False Choice: Good Teaching or Learning Outcomes

March 17, 2011

Valerie Strauss oversees a very good K-12 education blog for the Washington Post called The Answer Sheet.  She gives it over today to Joanne Yatvin, a teacher who is a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, for a post on “The Real Qualities of Teacher Excellence.”

It’s a good essay, clearly written by someone who knows how to teach and understands the qualities of good teaching.  In naming the qualities of excellence in teaching, Yatvin says “To me the most important one is the ability to inspire students to want to learn more about what has been taught in class, whether that is math, writing, science, or civility.”

I agree with that wholeheartedly, but the essay is framed as an argument against “measuring the quality of teachers so some can be awarded merit pay and others can be fired.”  Yatvin names the qualities of good teachers as she understands them, and her list is a good list of what good teachers do.  For example,a good teacher “Is aware, as far as possible, of each students’ academic strengths and weaknesses,” and “Plans lessons that cover the range of students’ instructional needs and connect to their interests.”

But why is she against measurement?  Set to one side the question of merit pay and the question of firing under-performing teachers.  Don’t we want to know who the good teachers are?  And doesn’t that mean identifying the teachers who are most successful at “inspir[ing] students to want to learn more about what has been taught in class, whether that is math, writing, science, or civility.”

To understand that, we have to look at what students are learning, not what teachers are doing.

Yatvin believes that “The most reliable evaluator [of good teaching] is a good principal who visits classrooms regularly and gathers additional information informally from conversations with teachers, students, and parents.”  I’m all for that, but why wouldn’t we ALSO want to see whether and what students are learning?

Yes, many of the “outcomes measures” of student learning that are in use today are crude, simplistic, and overly-focused on factual recall.  But that isn’t an argument against trying to see what students are learning; it’s an argument against doing it poorly and in favor of figuring out how to do it better.

Excellence in teaching is teaching that induces student learning.  The more we know about whether and how students are learning, the more we will be sure that Yatvin’s list of the qualities of excellence in teaching is the right list.  Let’s not set a focus on excellence in teaching and a focus on student learning outcomes in opposition to one another.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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