Friday, November 16, 2012

Teacher Quality: Investing in What Matters

By Arthur L. Costa, Robert J. Garmston, and Diane P. Zimmerman

Spurred by awards of federal funding under the Race to the Top competition, many states are adopting teacher-evaluation systems with student achievement as the ultimate goal. This drive to create robust evaluation systems places far too much emphasis on inspecting and testing. A system of quality control founded on the belief that inspection and multiple-choice tests are valid measures of effectiveness is flawed. The investment in external measures hides our most valuable assets—the cognitive resources of teachers. Too often, standards are the basis for inspection, with minimal dialogue and little attention to teachers' intellect, wisdom, intuition, and creativity.

Quality matters. How we assess it is important. However, the idea that the complex processes of teaching can be easily inspected or measured by answers on a bubble test is erroneous. As educators, we are puzzled that more people are not voicing concerns about this trend toward an oversimplified system of quality control. A few in the field have become outspoken and urge a more thoughtful approach. Policymakers ought to heed the collective wisdom of these thought leaders.

Notably, Diane Ravitch changed her direction and advice, which was pro-standards, when the emphasis moved toward an obsession with test scores. Charlotte Danielson, a leading expert on research-based frameworks for instruction, cautions against simplistic "drive by" observation models. She advises that even after training, "most observers require multiple opportunities to practice using [her] framework effectively and to calibrate their judgments with others." Despite her cautions, far too many policymakers advocate for an inspector's toolbox full of rubrics and a singular focus on making inspections better.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Thomas Kane, a Harvard University professor and the director of the Gates Center for Policy Research, and Stanford University professor Linda Darling Hammond debate the use of tests for teacher evaluation. Kane, a proponent of the value-added system of measuring gains and evaluating teacher quality with tests, admits that "student-achievement gains are imperfect measures," and then justifies his position by saying that "the same is true for all measures."
"When external evaluators treat a prescribed map as complete and do not engage in deep and meaningful conversations, they lose sight of the fact that educators have vast storehouses of tacit knowledge."

Darling-Hammond cites the wide variation in test scores, pointing out the many variables that impact test scores, including one of the most startling: summer vacations. Researchers at John Hopkins University found that summer vacations make a large difference in the variation in test scores. After the three-month vacation, upper-middle-class students show the most gains in test points, while students from low-income families show the most gains across a school year. That the enriched summers of upper-middle-class students could make so much difference in test scores should shake anyone's faith in these reductionist measures of teacher quality.

How have we ignored the years of inner wisdom developed from practice, from teachers' cognitive capital? Within teachers' repertoire, there is layered expertise including, but not limited to: knowledge of content, pedagogy, child development, learning styles, culture, classroom management, and, importantly, knowledge of self. More often than not, teachers have valid reasons for why they might deviate from a prescription. When being assessed, however, they are seldom asked, nor do they proffer explanations.

When external evaluators treat a prescribed map as complete and do not engage in deep and meaningful conversations about the larger territory of teaching and learning, they lose sight of the fact that educators have vast storehouses of tacit knowledge based on experience.

The often-cited research on adult learning by Norman Sprinthall and Lois Thies-Sprinthall demonstrated that teachers with higher conceptual levels are more adaptive and flexible in their teaching styles. They act in accordance with a disciplined commitment to human values and produce higher-achieving students who are more cooperative and involved in their work. More recently, Daniel Pink, the author of the popular book Drive, and the researchers Carol Dweck and Albert Bandura have argued that an emphasis on external criteria over which professionals have no control oversimplifies and negates the complex decisions that are the nexus of professional learning.

In our years of coaching teachers and training future coaches, we have learned that teachers whose schools support cognitive engagement and growth have the advantage when it comes to instructional quality. With regular coaching, teachers develop a strong internal sense of control or efficacy through reflecting on their classroom decisions. When teachers are reflective, flexible, and adaptive, students learn and professional knowledge expands.

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