05/22/2013 04:37 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

The Eternity Metric

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops ~ Henry Brooks Adams

In a recent speech to the American Educational Research Association, Secretary Arne Duncan asked the assembled researchers to think about developing valid assessments of children's non-cognitive skills:

"I would love to see assessment experts work with schools and districts to develop more reliable, meaningful, and easy-to-administer assessments that help us understand whether we are teaching the non-cognitive skills that predict students' success in college, careers and life."

My first reaction was skeptical. I wondered how, in the rush to find metrics to hold teachers accountable, we could assess the ineffable qualities that go into the teaching-learning experience, the ones that really defy measurement? Forty years ago, when I taught English to ninth graders, I knew there were many effects of the teaching/learning experience that were not readily apparent. Today we might call these "lagging indicators." My very best days as a teacher were not, I believe, measured by an equation or a rubric or a performance scale - certainly not by a test. In fact, I probably don't even know which days were my best. I am sure that I said or did things that planted a seed or went into mental storage - not available even to the learner's consciousness at the time - that nevertheless changed in some way the lives of my students.

But, so much for the soft stuff. We've got work to do. Our Secretary needs advice on one more way to test our kids. Got to make the metrics.

Notwithstanding Professor Einstein's caution that everything that can be counted does not necessarily count and everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted, I set out to find a metric to measure the unmeasureable. I submit the discussion below as a framework to launch the "eternity metric" in the never ending battle for truth, justice and a more accountable school.

If we believe, as Adams does, that a teacher affects eternity, how can we measure this effect? While I am no expert psychometrician, I am an amateur philosopher. And it is in the domain of philosophy where we find one of the tenets of the "baseline," that all important value added component, the starting point from which we can measure growth. Herewith is a summary of my investigation for the design of an eternity metric (aka the Em).

I first sought the wisdom of Augustine who suggests that if we believe in the concept of eternity wouldn't that imply "beginningless-ness?" From an Aristotilean, ontological viewpoint, we have to question the entire concept of eternity. However, at this point I relied on the 17th century wisdom of Descartes who argued that eternity must exist because we can think of it. I thought I was on to something here until I remembered the 20th century guru, Wittgenstein, introduced logical positivism, suggesting that philosophical problems arise when we force language into a metaphysical environment. How can "eternity" even make the cut? What's a good test designer to do when tests are mandated, but the content is slippery?

Then the inspirational moment was upon me. Since the USDOE and the various state departments of education have made a religion out of test making and taking, why not look for an answer in the Judeo-Christian tradition where we can find loads of references to eternity? We even find, most conveniently, an "In the beginning." I had discovered the baseline, scrubbed clean of competing perspectives, just the way the Department of Education likes their initiatives.

Here's how it works. We use e1, the "baseline," to represent the existential starting point of a student's development. Here is the student as tabula rasa, an unknown, a vessel waiting to be filled. Along comes the teacher and our metric goal begins to gain traction. By providing shape or design or movement in a student's development, (the "intervention" or I1), the left side of the equation (e1+I1 ) is created. Now is where the calculus grows interesting. If the teacher is able to engage the student by an act of kindness, empathy, generosity, patience or understanding, then we have a multiplying factor. The bond (B) that begins to exist between teacher and student acts as a multiplier for the additive concepts of the initial existential baseline and the initial intervention, yielding the relationship B(e1 +I1). If the bond is meaningful and sincere (two variables that can be normed after field testing), and we have good numbers to represent initial existence and first interventions (reliability coefficients will be developed in trials embedded in otherwise regular classrooms routines), then we have a working model that has the potential to last a lifetime. Maybe beyond a lifetime if we take into account the many other lives that a student's life touches (still working on multiple variance effects here).

I present the eternity metric:

Em = f B(e1+I1)

We sub-contract out for assessment and rubric development. To measure the initial intervention values we create a series of multiple choice questions for students to answer. For example: My teacher a) allows me to freely float in an existentially- neutral environment; b) guides me to value-laden outcomes; c) rejects tautologies as overly simplistic; d) believes the universe is benign. And the rubric categories - which will be used as part of a teacher's evaluation - might be titled: infinite; temporal; momentary; retro-grade.

So, here is the proposal. We use the metric as outlined here as part of the Race to the Top compliance for state's wishing to satisfy federal rules to obtain their fair share of funding. A percentage can be figured into the overall teacher rating, e.g., 50% test scores, 25% classroom observations, 25% eternity effect. If you plug in the eternity metric, you've added a neat little indicator that not only gets you fed dollars, but also satisfies your yearning for something more substantial. You are on your way to answer the question: What's a teacher worth?

Are you listening Pearson? Call me.

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