That’ll Learn ’em

There are certain pairs of verbs in the English language that by definition imply one another.  One example is ‘sell’ and ‘buy.’  If you sell something, someone else must be buying.  It would make no sense to say “I’m selling a lot, but nobody is buying.”  If nobody is buying, you might be ‘trying’ to sell, but you are not actually selling.  A relevant question in this era’s debate about teacher evaluation is whether or not ‘teach’ and ‘learn’ have this same relationship.  If they are not learning, is that teacher truly ‘teaching’?

Over the summer I sometimes try to exercise different parts of my brain.  Thinking about Math for the whole school year can make you ‘left brain heavy.’  So I took some Mark Twain books out of the library and have been reading a little each day.  I’ve noticed that many of the characters use the word ‘learn’ the way we now use the word ‘teach.’  For example “and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump.” (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, 1867)

One philosophy is that ‘teach’ and ‘learn’ are not necessarily two sides of the same coin.  That ‘teach’ just really means ‘try to teach.’  Like the old saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” perhaps the role of the teacher is to provide the opportunity for the student to learn, but if that student refuses it, that does not mean that the teacher did not do his job.  Even if the student does not actively refuse the instruction, there might be times where the student is trying and the teacher is also trying and, for whatever reasons, the student is not ‘getting it.’  Just as a doctor’s job is to attempt to cure the patient, often he is not able to and that is just part of the job.  The doctor is only expected to cure a reasonable percent of patients, depending on their ailments.  Or a baseball player who is only expected to hit the ball between 25% and 35% of the time.  Maybe a teacher is only truly expected to ‘reach’ a certain percent of kids and if every teacher reaches that percent, hopefully each student will get an opportunity to be ‘reached’ by someone.

Or, if you want more ‘accountability’, you can have a philosophy more like Yoda in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ when training Luke, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”  You get nothing for trying if  you fail.  So in this case, there if there is no ‘learning’ than there was no ‘teaching’ despite the efforts of the person who was attempting to teach.

But if you are going to fire someone because the lack of ‘learning’ implies a lack of ‘teaching,’ then you had better have an accurate way to measure the amount of ‘learning’ that occurred.  This is harder than it seems.  The current, and controversial, way that ‘learning’ is measured is through ‘value-added’ based on standardized test scores.  A computer calculates what a student would get with an ‘average’ teacher based on last year’s scores and other factors.  The actual scores are compared to the predicted scores and if they exceed them, the teacher has added a lot of ‘value’, and if they have fallen short, the teacher has added little ‘value.’  But ‘value-added’ is not, despite the claims of someone like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the same thing as ‘student learning,’ ‘student growth,’ or ‘student achievement.’

We always hear that ‘student learning’ should be part of teacher evaluations and that until recently that hasn’t been a factor at all, and now with value-added, despite its flaws, student learning is now becoming a factor.  I disagree.

Student learning is something that can only be measured indirectly.  It is not like we can hook students up to a scale in the beginning of the school year and then again at the end and easily measure what was learned.  We have to do it indirectly through different forms of assessment.  And teachers constantly assess students through in-class questions, though classwork assignments, though homework assignments, through quizzes, and through tests.  When a student ‘passes’ that teacher’s class, that means that the teacher believes that the student has demonstrated ‘learning.’  But what if the student fails the state test?  Does that mean that the teacher was lying or mistaken about the student learning he attests to?

Well, it really depends on how good the process of measuring learning based on the state tests are.  The first question is how accurate was the student’s initial abilities measured?  Imagine that I am taking a class on how to juggle three balls.  For an initial assessment, maybe they would have me start by just throwing one ball up and catching it in the other hand.  Then they would check different benchmarks including how many seconds I can juggle three balls which, presumably, would be zero before I took the class.

Then I take the class.  I learn and practice my skills.  I learn to throw a ball up with my right hand consistently.  I learn to do the same with my left hand.  I learn to juggle one ball and become quite good at it.  I then move on to two balls.  Finally, I learn to juggle three balls, and, by the time the state test comes, I haven’t quite mastered it yet.

Now the state test just asks me to juggle three balls and measures the number of seconds I can do that for.  Despite all my ‘learning,’ I only juggle the three balls for five seconds, which is just five seconds longer than I could before I took the course.  To make matters worse, the computer calculated that I should be able to juggle for 30 seconds, so my teacher’s value-added is negative 25 seconds.

If the test was more thorough, I might be able to demonstrate all that I had learned.  I could have shown how I had developed a solid foundation with my consistent throws.  Also, though I was only able to juggle for five seconds, I might have been just a few days away from meeting the thirty second target.  As anyone who ever has learned to ride a bike will attest, there is a moment in learning, sometimes, where suddenly everything just ‘clicks.’  It is a great feeling when that happens for both teacher and student.  In almost everything I’ve ever taken lessons for:  Chess, piano, tennis, trumpet, there has always been this moment where my ability suddenly increases exponentially.  Then there are lessons, like the Salsa lessons I took with my wife, where I hadn’t reached that ‘moment’ where it all came together.  The course ended before I got a chance, but that does not mean that I wasn’t one or two lessons away from that.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to measure how far away a student is from that ‘clicking’ moment, and this is something that can never be predicted by the value-added computer.

So if you are an accountability zealot who thinks that the teacher’s job is not just to ‘try’ but to ‘learn ’em,’ there will always be this problem in using test results to measure student growth, achievement, or learning.

As all measures of learning are merely indirect, the use of other indirect measures, such as classroom observations by someone who is qualified to judge teaching ability (many principals today are not qualified for this, unfortunately) will be better, more fair, less prone to wild error, and a lot cheaper.

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2 Responses to That’ll Learn ’em

  1. Terry says:

    A must read for all:

    In contrast to such “success,” the TFA insurgency has failed to dent educational inequality. This comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest grasp of the tight correlation between economic and educational inequality: TFA does nothing to address the former while spinning its wheels on the latter. In her writings, nowhere does Kopp reflect upon the patent ridiculousness of her expectation that loads of cash donated by corporations that exploit inequalities across the world—such as Union Carbide and Mobil, two of TFA’s earliest contributors—will help her solve some of the gravest injustices endemic to American society. Kopp shows some awareness of the absurdities of her own experiences—including a “fundraising schedule [that] shuttled me between two strikingly different economic spheres: our undersourced classrooms and the plush world of American philanthropy”—but she fails to grasp that this very gap is what makes her stated goal of equality unachievable. In short, Kopp, like education reformers more generally, is an innocent when it comes to political economy. She spouts platitudes about justice for American children, but rarely pauses to ask whether rapidly growing inequality might be a barrier to such justice. She celebrates twenty years of reform movement success, but never tempers such self-congratulatory narcissism with unpleasant questions about why those who have no interest in disrupting the American class structure—such as Bill Gates and the heirs to Sam Walton’s fortunes, by far the most generous education reform philanthropists—are so keen to support the TFA insurgency. Kopp is a parody of the liberal do-gooder.

  2. Dan McGuire says:

    The solution, I think, is to test often ( 3 times a week) and quickly – record the assessments and link them to instruction.
    Locally created, recorded, and correlated formative assessment makes standardized tests irrelevant.

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