The New York Times ran a couple of op-eds on Sunday about education policy. One, by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari is familair stuff to anyone who’s heard me talk about the subject before: teachers in the US are, on the whole, given fewer resources than they need to succeed, paid less well than other professions with comparable educational requirements, and then castigated as incompetents. And we wonder why top students aren’t interested in education.

The other by R. Barker Bausell, offers a simple and seemingly objective standard for evaluating teacher performance: measuring their time on task.

This is hardly a new insight. Thirty years ago two studies measured the amount of time teachers spent presenting instruction that matched the prescribed curriculum, at a level students could understand based on previous instruction. The studies found that some teachers were able to deliver as much as 14 more weeks a year of relevant instruction than their less efficient peers.

There was no secret to their success: the efficient teachers hewed closely to the curriculum, maintained strict discipline and minimized non-instructional activities, like conducting unessential classroom business when they should have been focused on the curriculum.

Sounds great. And it leads to a simple and direct evaluation method:

For example, it means that administrators don’t have to wait until test scores are evaluated, usually at the end of the year, by which time students have already fallen further behind. They could simply videotape a few minutes of instruction a day, then evaluate the results to see how much time teachers spent on their assigned material and the extent to which they were able to engage students.

Indeed, the very process of recording classroom instruction would probably push some underperforming teachers to become more efficient.

Good thing there’s nothing the least bit creepy and Orwellian about this. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan.

It’s a nice sounding idea, in some respects, and in some ways aligns with what teachers have been saying for years: that the best way to evaluate teachers is by watching them teach. And also that the myriad babysitting tasks foisted on teachers by the current educational system are a serious impediment to learning. But the implementation of this just sounds like a nightmare.

I mean, for one thing, there’s the question of how you choose the “few minutes a day” to record and evaluate. Do you make it completely random? Do you prescribe a time for each class? Do you tell the teacher when they’re being recorded, or not? Do you tell the students?

And who’s going to watch all this video? I mean, even in a relatively small school district like the one I went to, you’ve got something like 100 teachers. A “few minutes a day” is then something like five hours of video every day that somebody has to watch and evaluate to determine whether the class is on task or not. Implement that, and it will be even harder to find principals willing to sit through watching all that teaching than it is to find teachers willing to be randomly recorded.

There’s also a kind of random and tone-deaf bit tacked on hear the end, which left me scratching my head:

But focusing on the amount of instruction, and its efficiency, also points toward more ambitious steps. Decades of research have shown that student achievement doesn’t derive solely from the classroom: one famous study, by the psychologists Todd Risley and Betty Hart, found that children of professional families had eight million more words directed at them per year from ages 1 to 3 ½ than children from poorer families.

To make up for that difference, schools could make online tutoring programs covering the entire elementary school curriculum available, both in school and at home.

This maybe doesn’t sound that bad, but when you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense. I mean, making extensive instruction available online is great, and all, but it’s kind of lacking as a solution to differences rooted in economic class. After all, the poorer families who are less likely to use lots of words with their kids are also substantially less likely to have the sort of Internet access and free time that you would need to make this work. It sounds nice, provided you’re already among the economically privileged (as most readers of the Times op-ed page probably are), but it’s not remotely a real solution to the relevant problem.

Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t have much of a logical connection to the rest of the piece. It ends up sounding like just a bit of trendy bafflegab tacked on to boost the word count above some threshold.

Comments

  1. #1 Rick Fletcher @TRFletcher
    May 2, 2011

    I’ll go look at the NYT piece. But I immediately wondered about the efficiency argument. Basically my question is simple; how is student learning factored in to efficiency? I teach the large lecture hall chemistry courses and I have noticed that I have slowed down over the years. That troubled me for awhile until I realized I’m slower because I am better at evaluating student learning – my passing rate have come way up since I slowed down. And I now have enough experience to adjust my pace to match feedback from my audience – which is not obvious in the large lecture halls until one has experience. I’m definitely less “efficient” than I was when I was first given this task but in terms of student success and overall college retention, I am doing much better. So how should one measure efficiency?

  2. #2 Peter Rivard
    May 4, 2011

    One thing that jumps out at me from Bausell’s comments: it doesn’t seem this guy has spent any time teaching in elementary school classrooms. If he has, he doesn’t seem to find it important enough to include in his bio-blurb. That would account for some of the clunkers.

    If anything, the bit at the end seems to work against his prior suggestions: we can do all this to our teachers, or we can acknowledge that it’s not all the teachers’ fault–or something we can fix by big-brothering our teachers. To follow that a little further, if he’d spent much time in the elementary classroom (or felt that was an important enough qualification to mention), he’d realize that the inefficencies he decries also have socioeconomic aspects beyond teachers’ control: largely poor classes need more in-class “babysitting,” discipline, and counseling (remember when schools had counselors?) than classes in better-off areas. Kids who bring to school not only bigger vocabularies but also the better attention spans, concentration skills, discipline, and experience with complex argument they’re more likely to get from more educated parents and parents with the economic freedom to spend more time interacting with their kids are a lot easier to teach “efficiently.” They understand more quickly. Their teacher doesn’t have to spend as much class time trying to get them to quiet down and doesn’t have to repeat everything over and over to make up for the children’s inability to pay attention. Their teacher can focus on her presentation of the curriculum rather than wondering if Johnny’s bruises are really as suspicious as she thinks and if the signs really are strong enough to justify reporting them, or worrying if there’ll be anyone home in little Katy’s apartment tonight and if little Mikey will get enough to eat.

    Anyone who thinks he needs to cite “decades of research” to suggest “that student achievement doesn’t derive solely from the classroom” (as if he thought that were news) really needs to consider whether he’s gotten completely lost in abstraction.

  3. #3 Nancy
    May 4, 2011

    I agree with Peter Brivard’s comment, but I’ll add that it’s just as bad in secondary education as elementary. I’m a high school teacher, and I found the Bausell piece hilarious when I read it in the Times. Has the guy ever been in an actual high school? The number of disruptions from announcements, sports dismissals, assemblies, standardized tests, and I don’t know what all is astounding. To suggest that it’s in the classroom teacher’s power to somehow increase instructional time – I guess by being magically more efficient with all of those bureaucratic tasks the school district makes us perform – is pretty funny. Oh, and try to instantly settle down a group of ninth grade boys- any ninth grade boys, even those who aren’t living in poverty or neglect – and get right to the learning – Bausell cracks me up.

  4. #4 Thomas Zaslavsky
    May 8, 2011

    I second the first three comments. I constantly wonder why the experts who are going to improve our schools don’t just ask teachers how to do it.

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