teacher for forty years from the late 1950s until the late 1990s.   Labor Day, signaling the end of summer and the beginning of each new school year, was a major event for our entire family that I recall fondly.  These last few years, however, my thoughts have turned to how he would have fared in this era of high-stakes testing, school accountability, and teacher effectiveness.

I have no doubts about the impact that he had on his students.  Growing up, when we went to a shopping mall, restaurant, or ball game it was the exception when we did not run into one of his former students with thanks and a story to share.  He mentored students long after they graduated from high school, and when I got my first teaching job in 1981, it was one of my father’s first students who became my colleague and mentor.  And when Dad passed away in 2009 (fittingly at the end of June), the bureau drawer packed with notes on the back of yearbook photos, cards, poems, drawings, and lengthy letters from students, parents, and former students made it clear that he had a tremendous impact on many, many lives.

But, how would that translate into a value-added score, median growth percentile, and an overall effectiveness rating?

As a starting point, in general, he did not teach the top mathematics students.  Among the titles of the courses he was assigned over the years were Algebra 1C and variations on the theme mathematics for everyday life.  As one of his students from the early 1970s recalled 30 years later in a 2008 blog post:

I had Mr. Dee for a Senior Math class called, “Trig and Topics in Algebra”.  This class was mainly for college bound kids who were good in humanities, but not so hot in Math.  Kids who were good in Math took Calculus in Senior year… I am terrible at math.  I do remember learning Sign, Co Sign, and Tangent (or is is [sic] “sine”??) in Mr. Dee’s class, but I couldn’t tell you any more than that.  I guess that stuff is used in engineering, but I’ve never used it since I left high school.

The blogger recalls and describes many vivid details from the class, but of course, none of them involve the teaching or learning of mathematics.  This led him in 2008 to this observation,

Even though I hate math, and even though in 1972 I thought Mr. Dee was very cool, TODAY as a 53-year-old it bothers me that he really didn’t do his job.  Maybe he should have been a teen counselor or something.  Maybe he SHOULD have had an “issues” show on radio or television.  He was a cool guy but I learned almost nothing in his class.

In response to that blog, another former student from the same era comments

Mr. D was a very kind teacher who loved to tell a joke…and teach about life…when he did teach math he did teach math…he was always there for the student….he always listened….always laughed and always manage [sic] to teach that there was a lesson in life besides math…,friendship….

All of which leads to the question that I am asking today, what was his job as a teacher and did he do it effectively?  I know that he could teach children mathematics and have seen firsthand evidence that he did so successfully. I know that his teaching changed as the world, education, and the requirements of the job changed dramatically over the years from his first teaching assignment in the late 1950s at a private boys school with some classes of 60+ students enrolled in what we would now call a career-technical program (a full seven years before he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1965), to his first public school position and the classes referenced above in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to the 1980s when he was upset each week when students returned from the resource room with perfect scores on tests he prepared, but were unable to answer a single question in class, to June 1998 and the advent of test-based accountability, when he finally left that very same classroom he entered 30 years before.

However, I also know that across all of those years, mathematics, basketball, and driving were simply the vehicles through which he taught children.

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When I think back to my own high school days, it is not the content that I remember, not even the content from advanced placement classes.  I remember nothing about the Latin grammar and structure of the Aeneid, but I will never forget Mr. Jameson dramatically explaining that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned; and the many times he stood at the front of the class, putter in hand, simulating a smooth stroke, and telling us that Form Follows Function.  Although I was a high school mathematics teacher and am known by some as a psychometrician, I remember next to nothing of the calculus I learned in high school and could not learn in college (Do psychometricians need to understand calculus?).  However, I do remember Mr. Durante’s warnings to us throughout junior and senior year in high school to be prepared for the sharks out there that we would encounter throughout our lives.  Even from graduate school, the single lesson from my master’s program that has had the most lasting impact on me and my career was the class that my advisor set aside the syllabus and the readings for the week to spend the entire evening providing us with a detailed outline and examples on how to write a research paper.

In addition to the life lessons and life skills discussed above, there are also relevant cognitive skills not necessarily reflected in students’ test scores that are a central focus of effective teaching.  In a 2012 op ed piece in the Hartford Courant, my colleague Steve Stemler, an associate professor of psychology at Wesleyan University, begins by asking readers to Think about the best teacher you ever had.  What is it that made him or her great?  In his response he makes the following observation:

Sure, students should be mastering content. Nobody disputes that. But aside from a few basics, most content knowledge in a field of study changes over time as thinking evolves and research emerges. What students really need to develop is resourcefulness, creativity, a passion for learning and the skills for learning how to learn, among other things.

As the 2015-2016 school year starts, we are regrouping from the most recent attempts to reform teacher evaluation.  The last time down this path we added student outcomes (i.e., test scores) to the traditional review of inputs (i.e., classroom observations).  Accepting that student outcomes should be part of the teacher evaluation equation, let’s begin this time by trying to identify, account for, and balance all of the critical student outcomes that define effective teaching.

It won’t be easy to find the proper balance between fleeting content knowledge and skills that can be measured on an end-of-course test and those enduring lessons that may be so much more important in the long run.  It won’t be easy to come up with a single, simple metric on which to rank order teachers and set effectiveness level cut scores.

I am confident, however, that we will end up in a good place as long as we start the conversation on effective teaching and teacher effectiveness with questions as long as we start the conversation with

Think about the best teacher you ever had.  What is it that made him or her great?

[photo and drawing are from the collection of memories he left behind. sources unknown]

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