One story: this semester, I teach two sections of the same class. One class meets at 930AM and has sixteen students, all of whom are native English speakers.  The students are lively (probably stoked on the morning coffee); they seem to keep up with the reading. The second section meets at 2PM and has twenty-six students, seven of whom are non-native English speakers. It’s a less talkative class and I don’t think all the students are keeping up with the reading.  On the mid-term I gave last week, the morning class earned far more As; the afternoon class had a higher number of Cs.

Clearly I am an ineffective teacher, if I compare my afternoon with my morning test scores.

Another story: Liam’s first grade class was team-taught by a special ed teacher and a general ed teacher; the students in the class were a combination of kids who needed various types of extra help and kids who didn’t need extra help.  One student that year had some significant behavior problems and subsequently went to a school that could better serve his emotional and developmental needs. One of the two teachers was brand-new to the school and brand-new to the team-teaching concept.  And, horror of horrors, in mid-year, it happened that the brother of one of the teachers was shot and killed in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of learning happening in that classroom, as the teachers struggled to figure out their partnership and their students, and then had to deal with an unimaginable tragedy.

If there had been testing done that year, I’m going to bet the scores would’ve been abysmal.

A third story: Have any of you ever had a dinner party? A real dinner party, where you carefully  invite the guests, plan the menu, spring for the fifteen-dollar bottle of wine as opposed to the Two Buck Chuck? And then the party for whatever reason fizzles?  But other times, people stop by, you order pizza or whip up some kind of soup, the Two Buck Chuck goes down easy and you have a wonderful night of laughter and conversation?

Teaching reminds me a bit of throwing a party (if you were dumb enough to throw a party two, three, five times a week). You can do all the planning and organizing and prep work in the world, but if the guests aren’t willing, you can’t force them to have fun. We’ve all been at those parties, right, where the hostess smiles maniacally and insists that you have another locally sourced organically grown whipped kudzu foam canapé, and all you can think is “jesus, for this I got off the couch?”

There’s talk afoot these days that “all” we need to do to fix public education is find effective teachers and get rid of the ineffective teachers.  So simple, right? We don’t need to worry about poverty, over-crowding, inadequate classroom supplies, or anything else. We just need better classroom managers!  At least, that seems to be the theory espoused by Michelle Rhee (glam edu-gal about town, unofficial star of “Waiting for Superman,” and free-floating reformer). In this week’s New York magazine, Rhee–ex-chancellor of the D.C. public schools–spends a lot of time talking about effective teaching, and she seems willing to let Eli Broad bankroll her ideas (click here for a less-flattering portrait of Broad than what Rhee says).

New York City has fallen with this effective teacher idea, too, with its “teacher data reports” that measure (or attempt to measure) the teacher’s value-added score. The value-added score gets compiled through some incredibly arcane formula that even its supporters admit might be both too complicated and…um…inaccurate.  So, for instance, a wonderful new teacher interviewed by Michael Winerip in The New York Times last week,  got a score that placed her in the 7th percentile—but that score could be actually as low as zero, or as high as the 52nd percentile.  And even that higher number doesn’t do justice to the glowing reports this teacher regular gets from her peers, her principal, and her students, many of whom go on to the city’s most competitive high schools.

So your dinner party flops because one couple has had a huge fight in the cab on the way over, another guest heard some disturbing news at the doctor’s office earlier and is distracted, your husband drinks too much and tells bad jokes, the scintillating new friends from your job prove to be insufferable snobs. Does that make you an ineffective hostess?

It’s true that the tenure policy—three years and you’re in—doesn’t reflect a teacher’s abilities in the classroom; and it’s true that the first-in, first-out policy for layoffs doesn’t make sense; and it’s even true that it should be easier to fire bad teachers (instead of putting them in the so-called “rubber room”). But really, does it make sense to measure a teacher’s effectiveness purely on the basis of how her students score from one year to another on some arcane state-mandated test that is itself riddled with problems?  Do students really “achieve” in some algorithmic lockstep from year to year? None of the students I’ve known, in some twenty years of teaching, have learned in the same way at the same time on the same curve.

I want my kids to have effective teachers—I want to be an effective teacher. But how can effective teaching be examined independently from the larger system of the class, and how can the class can be seen independently from the larger community? How does that make sense?

What teachers do you remember? I’d bet you remember the slightly off-beat teachers, the teachers who weren’t afraid to meet the enthusiasms of their classes with enthusiasms of their own, who made room for imagination and didn’t see creativity as being at odds with rigor.  The Earth Science teacher who let you dig up worms; the English teacher who helped you write a play; the Math teacher who showed you the beauty of a geometric proof. All highly effective teachers, but not lockstep marchers.

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell explored this idea of “teacher effectiveness,” in an article that compared finding good teachers with finding good pro football quarterbacks.  The analogy he makes has to do with the rarity of a brilliant college quarterback succeeding in the NFL: the college game is so different from the pro game that it’s almost impossible to predict how a player will react to the “real deal.”  Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent, of course, trying to determine whether a player will make it or not. And so too with apprentice teachers: the difference between student teaching (which typically is done only for half a year, maybe less) and managing one’s own class is…well, like the difference of being a guest at a dinner party and throwing the party. But harder, and with the potential of having a guest throw a chair, or get in a fist fight, or put her head down on the table and then start to vomit. Unlike the newbie quaterback, of course, the young teacher not only doesn’t get a six-figure starting salary, she doesn’t get an individual coaching session that helps her strengthen her game; she doesn’t get a rub-down after a day at work; she doesn’t have an entire staff at her personal disposal.

Here’s the thing: I am a pretty good teacher. I’m a pretty good teacher at nine-thirty in the morning and I’m a pretty good teacher at two in the afternoon, in part because I recognize the differences in these two groups and adjust my teaching style accordingly. And I think the teachers in Liam’s first grade class have probably gone on to be pretty good teachers themselves—it was just a particularly difficult set of variables that they had to contend with that year.

And until there is a formula to measure teacher effectiveness that takes into account everything from “student breakdowns” to “non-native speakers” to “personal tragedy” to “growing pains” to “students aren’t getting enough to eat,” then it’s not a formula we should use.


Wouldn’t it be nice if the problems outlined in this post, from 2011, had all been solved?  And wouldn’t it be nice if we’d also found a cure for cancer, poverty, and global warming? Sigh.