Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why Uncertainty Matters: Measuring Teacher "Effectiveness"

Maxine Greene (1988) wrote: A teacher in search of his/her freedom may be the only kind of teacher who can arouse young persons to go in search of their own" (p. 14).  It represents a singular truth that I believe and have believed across decades.

There have been many teachers who have helped me to understand that learning is essentially about searching for one's freedom and that the idea of freedom is often a far too slippery concept to hold still and study.  A paradox, perhaps. Mrs. Seeliger, my second grade teacher, found joy in the smallest of things and demonstrated that the inconsequential is critical and worthy of one's notice.  I still can recall the winter day in second grade when she placed Charlotte's Web in my hands. Many years later I reread the book at a friend's home in Massachusetts on a different winter afternoon. The constant between the events was pleasure.

Ms. Donovan, a high school social studies teacher valued experiential learning. Many years later, I still recall being the judge in our class's simulation of the Triangle Factory Fire case. Our findings and sentencing clashed with the outcome of the actual case. In addition to learning about the particulars of the case, I also carried  the uncomfortable understanding that justice is not always blind, especially for those without powerful advocates.

More recently, Ruth Vinz, doctoral adviser and friend told me, Slow down when else in your life will you have this time to theorize, research, read and write?  Draft after draft of writing, Ruth read and consistently inspired me to work in order to understand the dilemma from slightly different points of view. Perhaps more than any other, Ruth helped me to value uncertainty.  

Although different, each of these teachers demonstrated what it might mean to live a wide-awake life through their passions, capacity to reflect, curiosity, and desire. They occasioned in me a desire to want. After many schools, degrees, and lots of informal learning choosing to live a wide-awake life represents the most significant and profound learning I have experienced.

In a recent Edutopia post, Maxine Greene clarified the term, wide-awakeness. She said:
I use the term wide-awakeness. Without the ability to think about yourself, to reflect on your life, there's really no awareness, no consciousness. Consciousness doesn't come automatically; it comes through being alive, awake, curious, and often furious.

American Bus Stop: No Lemming Left Behind
These days we seem to be overly interested in measuring teacher effectiveness.  Yet, the question of "effectiveness" is a poor question, if not a wrong one.   It suggests the plausibility of schools being causal worlds of inputs and outputs, where variables can adequately be controlled and effectiveness rightly and singularly determined.  And yet, when I think of the teachers I mention in this post, none of them could aptly be measured via a single test measure (such as my performance on a state assessment), nor could anyone have projected what their range of influence might be decades after contact.  

U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, State Representatives from Florida, a "Teacher Effectiveness Panel" in NJ, and so many others, want all of us to foolishly think we can equate the measure of a teacher via the results of a single round of test scores with "effectiveness".  I can't help but wonder if Secretary Duncan would submit himself to such examination and be satisfied with the determination of his effectiveness based on a single measure. One might ask: How well did Arne Duncan do as Superintendent of Schools for Chicago based on test scores during x year in comparison to y year?  Based on that criteria was he effective? Let's assume there was no "Texas Miracle" for this Secretary, would that negate all that he had done if the results demonstrated less student achievement via a single measure? (See Larry Miller's blog for the skinny on this).

Perhaps a better measure would be to ask to what end is a teacher/administrator in search of his/her freedom? How do they inspire and guide young people to go in search of their own freedom?  In what ways do all of these learners live wide awake lives and how do we support them in these quests as a public committed to public education? 

I realize that we could not capture such depth using a bubble sheet and a #2. But then again, that might be for the best.  In understanding this limitation, we would also acknowledge that we cannot know the trajectory of our efforts with any great certainty and would be best to not waste effort and time trying to do so.   As Ilya Prigogine explains “for a large class of dynamic systems, small perturbations in the initial conditions are amplified over the course of time. Chaotic systems are an extreme example of unstable motion because trajectories identified by distinct initial conditions, no matter how close, diverge exponentially over time” (1997, p. 30).

We would do well to remember that teaching, like learning, is nomadic and trying to assess such dynamic systems using a single measure at a particular point in time is wasteful, wrong, and will reduce what we value to the limits we can measure.

Work Cited:
Prigogine, I. (1997). The end of certainty: Time, chaos, and the new laws of nature. NY: The
Free Press.

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