Wednesday, April 13, 2011

AV#74B - Quality of teachers and "data-driven instruction"

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                        Jan. 4, 2011

#74 B - Quality of teachers and “data-driven instruction”
You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for  
Billy Joel

“As data systems and the tools to analyze them become more ubiquitous, experts say we will need more research into how much and what kind of data (is) most helpful to teachers trying to improve their classroom instruction. (Professor Ryan) Baker envisions within a generation pre-service teachers will study data analysis as a matter of course, and researchers will develop easier-to-use tools to help them compare their own students’ behavior and performance to models based on hundreds of thousands of similar students.” (“‘Data Mining’ Gains Traction in Education,” Sara D. Sparks, Education Week on line, Dec. 13, 2010)

Do we really think good teachers must also be experts in data-gathering?  Some now speak as if our great teachers must be born accountants, putting on the green-eyeshade to analyze all the data after testing students every six weeks, pulling out key stats and numbers to “make mid-course corrections.”  We hear how effective Uncommon Schools and others have become with their “data-driven instructional model.” (See Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction by Uncommon School’s managing director Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.)  Teach for America’s Steve Farr has found that one of six key characteristics of their “most effective corps members” is that they “constantly monitor their students’ progress and adjust course as needed” (“The Six Habits of Highly Effective Teachers,” Philanthropy Magazine, Spring 2010).  Who can argue with this trend, if it helps students make huge gains in their achievement?

But stop for a minute.  Think of the teachers who meant the most to you.  Do you think one of them was “driven by data”? Weren’t they driven, in fact, by a hard-to-quantify mix of love of their subject, love of sharing that passion with students, and a deep care for the kids in the classes and their progress?  Aren’t these the qualities we look for when recruiting sharp young men and women to teach in our public schools—especially to work with low-income students who need many of our best new teachers?

And yet it sounds as if being “driven” by love and passion and care—qualities that might be especially critical to sustain one in the often emotionally exhausting struggle to serve at-risk students, from so many families at-risk—are quaint.  No, we are told, data will “drive” us.  The alpha and the omega.

If a 20-year-old is thinking of teaching and is given “a short, visionary tour circa 2025 (of) the central role that data have come to play in American K-12 education” (see “Education Data in 2025,” by Checker Finn, Education Next, Winter 2010), it will look and sound cold: “Software automatically analyzes the resulting information to create a data dashboard for each pupil… an artificial intelligence program periodically ‘sifts’ each students’ cumulating education record … multiple teacher web sites … include most everything a teacher might need….”  Is this a job description appealing to that bright college junior who hopes to share his or her love of literature, history, science, and math?
Teachers are strange

Let me go further: name your favorite teacher.  Was he or she exactly normal? 

No, with apologies to Jim Morrison, teachers are strange.  I say this nicely. Really!  Hey, some of my best friends are teachers!  I taught 18 years.  When we look in the mirror we have to admit: a good many of us in this profession—maybe even some of the best—are, well, unusual.  A little bizarre.  

How else to describe my English teacher, Mr. Lambert, who returned our first papers riddled with 5-10 holes, after he had cut out each “very” in our essays?  (“Avoid the use of qualifiers,” reminder #8 from Strunk and White.)  Who does this sort of thing!  But 45 years later, we still value that lesson: to make every word count.  For many of us, it is the Mr. Lamberts—smart, demanding, kind—and a bit wacky—who made a difference.

Being passionate matters.  To be a fan—O.K., a fanatic—about the subject (for Mr. Lambert, above all, it was Thoreau), is part of the enthusiasm that makes teachers effective.  It has brought us “those looks” from students: what is wrong with this man!  (But often too with a smile, a sudden role reversal—we are part child to our more “adult” students, we amuse them; they condescend to endure our oddities, perhaps they even enjoy them.)  No normal human being cares about where commas go like this, or can be so thrilled at “a beautiful sentence”; nobody talks about characters in a novel as if they are close friends, or gets so animated—has he lost his mind too?—reading aloud that scene from “A Tell-Tale Heart.” Weird, really.

If I'm crazy then it's true
That it's all because of you
And you wouldn’t want me any other way

Only 47% of Colorado students in grades 5, 8, and 10 were proficient in science in 2010.

Will this change with experts in data gathering, or rather with someone who is bit cracked in how he gathers “creepy crawlies” when out for a walk—and who can share that passion in a way that can have a life-long impact on a 9-year-old?  A friend John, in his late 60’s, a long-time science teacher and school head in England—continues to bring in worms, spiders, and birds nests to the teachers in his alternative licensure program and to his classes at the University of Colorado at Denver, just as he did with the boys and girls in his English classrooms over 45 years ago.  John is writing a book about his life in education that will make you, too, wonder at a man still carrying the amber stone he found as a boy on the Larrigan beach in Cornwall, who took students outside to find mealworms for their caterpillars, who sees ammonite fossils where you and I see rocks. 

You, too, should go for a walk with John and his wife, a fourth grade teacher.  They stop and thrill at the oddest details—and fill up a bottle with insects, the knapsack with stones.  To excite kids with “hands-on” science, aren’t these the “lunatics” we’re looking for?

I said take me as I am
Cause you might enjoy some madness for a while

A graduating senior wrote me a note recalling her arrival six years before in middle school.  “Many stories had been told about the 7th and 8th grade teachers: Mr. Halasz, the eccentric science teacher….” (She nailed the rest of us quite well too!)  When Chris Halasz was my colleague across the hall, students often arrived from science class still excited about their experiments, laughing, thrilled at their discoveries ….Part of his success, I am sure, was how well he played his “eccentric” card.

Students in Advanced Placement English classes claim to read little more than SparkNotes.

A friend Jack, with whom I taught an AP English class at a girls' boarding school, saw more in a line of Frost than I saw in the entire poem. Preparing for classes together, I was jealous of his wide reading and knowledge.  He made connections with other disciplines he also taught at times during his career—art, architecture, economics—that were engaging, not esoteric.  I am sure it was his love of Don Quixote that enabled him to take juniors and seniors so deeply into that text.  There may have been a touch of Quixote’s madness in how much books and writers meant to him.  His earnestness may have startled a few students.  But I knew I couldn’t offer my classes anywhere near what he gave his students in his 40 years at Emma Willard.

We are distressed to see how many (college) students know so little history and geography.

A friend Mike, with whom I coached high school baseball, taught history for 44 years.  An understatement.  He lived and breathed history. Most every other summer for 35 years—sometimes more frequently—he led 3-4 week trips to Europe with 40 or so high school students.  During his “off” summers he traveled elsewhere around the globe.  His photos and slides, his desire to make key events from the past come to life, were among the reasons students packed his classroom at Rice Memorial.  His curiosity, his own thirst to see the world, to get to any square, tower, church, battlefield—or cemetery—related to his teaching, rubbed off.  As a result, two generations of Rice students toured Europe.

Accountant types?  No. 

Quality of teachers

We are keenly interested in the quality of our teachers. Work backwards: let’s agree we want teachers like Chris Halasz, Jack, and Mike—like John and his wife—in our schools.  Will we entice them to the job if told they need to spend an inordinate amount of time deciphering what the latest test scores reveal about Scott and Sonia’s weaknesses? 

Of course we must be accountable for learning.  And yes, good information helps. Our state law on accountability expresses the hope that useful data will spotlight “the gaps in students’ academic growth rates and (ensure) that educators have the data necessary to assist the neediest students in making more than a year’s academic growth in a year’s time so that these students can catch up…” (SB 163).  All good.  And of course it makes sense that “pre-service teachers will study data analysis.”

But before we go too far down this road, a little balance please. 

    Don’t redefine the job of teaching in a way that sidetracks us from our focus & our strengths

In “A Parallax View on SB 191,” Alexander Ooms wrote: “To improve the quality of teaching, we need three primary changes (and a lot of secondary ones): First, find a way to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Second, retain the outstanding teachers who voluntarily leave the profession. And third, widen the pool of potential hires so that we can recruit the best possible candidates into the classroom” (EdNews Colorado, 4/23/10).

I can see how better data will help schools hold weak teachers accountable.  But consider Ooms’ second and third points: we won’t retain or recruit the best if we insist they become something they are not.  We still believe, don’t we, that teachers who know and love the material they teach will lift achievement more than those who do not have this quality, but who can tell you each student’s reading and math scores, and the growth needed to get them to grade level?  That latter information has value.  But it cannot drive us.

If curriculum matters, so does a teacher’s knowledge of that subject

Finally, for those of us who fall in the “curriculum matters” camp in education reform, balance here seems especially important.  My examples above are teachers who know their disciplines.  They have taught in part because they love to learn and enjoy sharing what excites them.  Qualities not produced by our colleges of education.

Some see a new hope in our adopting common core standards and asking education schools “to train their candidates to teach a particular body of knowledge” (News analysis: “Learning to teach nothing in particular,” Education Gadfly, Dec. 22, 2010).  In the education school?  Really?  As if this is how we will overcome the shortage of teachers serving low-income students with subject area expertise in math and science?

I see far more potential in bringing folks to our classrooms, young teachers who actually majored in biology, economics, number theory, and environmental studies in college. (Ask most any of the nation’s leading private schools and see if their hiring isn’t based on that same belief.)  Michelle Rhee, a TFA alumna herself, wants to bring a “different caliber of person” into the profession.  “How can we get the best and the brightest,” she asks, to become teachers?  Aren’t TFA candidates (only one of every ten applicants is now accepted into the program) just the kind of folks—with a passion and in-depth knowledge of their subjects—whom we want to attract to our classrooms?

And aren’t they far more likely to become a John or Jack, a Chris or Mike, than those who are told: I don’t care if you love calculus or chemistry—or ideas. You just better be good with data.  How narrow, and how discouraging.  How little that has to do with the qualities we admire in folks we know as great teachers—even if they are a bit strange!
(End #74B)
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Comment on #74A from John Newlin, a friend, for 40 years a teacher and school head:

I agree …. In my experience as an administrator, I found that while one can tinker with a teacher and her/his performance through all sorts of evaluative techniques, it is virtually impossible to turn someone who doesn't (1) like and relate effectively to kids; (2) have flair; (3) innately enjoy what s/he is teaching; (4) plan well; and so forth to be a good teacher.  Yes, the mechanics of the profession can be improved, but it's really about finding bright people with the above qualities to teach, whose instincts are usually on the mark. 

Maybe it's a huge failing of mine, but I've never been able to turn a mediocre teacher into a great one, not ever.  Great teachers are also learners; they find ways to make themselves better.  They are people who derive energy and joy FROM the experience of teaching.  But these are characteristics they bring TO teaching as a career.

So, trying to make poor teachers into good ones seems to me to be an exercise in futility, with the added possibility of being horrifically expensive, too.

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