Although the title of my blog is "Incompetence," most of my posts have dealt with only one aspect of incompetence: foolish (i.e., risk-oblivious) behavior. That is because I am working on a book titled Anatomy of Foolishness, and I have been using this column to generate material for the book. However, my interest in foolishness was preceded by more than three decades of thinking and writing about broader aspects of competence, and I plan to occasionally take a break from my book effort to write here about unrelated aspects or forms of competence. That is what I am doing now, in addressing the topic of teacher competence.
This topic is much in the news, given the current emphasis on grading teacher competence, and using the results (which are sometimes made public) to reward, punish or even fire teachers based on those results. As will become clear from my remarks, I consider these efforts, as currently constituted, to be highly problematic and, thus "foolish" in an alternative sense of that word to mean dumb or highly flawed.
As I have indicated in other columns, competence can be approached either in terms of outcomes or in terms of inputs believed to contribute to positive outcomes. Outcome-based indices of teacher competence are such things as increased test scores, or a harmonious classroom where students seem happy, engaged and well-behaved. Personally, I find classroom harmony (a prerequisite for student learning and something relatively easy to recognize) to be more important than achievement test scores, but that is a minority view, for two reasons: (a) the widespread belief that the main or only purpose of school is to master academic material, when in fact, an equally important purpose is to prepare young people to function independently in society (originally, as I pointed out in my book Annals of Gullibility, it was to help young people say no to Satan); and (b) the widespread belief that test scores can be raised for all students and have the most validity in indicating whether an educational institution or its teachers are excellent (this belief ignores the role of family and social class, fails to understand developmental limits or ceilings, and creates irresistible temptations for administrators and teachers to fudge student test results.)
One outcome indicator of teacher competence which I happen to favor, but which is rarely used in evaluating teachers, except at the college level, is to ask students what they think about their teacher. A few studies have found that competence evaluations that rely heavily on elementary or secondary students' opinions are much less likely to result in "false positives" (that is, labeling a competent teacher as incompetent). But there is an understandable general reluctance to acknowledge that children can or should be allowed to evaluate adults. While generally in favor of student ratings, I should point out that these are most valid when they truly have an outcome focus, as it is easy for them to be hijacked by an input emphasis.
Let me use myself as an example. I have taught, and been evaluated by students, at three universities, and the first two had a heavy outcome emphasis in the student rating forms, with questions along the lines of "how would you compare this experience to other classes?" and "how much did you get out of this class?" When evaluated by such relatively global or molar outcome questions, I always scored in the top third of faculty. At my last stop, the University of Connecticut, the rating form had zero outcome questions and was entirely made up of input questions along the lines of "how organized was the professor?" and "how smooth a lecturer was he or she?" When viewed by such molecular input questions, I typically scored in the bottom third of professors. As a result, I was viewed by my colleagues as an inadequate instructor. I contested this impression by supplementing the input questions with a few global outcome-oriented questions, along the lines of "how would you rank this professor and class?" Several students commented that my class was the best they had ever taken and that they found me to have played a transformative role for them. The point that this demonstrated is that there are multiple pathways to being an effective teacher, and the important thing is not how much one conforms to the stereotype of a good teacher as a stand-up performer (as a shy and non-linear person, that is not my strength) but whether one is able to engineer an experience, provide materials, and offer supports which facilitate student growth and learning
My understanding is that most of the evaluations carried out for purposes of determining whether or not a public school teacher is competent involve an administrator (a principal, assistant principal or curriculum supervisor) visiting a classroom, recording observations and filling out a checklist indicating whether the teacher has demonstrated several defined behaviors. The grade she receives is based on the number of skills that are, or are not, checked off. Such a method is very much grounded in what I have termed an input-oriented approach. There are several problems with such an approach, the main ones being: (a) teachers vary in terms of how they teach and (as with the case with myself) a one-size-fits-all checklist does not do justice to such variability; (b) classrooms vary in terms of the student learning and behavior challenges that are posed, and these challenges (which may flare up during the time an evaluator visits) may alter how the teacher functions; (c) depending on the level and subject, some variability from lesson to lesson may be a good thing, and the most creative teachers (just as the best writers) need to feel free to break the rules on occasion; and (d) a checklist approach, no matter how valid, will produce invalid results when in the hands of an incompetent, obtuse or unskilled administrator. Unfortunately, in education, it is well-known that people who go into administration were often not particularly distinguished or knowledgeable when they were in a teaching role (which often was in an auxiliary discipline such as Physical Education). If a teacher evaluation is to be valid, then it stands to reason that the evaluator should herself be an exemplary teacher, but we know that is too often not the case.
Now we get to the crux of my argument, which is that for all of the billions poured into education research, training and program development by governments, universities and charitable funding sources (such as the Gates Foundation), teaching is still what Amitai Etzioni termed a "semi-profession." What that means is there is still not a clear a consensus as to what makes a good or (more importantly) a bad teacher. I can say this as someone who has taught in two schools of education, and know of many cases where bad teachers have been tolerated and rewarded and good teachers have been driven out. Obviously, bad teachers should be helped to improve or encouraged to leave the profession, while good teachers should be rewarded and promoted. But I am far from convinced that the methods and criteria in use are capable of reliably telling the difference.
Copyright Stephen Greenspan