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.