How to Spot Good Teaching -- Maybe It's Time for a Broader Discussion

07/16/2013 03:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 15, 2013
  • Jean Johnson Board, National Issues Forums Institute and Senior Fellow, Public Agenda

How do you know when a teacher is doing a good job? Are schools doing enough to insure that we have effective teachers and that we're supporting them? These questions are on the table in school districts nationwide as debates over teacher evaluation policies heat up.
Most Americans say they have confidence in public school teachers, but most also think teacher preparation programs need more rigorous entrance requirements, and about half want student test scores counted as part of a teacher's job evaluation.

In fact, studies of parents, teachers, principals, students and the broader public -- research conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Kettering Foundation, Ed Sector and other independent groups -- suggest it's time for a more inclusive and nuanced conversation about what good teaching is and how we judge, nurture and support it.

Nearly everyone has had at least one or two spectacular teachers along the way. Most of us can also think of a teacher or two who was monotonous and uninspiring, maybe even callous and cold-hearted. But the crux of the teacher quality debate today is whether we have a teaching corps that successfully helps students develop the skills and habits of mind to become educated, competent adults -- adults who can build careers and fulfilling lives, adults who will be good neighbors and citizens.

So, what really counts in teaching? What are the best practices? What kind of training and support will actually produce the teaching corps our kids deserve?

Unfortunately, the research isn't as clear as you might think. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Jal Mehta suggests that we don't actually have a well-developed understanding of how to train, evaluate and support effective teaching. He believes the field lacks a "widely agreed-upon knowledge base." Moreover, he points out that " training is brief" compared to other professions, and "the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation must have reached much the same conclusion when it launched a multi-year project videotaping thousands of classroom teachers in action to "better understand what great teaching looks like, and the types of measures that can provide a fair assessment of teaching aimed at helping every teacher be their best."

Sometimes the political debate seems to center almost exclusively on the idea of judging teachers based on student test scores. Teacher surveys show that most see a place for standardized testing in education, but most also consider student engagement in class a better measure of their own performance. An analysis by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation suggests that most parents see low test scores as a red flag that something is wrong, but many also question whether good test scores by themselves actually show that children are learning and thriving.

What other kinds of questions should we include in teacher effectiveness discussions? Here are some nominees:

• Is "good teaching" really the same for all students? Or, are some teachers more effective with some students than others? Suppose, for example, that one teacher excels in helping students who struggle, while another stands out working with more advanced students? Parents sometimes say that a particular teacher is just "right" for their child―that there's a special chemistry between them that helps the child blossom. If this is the case, how do we account for it in our schools?

• Should teachers play a much larger role in defining and evaluating good teaching? Most teachers say that in their building, the teachers could pretty much agree on who the great teachers are. Nearly half also say they know a teacher who is "clearly ineffective and shouldn't be in the classroom," so teachers definitely make distinctions. A new book from Public Agenda and the American Institutes for Research encourages school districts to bring teachers to the table in this discussion and offers guidance for administrators and teachers on how to do it. Based on our research, teachers generally have useful, practical advice on the kinds of assessments that will fairly and effectively promote their growth as professionals.

• Does it matter what students think? One thought-provoking insight from the Gates research on teacher effectiveness is the degree to which students themselves can be astute judges of good teaching. Some education experts have shown that students generally like classes that spark their curiosity and generally dislike those featuring repetitive exercises that are easy to do. In Public Agenda surveys, most students report that they have had at least one teacher who succeeded in getting them to enjoy a subject they hadn't liked before. To my mind, that's great teaching. How do we identify and encourage this type of impact?

• What should we look for beyond the ability to teach academics? When adults talk about their favorite teacher, they don't necessary stress the teacher's prowess in teaching skills. Instead, they may talk about a teacher's sense of humor or a teacher's kindness. They may talk about what their teacher taught them about persistence or honesty or courage. What about teachers who help students battle shyness or those who reach out to help if there's trouble at home?

So much of today's teacher quality discussion centers on finding reliable ways to measure how effective a teacher is in teaching skills and how to apply those measures to teachers across the board. Given our limited understanding of the art and science of teaching, this is work that needs to be done.

But in our drive to delineate what we mean by "effective" teaching and to hold schools and teachers accountable, we shouldn't overlook the human dimensions of the job. They may not be as easy to measure, but that doesn't mean they don't matter to kids and schools.