Archive for March, 2011

Measuring teacher quality and adding value

March 15, 2011

What makes a good teacher?  I remember as a kid looking forward to having this teacher or dreading that one.  I remember sitting in a high school math class bored beyond belief and writing down the words to Another Brick in the Wall so I looked like I was taking notes but could bask in the irony of the subversion.  I estimate that 60% of my elementary teachers were “good teachers” and the number just went down from there until my freshman year in college. What was my methodology?

Let me reveal my methodology by comparing my first and second grade teachers.


My first grade teacher saw me as an instigator at nap time (I actually got “needs improvement” on my report card for nap time) and I recall having to stand in the trashcan because the other corners were full of kids I had caused to act out some how.  My second grade teacher saw me as a leader and gave me very important jobs to do like making sure the kick ball came in from recess and stocking the chalk tray.


My first grade teacher made wrong assumptions about me and, because I am verbal assumed I was a reader.  I was placed in the high reading group when I should have been in the middle or low one.  I developed all sorts of strategies for not showing my inabilities to read like the other kids and still don’t think of myself as a reader.  My second grade teacher asked what we were all interested in and the very next day had stacks and stacks of books all around the room.  She told us where our stack was and that we should pick out books from the stack that we think are just a little too easy and just a little too hard.  We took the easy ones home to keep until we finished them (no check out and return date like the library) and she listened to each of us read the ones that were a little too hard.  She then paired us up as reading buddies.  We changed around every now and then as she constantly moved through the room listening to us read and asking us questions.


My first grade teacher gave up helping me improve my handwriting.  It turns out she had no standards for performance.  Changing out her bulletin board was more important than figuring out that I am somewhat ambidextrous and should have probably tried writing with my left hand.  When I am writing something for an elementary kid to read, I do it with my left hand. It’s more time consuming but more legible.  I figured that out whenI became an aunt.  My second grade teacher had high standards and was not someone I wanted to disappoint.  When I learned I was going to have her for second grade, I began studying the encyclopedia and taking notes in a college ruled spiral notebook.  No lie.


Other than nap time and hand writing, I don’t remember much from first grade except that we had spelling tests each week.  I don’t think my first grade teacher was still at the school the next year and I am certain she was not there when my younger brother was in first grade.


I remember my second grade teacher reading books to us and telling us stories.  I remember doing science experiments and having to change our teams in kick ball to make sure everyone had a chance to play with everyone.
What would Charlotte Danielson say about these two teachers?  My second grade teacher was definitely better at “Domain 1: Planning and Preparation”.  She also nailed Danielson’s other three domains – The Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities.


Would you get the same story if you asked another student who had both teachers, even in the same year?  Other students may have felt like Mrs. Milton (second grade) was too terse or spent too much time reading to kids.  Other students may have liked the leveled reading groups in first grade.  There are different things different kids like and don’t like, no doubt.


What about “teacher quality” and “value added” can be objective and what is inherently subjective?  Did both of these teachers add value to my life or not?


I am going to share this blog post with a media specialist in my school division who was in my first and second grade classes.  Really.  I am going to ask her to respond in a comment to this post, indicating whether or not she has any of the same memories and what she thinks now some 39ish years later.  Will we agree on “teacher quality”? How will she describe the “value added”?  We’ll see!

Evaluating teachers and quarterbacks

March 13, 2011

As a kid, I sort of cracked the code for the quarterback rating formula when I was in 4th grade or so.  If you’re interested in this story, you can check out my Learning a Hobby post.  I also had what I considered to be good and bad teachers throughout my school career.  I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what makes teachers “good,” but I haven’t thought of this in terms of a formula.  Until now.

Here’s a graphic from an article in the New York Times (login to a free account is required):

This is interesting to me.  How do you measure and assign a value to “student characteristics”? Does a poor black kid living with his grandmother who makes him do his homework and be respectful to his elders count higher or lower than a kid who has two professional parents who will always side with their son because he, like them, is entitled to the best in life?  How do you measure “true total school effect”?  What is the “student error term”?  Subscripts, superscripts, Greek letters as variables and summations.  I don’t buy it.

Here’s how the NFL rates passers (per Wikipedia):

where mm(x) = max(0,min(x,2.375))


It’s not the subscripts, superscripts, Greek letters, and mathematical operations that make these two formulas fundamentally different, it’s the nature of the “data” and the interrelationships between the values that make one formula comprehensible and the other not for me.

In a 16 game regular season, an NFL quarterback may have a few passes where there is a difference of opinion as to whether it was caught or incomplete or intercepted.  A few touchdowns may be called back because of a penalty or some other factor.  But, by and large, there is wide acceptance to what it means to complete a pass, to attempt a pass, to intercept a pass, or to score a touch down.  There is an accepted method for measuring the distance gained when a pass is completed.  The commisioner, owners, players, coaches, referees, announcers, and fans share in this body of knowledge and pretty much accept the outcome when the final decision comes down.

Teaching and learning is not this calculable.  What works for one student may not work for another.  Not all kids have the same resources at home or at school.  Not all teachers have the same level of support from their principals.  Not all principals have access to a supportive central office or others who can help improve learning in their school.  Not all PTOs can raise the same dollar amounts.  Not all school libraries are powerful centers for meaning making.

Another thing that I find amazing in all of this is the notion of winning or losing a game regardless of how well the quarterback rated.  Having a perfect quarterback rating for a game does not guarantee victory, which is what really counts in the end.  Just ask Chad Pennington and Bobby Hebert – they both had perfect games according to the formula but walked away losers.  And, the highest rated quarterback doesn’t always make it to the playoffs.  How will this play out for our teacher rating formulas?

On the future of wars and schools

March 6, 2011

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  Albert Einstein (1947)

Ask a typical student (if there is such a thing as one) in a typical school (if there is such a thing as one) in my pretty typical school division (Albemarle) in a pretty typical state (Virginia) today what they think of school and you will likely get an answer like, “It’s ok.”  Push them – “Is it as good as it could be?” – and they will say, “No.”  “What would make it better?” and they will describe their desire to learn things that matter beyond the test TOGETHER and without coercion.  They don’t want to have to keep up with thick homework packets, they don’t want to copy notes down from the board (“Can’t she just give us a PowerPoint or something?”) and they don’t want to solve the same problem 35 times with just different numbers.  They want to learn things that matter beyond the test TOGETHER and without coercion.

“So, if you could pick what you learned about in school, what would you pick?”  And the 13 year old young man responded, “You see, I am really in to music so I would like to learn more about it.  But she (motioning to the young lady beside him) is really in to graphic novels, so she would like to learn more about them.  But we come here (to school) and we have to learn about stuff just because the state or somebody says we do and it’s going to be on some test.”

“Do you think it’s possible for a teacher to teach you what’s going to be in the test through music?”  And the 13 year old young man responded, “Maybe in some classes, but I don’t think my teachers have time.  And, I don’t think they know enough about music.  I mean, my history teacher could let us listen to music from the olden days we are studying and that would be better than just reading about it and filling out worksheets and practice multiple choice tests.”

“So, you don’t think your teachers are very smart or creative”?  “That’s not what I am saying.  My teachers are smart and they work really hard, there’s just this test we have to take.”  “What do you think school was like before these tests?”  “I don’t know, my mom said she had homework, too, she just did it out of a textbook and not packets she had to keep in a binder.  They didn’t have the Internet, either.”

What was school like BEFORE these tests?  Did kids get to choose what they learned and how they learned it?  Were authentic performances of mastery commonplace and open to the public?  Were kids grouped by age or interests?  How were schools organized?  How were teachers assigned to groups of kids?  How did teachers work together?  How were teachers evaluated?  How did they get better?  Did all kids learn what they needed to in order to succeed in life?  Did kids learn to learn?

What will schools be like AFTER these tests?  Will schools even exist?  Will they be giving better tests?  Will they be organized differently OR at all?

What was the curriculum like in a one-room school house?  Was it provided by the government or was it governed by the teacher and the community?  Was it based on producing right answers or learning to read, write, compute, and think?  Was the one-room school house education 1.0?

What version are we in right now?  What happens when a new version is not as user friendly or as powerful as the one before?  What will the next version be like?