Data: Is it Reliable? And What do We do with it?

It’s been almost a couple of months since my last post, and I find myself thinking of data again.

Earlier this month, the Gates Foundation released its cumulative findings on its 3-year Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) research project. They recommend a balanced approach which included observations and student perception surveys in addition to achievement test scores. If you look at the data in the report, much can be gleaned, yet it’s easy to see that effective teaching is a very complex thing to measure.

Also in the local news this week, teachers from a two different Seattle Public Schools, for various reasons, have stated they are going to boycott the district standardized test known as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).

There are many reasons standardized tests cause anxiety among students, teachers, parents, and school leaders. Often they are used as sorting mechanisms (admissions into schools, teaching effectiveness, and putting students on a certain track are just a few examples). Yet, if one approaches the data from these assessments with more purpose (to set new goals, to inform ones teaching, provide meaningful feedback, or guide learning), these measures can be useful.

Data today is abundant, but is it the right data? How data is collected, analyzed, and interpreted; how reliable it is; and what we do with it can make all the difference. Though the Gates Foundation and those Seattle Public School teachers are doing it differently, I’m glad there are many out there asking these questions.

What Does An Effective Teacher Look Like?

One of the more popular articles in the nytimes this weekend was one titled “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students“. It reports on some initial findings through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s study of effective teaching.

The foundation put out a publication which you can read here.

First, I have to agree with most of their initial flow chart:

First on this flow chart is that there need to be multiple measures of effectiveness. I couldn’t agree more. This article focuses on student feedback and it doesn’t surprise me that it seems to be a good indicator.  While they place a lot of emphasis on the teacher’s value-added (the teacher’s past success in raising student achievement in state tests) which I tend to be cynical about. Mostly because if you’ve ever read Freakonomics, high-stakes tests result in a lot of teachers cheating the way sumo wrestlers or the recent report of teachers cheating in Atlanta. I think tests can be a great tool, but if used to determine teacher effectiveness, they should be proctored by independent teams and not linked directly (as some districts are trying to do) to the funding of a school. The study does go on to say,

“…valid feedback need not be limited to test scores alone. By combining different sources of data, it is possible to provide diagnostic, targeted feedback to teachers who are eager to improve.”

With students perceptions of teachers, the study isolates 7 c’s for effective teaching.

  1. Care – The student feels like he/she is important and that the teacher really cares for them.
  2. Control – Good classroom management skills
  3. Clarify – Explaining things in a variety of ways and being clear
  4. Challenge- Learning a lot, and learning to correct mistakes
  5. Captivate – Teachers make the lessons interesting and meaningful
  6. Confer – Students feel they have a voice and some autonomy
  7. Consolidate – The comments or feedback ensures that the student understands what is being taught.

Accurate teacher evaluation is the next box on that flow chart above. This months Ed. Leadership has several articles that focus on that topic. A checklist, for example that may have an item “dresses appropriately” is completely useless for at least two reasons: 1) does it raise student achievement? 2) If a teacher dresses inappropriately, just tell them! It doesn’t need to come in the form of an evaluation.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the analysis and study as part of it focuses not on the knowledge of the subject being taught, but on the pedagogy: How to teach it.

Like math, I am confident I know WHAT to teach, but is there a better way to teach it than I am doing so currently? If so, I want to know. I am glad someone is looking into this as too much focus in this country (in my opinion) is placed on curricula rather than on pedagogy – and frankly, some of that curricula is becoming outdated really quickly. I’m going to leave the middle block on that flow chart alone for now as I my opinions may be too strong for some of those topics.

I can’t wait to share this report with my students this week.