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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Measuring teachers as a means of education reform! You have got to be kidding!

Last week, in the New York Times, there was an Op-Ed column contributed by a Professor Emeritus (of Nursing) from the University of Maryland. Why the Times considers this man’s opinion worth publishing is anyone’s guess, but his article fits in well with the Times’ continuing insistence on always being on the wrong side in education.


The article starts with this gem:


Of all the goals of the education reform movement, none is more elusive than developing an objective method to assess teachers.

Really? That is the issue? Measuring teachers? Funny. I thought the issue was making schools that excited students and made them into people who loved learning and were learning things that they chose to learn and were excited to learn. Silly me.


I was a pretty good teacher if I do, say so myself (and many of my students say exactly that in my forthcoming book (Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools.)) But I couldn’t make algebra interesting to those who are bored to death by it. And, I couldn’t make literature interesting to those who think reading nineteenth century novels is tedious and irrelevant. In fact, I avoided teaching introductory programming my entire career because there was no way that I could make that interesting. Now, there are people who can make these subjects interesting (Saul Morson and Chris Riesbeck, both at Northwestern do exactly that in their respective subjects.) But they have an advantage. No one makes students at Northwestern taken Russian Literature and no one makes them takes Introductory Programming either. Motivation matters.


But this is not the case for the high school teachers that this Nursing professor wants to measure. (One would assume Nursing students take nursing because they want to be nurses by the way, which would have made his job as a teacher a lot easier to do.)


No, he wants to measure:


the amount of time a teacher spends delivering relevant instruction

Really? This sentence is so wrong on so many levels that I find it impossible to believe this man was ever a teacher.


Let’s start with the concept that the job of a teacher is information delivery. This model of teaching is not only out of date, it is simply wrong. If it were right, you could apply the speed principle. If one teacher were to talk twice as fast as another teacher, he or she would deliver twice as much information and thus be twice as good.


A teacher’s job, in today’s world, is unfortunately, to get students to do well on standardized tests that test how much information you can temporally memorize and how many test taking tricks you know.


Here is another gem from this article:


the teachers who taught more were also the teachers who produced students who performed well on standardized tests.


Wow! Teaching couldn't possibly be about motivating students or helping students be better people or helping students think well or live their lives well. No, it means teaching more (really teaching faster would do the trick!) and not even noticing if anyone is listening or anyone even gives a hoot about what you are teaching. Test scores! Test scores! Test scores!


What about re-thinking the subject matter that we teach and the idea that classrooms are really bad places to learn?


The New York Times has never had a clue about education, as I have said many times before in this column.


But this article is a new low. As one Emeritus Professor to another, I suggest that Mr. Nursing Professor go back to thinking about how to teach nurses and leave education reform to those who have some idea what the real issues are.


Teachers are not and have never been the problem. You can’t make algebra interesting to someone who isn’t interested in it. Teachers are forced to rely on that old canard “you will need it later” which is, of course, simply untrue.