Is Teacher Effectiveness a Myth?

The American education system is struggling and teachers are to blame. Since they get all summer off, teachers have no right to question what we, the public, demand they accomplish once school is back in session. Or so goes popular opinion.

I ask you: Will placing more pressure upon already hyper-stressed teachers improve test scores and graduation rates? Or, put more simply, would wringing an already-juiced orange for a few more drops fill an entire glass?

In August, I launched a web application called Knack For Teachers, to put the power back in the hands of teachers. The app enables teachers to collect accurate data about their classrooms and use it for their own benefit.

We have created a culture of fear in education. Teachers are trapped between the pressure to show improvement and the demand to employ specific techniques—all under the guise of bolstering effectiveness. As a result, teachers are unable to take control of their own success and live in a constant fear of being fired.

Teaching and Learning

Standardized tests measure a student’s performance because the student is the one taking the test. Thus, such tests are only indirect measurements of a teacher’s performance. Teachers cannot ensure learning; they can only ensure teaching. Learning is the responsibility of the student.

Teachers do not decide whether a student studies at home or even if he or she cares about learning. Teachers cannot force parents to help their children study. They can expertly present the material and try to engage students, but at some point acquiring knowledge becomes a student’s choice.

In much the same way, the numbers the Los Angeles Times recently published do not directly measure teacher effectiveness. They measure education funding, the percentage of English speakers, and school management efficiency. They measure students’ test-taking abilities and, somewhat indirectly, knowledge. But too many factors impact standardized test scores to reasonably claim scores measure teacher effectiveness. Further, the scores confirm every year that pressuring teachers to artificially raise an indirect product of their own actions doesn’t work.

To evaluate a teacher, we must examine a teacher’s actions. However, even the most seasoned, expert educators struggle to determine the secret stuff that makes a quality teacher, as discussed in a New York Times Magazine article back in March. Before we can even discuss teacher effectiveness, we need a functional definition and a sound metric.

The Great Suffocation

To be a teacher is to be jerked around on a daily basis. Curriculum turns over faster than fashion trends. Teachers regularly update their techniques, caught in administrators' attempts to improve the numbers. Teachers cannot reach expert-level ability when they are forced to swap techniques so frequently.

Teachers can only do so much to improve. They have to do what they’re told. Teachers do not have the flexibility to adapt techniques to each student’s learning style. They cannot follow their instincts and cater to individual students’ needs for fear of disobeying mandates and losing their jobs. If a student does not respond well to the current fad state of pedagogy, he or she is out of luck.

Not surprisingly, the teacher turnover rate has been high for years because the stress is overwhelming. The pressure added by the effectiveness debate is counter-productive. Many expert teachers are finding it’s easier to just switch careers. They can find professional courtesy and mutual respect elsewhere. How will this exodus impact the numbers?

Efficiency Over Effectiveness

Our education system is inefficient. We waste time evaluating teachers using metrics that lack meaningful insight. We change our minds too frequently about how we want education to work. We beat up on the people on the front lines. We allow district administrations to remain bloated and slow. Because of all this, the system is failing students.

I built Knack For Teachers to improve efficiency. With Knack, teachers can be transparent about what happens in the classroom and defend their work with data. One web application isn’t the solution, but it can be one step towards improvement.

There is obviously no lack of concern for our education system. But pointing fingers at teachers is no more productive than blaming parents or politicians. We all need to accept some blame for contributing to this failing system, and perhaps more importantly, get to work on fixing it.

Photo (CC) by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.

Jarrod Drysdale is the designer and developer behind Knack For Teachers, a web app. He designed every page and wrote every line of code in the 3 months leading up to the August 2010 launch.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less