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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.

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