Monday, December 22, 2008

Is there such a thing as a "Bad Teacher" or "Good Teacher?"

An awful lot is made these days about the need for high-quality teachers in our schools. And I agree: we need good teachers in our schools. But I'm not sure that "good teacher" really means anything -- and the same goes for "bad teacher."

Kevin Carey wrote earlier about recent findings that value-added measures are inconsistent and identify the same teachers as very good or very bad depending on the year or test on which they're based. This means at least one of the following two things:

1.) The tests aren't very precise at measuring student growth
2.) The amount of student growth under the same teacher varies in different years

Let's focus on number two. If the same teacher can get good test scores one year and bad the next (or vice-versa) it may be the case that their level of success depends on many things besides their teaching ability. In other words, the particular kids they have, the dynamics of the class, the dynamics of the school, the teacher's personal life, the subject matter, the weather, and who knows what else may affect the quality of a teacher in any given year.

This makes sense to me. I'm good at teaching kids how to swim faster; I'm not good at teaching them how to dance. I can teach 6th graders about gravity, but I'd be an awful AP Physics teacher. It's easy to see that being a good teacher for one subject or age group does not mean that you'll be a good teacher for another subject or age group. And it makes perfect sense that somebody could be a good teacher for Class A and not for Class B -- or in School A but not in School B. I'd argue that teaching different subjects in different schools across different age groups requires very different skills (not to mention different areas of expertise).

In other words, it's likely that a teacher's success in a particular classroom is due at least as much to contextual conditions as it is to any innate ability. When declaring that a teacher is "good" or "bad" we should take these things into account.

Bottom line: finding the best fit for a teacher may be easier than simply trying to find the best teacher.


Eve Proper said...

I'm going to push back a little, even though I agree with where you're going with this post.

First, when we talk about good/bad teachers, some context is implied. Teachers can't easily go from teaching third grade to teaching high school English, so when we say a third-grade teacher is "good," the grade-school context is unspoken, not unmeant. That said one teacher may be better as some of his or her duties than others; for example, he may be a great honors English teacher but not so hot at teaching remedial English.

Second, I'm willing to say some teachers are just plain flat-out bad - because they're so bad on dimensions other than just transmission of knowledge. In these NCLB days its easy to focus on testing, but that's not all teachers should be responsible for. A teacher who scares the pants of his or her pupils (or worse, takes them off), is bad, I don't care what they score on standardized tests.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I agree that there are some people who are just flat out "bad" teachers almost no matter what.

But my point is that the success of a teacher may have more to do with contextual factors and less to do with "teaching ability" than we recognize. The fact that "some context is implied" when discussing the quality of a teacher simply proves that point. The example comparing vastly different subjects and age groups is simply that -- an example -- and rarely (though surely not never) occurs in real life. That it's obvious how much a teacher's success could change across drastic differences in setting underscores the point that smaller changes in setting could also yield differences in success. And regardless of how much people realize this, I almost never hear it discussed.

Angela Watson said...

You're right: people typically realize the importance of context, but it's rarely spoken of.

There is certainly something to be said for trying to find a teacher's best fit contextually, rather than dismissing him or her as a 'bad teacher'. I have seen many teachers switch grade levels and their effectiveness improved dramatically, and it's an important consideration.

Of course, I've also seen 'bad teachers' switched around mercilessly in order to either a) get them to quit, or b)place them in a grade level where they would do the least amount of damage (ie from a grade level that participates in standardized testing to one that does not). Those teachers never really improve; the misery is simply spread around from one grade level team to another.

Thanks for the post.

RDT said...

I'm definitely a better teacher in some contexts than others -- and better with the remedial classes than with the honors classes.

I think its true that there are some bad teachers. But some things --like scaring students -- can be (and often are) caught during the probationary period.

The challenge is that some schools find hiring and retaining staff so difficult that they're willing to be overly optimistic about their job candidates.

And given that for many schools there is a shortage of good teachers, I think you're right that helping schools find the right fit for the teachers they have is going to be as useful has helping them get rid of them.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem of identifying "good" teachers goes even farther. 50% of my students score proficient or better, another 30% of my students are basic, and 20% are below basic or far below basic.

What does any of that tell you about my teaching?

Roger Sweeny said...

There are good teachers and bad teachers like there are good writers and bad writers. Ernest Hemingway probably couldn't write a very good science article, and Natalie Angier probably can't write a very good short story. But both of them can write better than any of my ninth graders.

Anonymous said...

Corey: I definitely agree with your theme: that a teacher's efficacy can change depending on the context of his or her teaching. As a former middle and high school teacher, something I noticed about my own effectiveness is that I taught better when teaching no more than two new subjects at a time. My worst year teaching (in my opinion) was when I was assigned three different subjects (none of which I had taught previously) after the school year had begun (that is, with basically no prior prep time).

Because I was dual-certified in English and Social Studies, the principals really had their pick among subjects to throw on my class schedule: 7th grade English, 9th grade world geography, 8th grade American history, etc... I think it's very important when evaluating a teacher to appreciate the impact that a particular school, student group, or subject assignment can have on the teacher's ability to do a good job.

Unknown said...

It is the job of the parent to educate the child. The problem in American education is that the teacher is becoming more and more responsible for the moral upbringing and socialization of children. This was in the not too distant past the sole province of the home. A willing student can learn from a good or bad teacher as long as the said teacher is well versed in their subject matter and pedagogy.

Today's children do not have the capacity for sustained thought or engagement with adults. This is because their upbringing mostly consists of a fragmented and superficial relationships. The gaps are summarily filled with mindless entertainment to serve as a distraction from the mental anguish of daily confinement and lowered expectations.