Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"good" teachers

Recently there's been a controversy about releasing information on performance rankings of teachers in the L.A. Unified School District. Also the same old subject of why is there no reward differentiation between the good and lousy teachers, and why is there nothing done about the lousy teachers has been dragged up again.

I have to say that I do find it amazing that it is practically, if not totally impossible to fire a teacher unless they do something like murder a student in plain view of at least 100 people and even then they would most likely be placed on paid leave while the matter was investigated.

What I wanted to discuss in this post is exactly what constitutes a "good" teacher? When I was in school, we all knew who the "good" teachers were, and also who the "bad" ones were. But if you asked us to quantify it in terms of something objective and measurable, and could be documented in a file, that would have been a difficult task.

Now the first thing that probably comes to mind of a student when asked if a teacher is good or bad is if they are nice or mean. Nice = good and mean = bad. But I think most kids get past that stage and understand that a good teacher is one that actually teaches you something; they may be strict and demanding but if a teacher cares about the students and is able to effectively communicate the subject matter, he or she will be respected by the students and seen as a "good" teacher. Similarly, the nicest teacher, or one that facilitates a party atmosphere in class, might initially be seen as a "good" teacher but soon that person will not be respected by anyone.

But how do you measure that? By test scores?

The problem I see with test scores are that often teachers will teach to the test to the detriment of actually teaching something valuable. If making students memorize a bunch of facts so they can do well on a test is the basis for grading teachers, then I don't like that idea.

It's just like if you have a piano teacher who focuses their student on only one song, the one that will be used for a recital (i.e., that will be played in public and will also serve as a reflection on the teacher), and makes them memorize it letter (or note) perfect. They may know that song inside and out but have they really learned something that is going to benefit them later on? I think that depends on the student - some students are naturally more inclined to persist with a task and have the inner motivation to do well, in which case they will take it upon themselves to do a good job. Others will lose focus. In either case, what does that have to do with the teacher? The result depends more on the character of the student. How does what the teacher taught, a narrowly focused lesson on how to play one song as good as possible but without learning how that translates to anything else, benefit the future?

Then you have another piano student who cultivates a love of music in his or her students which motivates them to practice and learn. But because they are not drilled incessantly on one test piece, they may not do as well in a recital or in front of a grader as the other student whose teacher only teaches to the test piece.

So which one is the "better" teacher?

I think the student can tell you that. But how do you quantify it?


Anonymous said...

Fire the manager! That's a phrase I heard a lot in industry when there were problems on the plant production floor. Its still true. I read when people say that these worthless teachers cannot be fired. Its simply not true. The supervisor looks in the file and sees reams of "acceptable" reviews, throws up her hands and says "shigatageni". Management that allows poor performance must be fired. A series of well documented reviews will get even the most senior tenured union steward removed from the classroom. Its the documentation that takes work and is generally beyond what someone with a masters degree from Cal State LA is capable of producing without the threat of termination.

So what is a "good" teacher? Would you poll the student and ask if its the teacher that sent them to detention for being late or the one that was cool? Gave a lot of homework or the teacher that figured out that giving homework meant grading homework? The teacher that did not allow cheating or the one that could not see 10 identical papers? Could the student identify the best teacher or would it be the most popular one? Personally I don't know if I would simply have voted for the cutest lady with the nicest tits when I was in school. Seriously I would have problems defining my metrics and filling out a rubric. I do feel for the retired teacher identified by the LA Times. She got a classroom full of FOB students and got them into mainstream classes. Yes she shaved into their math time. Yes other teachers told her that she was spending too much time on skills that would help their educational careers and not their test scores. Yep the LA Times outed her.

Rickie Miyake said...

Well now that's what I was trying to get at in my post is how does one measure a "good teacher?" What are the metrics? I think most people can name who they felt was a "good teacher" in the sense of someone that was able to communicate knowledge and actually teach them something, even if they didn't like that teacher. For example, I did not like Ms. Clementi at Dorsey but I felt she was a good teacher. I didn't learn anything from her because I didn't want to learn. But trying to develop the right metrics to say what is a good teacher is difficult. Well actually, maybe there is a difference in "good" in the sense that some teachers are good because they teach to a specific goal such as making their students do well on the SAT because they are able to memorize a bunch of meaningless, useless facts, whereas some teachers are "good" because they are able to promote their students ability to be able to take input and process it intelligently so that it has a practical application for their life. It seems that in America more value is placed on the short sighted learning facts to do well in an exam, rather than teaching anything of long term value. Everyone wants immediate gratification.

Now as for firing teachers, I agree that it is much easier if the process is documented properly but in this day and age, everyone is afraid to be the one to do the documentation because they might get sued. So you have a bunch of worthless teachers (and it is not just teachers, but people in general in all jobs) who are not fit but who get by because attorneys have perverted the "justice" system in this country.

Anonymous said...

Make the worthless manager more afraid of being fired than being sued. That is one of the things happening in at charter schools. The manager has no retreat rights and is essentially an at will employee. Do this with all the managers and you will see an improvement.

Rickie Miyake said...

The problem with putting the focus on managers is that no matter who it is, the attorneys take over and start bringing up their wrongful termination suits. Even if something is well documented then they'll switch over to it being a case of harassment or discrimination. Basically everyone is an at-will employee but just because they are on paper doesn't give the employer any comfort. The main problem is that we are quickly becoming more and more a society of entitlements and people who feel they are owed a living. And a president who likes to promise it to get votes.