Teachers as Resource … Teachers as Problem

Once in a while (more often than you would know from posts here), I read something about education that shows how poorly some people outside of teaching understand what we do, and how we develop.  Today, I read a post on an effort (New Jersey) to remove  ‘bad teachers’ … based in part on standardized test scores.  I have posted about the value-added models that use standardized test scores; if you want to see a critique of value-added models from a mathematician’s viewpoint, see http://www.ams.org/notices/201105/rtx110500667p.pdf .

The article is at Test scores add value to teacher review, which is a blog post.  (I realize that one should be skeptical about the voracity of anything posted on a blog … you never know :).)  We could get distracted by the value-added component, and miss the more central error in such efforts:

Most good teachers were bad teachers at one time.

Personally, I began teaching (like most of us) with good training but bad real preparation.  How can a teacher be prepared to be a good teacher in the first two or three years?  I believe that some people have such an unusual background that they are actually good teachers from the first day; I believe that this is not a reasonable expectation for the group of all new teachers, regardless of the particulars in their training.  Yes, we can improve preparation of teachers at all levels — even college teaching.  Yes, we should have high expectations of teachers … with commensurate high rewards.

At the college level, our ‘standardized measure’ of outcomes is the set of grades we assign to students.  If we analyze these at the level of a specific college, the grade measurements are likely to be valid and reliable enough that some meaningful analysis is possible, always supplemented by insight and wisdom.  At the level of an individual instructor, grades are not so good; depending on the institution, there may not be any standardization at all in this measure.

To me, an obvious approach to the developmental mathematics problem is this:

Faculty are the most powerful resource available.

Instead of saying ‘bad teacher’, we should say “That does not look so good; what did you see happening?”  Instead of saying ‘bad teacher’, we should say “Are there conditions which negatively impacted your students that we could, together, improve?”  Instead of saying ‘bad teacher’, we should say “Can we identify what barriers exist in the learning for specific groups of students … and what development is needed for us to help all students succeed?”

Some of us might think that we do not need to worry about ‘removing bad teachers’ coming to higher education.  Especially in community colleges, we certainly do need to be concerned … whether it is at your institution yet, many colleges have become aware that they have opportunities to prevent new faculty from continuing by critiquing their teaching in the first two years.  Some states are implementing performance-based funding, where colleges get points … and $$ money $$ … for students ‘completing’ developmental mathematics as shown by grades; colleges in these states will have a vested interest in removing ‘bad teachers’ who fail too many students.  [I would like to believe that, in most cases, this removal will not be based just on the grades.]

In the emerging models (New Life, Pathways, Mathways), faculty are seen as the most powerful resource.  Professional development is intended to be be continuous and purposeful; expertise is gained both by the deliberate professional development and by the involvement in network of faculty.  In my view, a ‘bad teacher’ is a temporary condition … and one most of us have in our history.  Like mathematics for our students, becoming a good teacher is basically working hard with appropriate strategies.

Teachers are the most powerful resource; faculty are at the core of all solutions to the developmental mathematics problem.

 
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