In June, Michelle Shearer, 2011 National Teacher of the Year, gave a keynote address at the SCEE Summit titled, "The Complexity of Teaching." Many who attended the Summit commented on the power of her presentation and appreciated the way she tied together the conversations we continue to have about the challenges and opportunities of teaching and learning today.
I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle in July following her trip to Singapore to discuss in more detail her thoughts on how we judge the elements comprising effective teaching. Michelle offered the following key points:
Michelle pointed out that many reformers are interested in tying teacher effectiveness to student test scores, but based on her own experience as an AP chemistry teacher, she emphasized that it's not all about the numbers. She cited her National Teacher of the Year award application where she listed her students' AP chemistry passing percentage rates across three consecutive years: 91, 91, and 88%. Although, she said, these look like great pass rates, the numbers don't tell the full story. What percentage of students enrolled took the test? Although she had 100% participation for the AP exam, in many cases, not all AP students take the exam. Ninety-one percent is certainly a high passage rate, but is that 10 out of 11 students, or 91 out of 100 students? Does it matter? And consider the progression of scores: 91, 91, 88 may be considered good...but it's not "growth."
It's also important to ask, "Who is enrolled?" From 2006 to 2010, Michelle's enrollment in AP chemistry increased more than eight-fold, from 11 to 33 to 60 to 70 to 92 students. When a teacher reaches out to include more students with diverse backgrounds, a lowering of overall scores may result. Does that mean she should be judged as less effective? Aren't teachers supposed to "cast the widest net" and provide opportunities for advanced coursework to as many students as possible, even when their prognosis is not assured? Finally, what does it say about students who don't pass the exam? She talked passionately about an African American female student who received a 2 on the exam, yet went on to take AP biology and AP physics and pursue a STEM major in college, suggesting that Michelle's class acted as the catalyst to this students' later success.
We spoke about the use of multiple measures as a way of including more than just student test scores. Michelle thinks that using multiple measures is a great idea but assessing and deciding a percentage of student growth to count in evaluations is difficult. What happens if a student doesn't show growth? Does that mean the teacher isn't effective? Using her previous example, she points out that it takes time for students to grow into understanding and knowledge. She expressed concern that we're creating systems that are trying to pinpoint a percentage that represents what growth is supposed to look like. She worries that this will lead teachers to avoid taking risks or elect not to pursue innovative strategies with students in need of support (i.e. students of diverse backgrounds, students with special needs, English language learners, and students whose prognosis is not assured) out of concern that their evaluations will be negatively affected.
Michelle is concerned that, even when test scores are good, test scores alone within an evaluation system don't tell the full story. They provide "snapshots" of student performance but don't leave room to see students or teachers on a continuum of progress in the context of the "big picture." Like the young lady she spoke about, at one instance she didn't pass the bar, but later on, she not only passed but exceeded it. If we only care about one or a few moments where students pass or fail, we may never see the times further down the road when they succeed in ways we once thought were not possible.
Observations and Teacher Narratives
Michelle remarked that principals' plates are completely full, understandably making it difficult or impossible to get into every classroom on a regular basis for extended periods of time. As a result, much of the observation process is left to a checklist of discrete observable elements. She also shared that in her time as National Teacher of the Year, she has spoken with many members of the business sector who express concern that today's graduates are not coming into the work force prepared. Students often lack critical thinking and problem solving for real-world challenges and applications, and though they may be able to communicate effectively in writing, they often lack face-to-face communication skills. She was told by employers and our partners in high education that even our most successful academic students fall short because they have "the skill, but not the will" to work hard or work collaboratively; in other words, they have "the aptitude, but not the attitude." These, Michelle pointed out, are soft skills, life skills, and world skills that are immensely important to students' success in the workplace and in life. How are teachers evaluated for addressing these factors? How do you capture a teacher's ability to teach these skills in addition to their subject-specific content?
Michelle advocates that observations should also include a narrative component that gives teachers the opportunity to explain what they are doing to go beyond teaching content knowledge to include the soft, life, and world skills that students need to be successful after high school graduation.
Professional Collaboration and Development
Michelle also expressed concern that the current tenor of education is to search for those teachers who are not doing their job to the point that we don't even know who the good teachers are and what they're actually doing to be successful. Michelle maintains that "...there are extraordinary teachers everywhere, but they're invisible. They're invisible, because extraordinary teachers are content to pour their energy into students, never seeking or expecting recognition for simply doing what they love to do." Right now, we're asking the wrong questions. We should be asking, "How can teachers like Michelle better share their mindset, skills, and practices with other teachers? What are the elements that truly make a good teacher better and how do we replicate these across a system? She worries that as new teachers enter the field, they will simply do what they're told they will be evaluated on without the context of a broad and multi-faceted vision for student success. As a result, they may develop patterns early on that are hard to break later without being afforded the time and access to other teachers who can help guide, mentor, and inspire them through those first few years.
Michelle points out that this is not simply about teacher evaluation; the ultimate goal is the elimination of achievement gaps. She stated, "We are not going to [eliminate achievement gaps] without significant changes. We need to free teachers [to take risks] and invite all kinds of students into our classes." In order for that to happen, perhaps we need a vision for teaching and learning that is different from the current calls for accountability.
Creating a Vision for Teaching and Learning
When Michelle went to Singapore, she observed that they are moving away from the testing model, where parents are more concerned about their students' rankings on national tests, to a more holistic system that includes some of the life and world skills she referenced earlier. She said they are realizing that teaching is complex and not easily communicated on a one-page checklist. In an effort to communicate their core values around developing students' 21st century "competencies," they have created a visual including:
Level One: Self-awareness; Self-management; Responsible decision-making; Relationship management; and Social awareness
Level Two: Civic literacy, Global awareness & Cross-cultural skills; Information & Communication Skills; and Critical & Inventive Thinking
Level Three: Confident person; Concerned citizen; Active Contributor; and Self-Directed Learner
In addition, Singapore's Ministry of Education is using the image of a "multifaceted gem" to represent their new teacher growth model to capture the notion that teachers develop along a learning continuum based on principles, philosophy and practice expressed through five different areas: Ethical Educator; The Transformational Leader; The Collaborative Learner; The Competent Professional; and The Community Builder.
Singapore is looking to create a more comprehensive educational system that moves beyond test scores and percentages to one that honors the complexity of teaching and the enormous responsibility of educating a citizenry prepared for a global society. Likewise, Michelle insists that we owe it to our students to design and implement evaluation systems that encourage educators to teach creatively, take risks, and "meet students where they are" in their journey to master the content knowledge and soft skills necessary to succeed in school, in the workplace, and in life. Such systems must acknowledge that success cannot always be numerically measured, and that "intangibles" such as the ability to connect with, relate to, and inspire young people must be part of any accountability system that aims to truly capture a teacher's effectiveness.