Studies Give Nuanced Look at Teacher Effectiveness

In a recent blog post for Education Week¸ Sarah Sparks reported on the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Vancouver, BC.  Under discussion was the massive Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project, funded by the Gates Foundation. MET is finding that their teacher effectiveness assessments “aren’t good at showing which differences are important between the most and least effective educators, and often totally misunderstand the ‘messy middle’ that most teachers occupy.”  Yet the most recent findings of the studies suggest that more nuanced teacher tests, multiple classroom observations, and even student feedback can all create a better picture of what an effective teacher looks like.

“The middle is a lot messier than a lot of state policies would lead us to believe,” says Steve Cantrell, who oversees the MET project.  “Teachers don’t fall neatly into quartiles.  Based on the practice data…all that separates the 25th and 75th on a class (observation) instrument is .68—less than 10 percent of the scale distribution.”  Furthermore, differences in classroom practices between effective and ineffective teachers mostly in classroom management and behavior.

In interviews with 60 teachers at the high and low ends of the spectrum, Drew Gitomer, education chair at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, found that the lowest-performing teachers often had weak reasoning for their instructional decisions, often providing no justification for an approach beyond personal preference.  Strong teachers tended to use questions to look at larger classes of problems and could describe how their approach supported students’ learning.

Ron Feruson, senior lecturer in education and public policy at Harvard, believes that student observations may be key to identifying what works in teaching.  He analyzed surveys from 2,985 MET classes and found that the practices most highly correlated with high achievement were, in order:

  1. Control, in which students reported treating the teacher with respect, that their class behaved, stayed busy and didn’t waste time;
  2. Challenge, in which students reported that they “learn a lot every day” and “learn to correct our mistakes,” and
  3. Clarify, in which students noted that their teacher explains difficult things clearly.

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