The Elusive Art of Effective Teaching

14 Jan

After three years and much hype, the Gates-funded Measure of Effective Teaching project has finally released its final report. Hooray!

This project has interested me from the start, because it gets to the heart of what I have been doing (off and on) since 2006–teach (On–TFA. Off–grad school. On–tutoring) Teaching is a protean art requiring so many skills–academic clarity and insight; psychological perceptiveness; emotional intelligence; perseverance; organization; sheer stamina; and the agility to move between those roles. I would love to hear what Gates has found as the primary measure of effective teaching. Methinks that a comprehensive list would be pages long, so the main value of a study like this is in narrowing and focusing on the most important skills.

But I have to admit that I find myself less than awed at this final report, and inclined to wonder whether the study met its expectations. So far I’ve read the press release, a Washington Post article on the subject, and a 10 page “explainer” on the 9 Principles that MET identified:

Measures of Effective Teaching Project Release Final Research Report (Jan 8, Press Release)

Gates Foundation Study: We’ve Figured Out What Makes a Good Teacher (Washington Post, Jan 8 2013)

10 page explained linked to the press release as a highlighted link: guiding principles

I’ve also read a scathing critique by Jay P Greene, posted by my friend and intellectual adversary, Yehoshua Bedrick:

Understanding the Gates’ Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching project (Jay P Greene blog, no date)

The Gates materials focus on three main concepts (really, 9, but these are the most important): Set Expectations, Use Multiple Measures, Balance Weights. In other words–aspects of any good evaluation system. Be clear about what you want. Don’t rely on one tool to the exclusion of other meaningful data. Balance what weight you give each tool. This is all well and good, but I’d like to hear what’s specific to teaching. Disclaimer: it’s possible that these attributes are spoken about more in their 2nd report, from Jan 2012. But even so, I’d like to see them repeated here, as once again–that’s the value this study can bring us.

The policy paper mentions briefly some categories of exceptional practice:

“sensitivity to students’ academic and social needs; knowledge of subject-matter content and
pedagogy; and the ability to put that knowledge into practice, all in the service of student success.”

But really, are those categories, either, something truly novel?

Jay Greene’s response is to call MET an “expensive flop”, because he claims that they didn’t end up finding that classroom observation or study surveys added much power in predicting who would raise student test scores–finding evidence for this on Table 10 of the technical appendix, or some such. He claims that the Gates Foundation is fudging their results to make it seem like they learned what they wanted to learn all along.

Without a more careful study of the MET appendix, it’s hard to say. But it’s true that the Gates Foundation is being cautiously vague in this report, and that is cause for concern. I do not agree with Greene’s overall interpretation, which is that the Gates study was an exercise in imposing one-size-fits-all evaluations on a profession that’s so inherently variable as to elude general principles. His assessment feels smarmy; too eager to find fundamental fault with the intentions of those with whom he disagrees. Greene, do you really think that Bill and Melinda Gates invest millions of dollars of their money just so that they can “control” teacher evaluation? Or is it possible they really set to unearth the qualities of excellent teaching? And that possibly, their data isn’t as clear cut as they’d like it to be–and that yes, they are fudging?

At one point, Greene acknowledges this, so I’ll give credit where it is due: he says that he doesn’t fault them for trying to figure out what makes great teaching, only that they’re distorting their results. Fine, that’s fair. But you might want to spend less time attacking their fundamental premise, if that’s how you feel.

More on this subject later…getting tired 🙂


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