Monday, April 23, 2012

In a Rush to Judge

The current fad in education news in mainstream media is the Value Added Model or VAM.  It goes like this.  There are a bunch of bad teachers at the cause of our woes in education, and we need to find them.  So they are evaluating teachers, and applying business model methods like VAM.  There exists a group of people in the United State who presuppose that the problem with education is a bunch of "bad teachers."  The purpose of my post is to redirect this discussion into one that is based on reality and one that would actually help us solve real problems.  The current black-and-white debate about education today misses many important issues and ultimately, in my opinion, will be counterproductive, leading to inadequate responses.

I point out that essentially every person in our country wants to improve education and help children become good thinkers.  We all can agree on this.  The problem with our debate is that we are focusing far too much on teacher evaluation, while missing the larger picture.  In this post I explain what I mean by this.

First, pointing fingers at one group or another is counterproductive.  The current media attention has been to place blame on teachers (and teacher unions) and to promote the use of VAM-based evaluations of teachers.  Then using this data, some districts have publicly humiliated teachers who perform poorly by publishing this data.  Even business leaders know that public humiliation is not the way to bring about positive changes, as Bill Gates writes.

Second, VAM appears to have dubious intellectual or scientific merit for teacher evaluation.  Jesse Rothstein (UC Berkeley) published a paper that indicating the using VAM is not suitable for measuring teacher effectiveness.  He states, "My results indicate that policies based on these VAMs will reward or punish teachers who do not deserve it and fail to reward or punish teachers who do."  The essence here is that certain assumptions being made are actually false.  VAM might work if we randomly assigned students to teachers.  In the U.S. we track students.   If I know who your child's teacher is in 5th grade, I can infer information about how you did in 4th grade.  In order for VAM to work, it has to be the case that know a child's 5th grade teacher has no influence on how the child did in the 4th grade.  This condition is false.

To put it simply, we may be using a hammer to paint our walls.  Wrong tool. Wrong job.  We could realize in the future that we fired a bunch of teachers erroneously.  It would be deeply unethical to use a system without knowing it actually works, and then to make life and career altering decisions based on it.

Third, it is assumed that teachers have adequate control and power, and hence should be held accountable.  Rhetoric based on this premise sounds good from the podium, but unfortunately is incomplete.  Richard Ingersoll (University of Pennsylvania) portrays the climate teachers work in in his article "Short on Power, Long on Responsibility."  With great responsibility placed upon then, they are given far too little control or input on issues that would allow them to do their jobs better.

  • teachers generally have little input or influence on overall school curriculum
  • teachers have little input on course assignments or class size
  • teachers generally have little input into schoolwide behavioral and disciplinary policies
  • teachers rarely have the authority to have disruptive students removed from their classrooms
  • teachers have little input into hiring, firing, budgetary decisions, and whether to hold back or promote students based on their academic performances
  • teachers have little input on the content and form of their own on-the-job development and inservice programs
Ingersoll writes "Teachers are akin to men or women in the middle.  A useful analogy is that of supervisors, or foremen, caught between the contradictory demands and needs to two groups: their superordinates -- school administrators -- and their subordinates -- students.  Teachers are not part of management and they are not workers... although [teaching] involves much responsibility, it involves little real power."  If we are to hold someone accountable for a job, then they have to have commensurate power and control over this job.

Fourth, perverse incentives may come into play that are unforeseen at this time.  No one can think through every detail of a system that involves millions of people.  So here is a hypothetical situation:
Suppose Mrs. Jones has two students with learning disabilities.  These students' disabilities have been undiagnosed until Mrs. Jones takes the time and effort to figure this out and help these children deal with and overcome their disabilities. These students succeed, learn, and are set on path that will lead them to a productive and fulfilling life.  This is a major victory for education, for Mrs. Jones, and especially for her students.  BUT because these students were not able to learn some topics in previous years, due to their disabilities, they do not score well on state tests.  Thus Mrs. Jones is labeled a "bad" teacher.  If instead, Mrs. Jones ignored the evidence of a disability, and had these students removed from her class somehow (i.e. failed them), she would then be labeled a "good" teacher, but at great cost to the two children, their families and to society.
We know how perverse incentives can lead to terrible outcomes.  The financial crisis of 2008 is a prime example.  The numerous cases of school districts cheating on high stakes testing is another.  If your job depends on a misguided set of incentives, then you will get tragic results.  We must carefully think through the evaluation system to make sure it works without creating incentives to cheat or to make unethical choices.

Fifth, it is assumed that test scores measure something of great intrinsic value.  VAM is based on test scores.  Standardized testing is a long separate discussion in itself, so I will not describe the tests and how they are inadequate in great detail.  Standardized tests in the U.S. focus primarily on rote skill types of tasks.  These are the kinds of tasks that do not involve high-level thinking or require deep conceptual knowledge.  Moreover, these tests do not measure effectively problem-solving ability or other higher-level, critical reasoning abilities.  It's not that the tests are useless, but there is some question about what they actually tell us.

I'll argue now by way of analogy.  Free throw percentage is a measure of a particular skill in basketball.  In math, it could be something like solving linear equations or adding fractions.  Here is a ranking of NBA players by Career Free Throw Percentage:

  1. Player 1, 88.9%
  2. Player 2, 87.7%
  3. Player 3, 85.4%
  4. Player 4, 84.8%
  5. Player 5, 83.5%

If I asked you, who is the best player in the list above, you could say player 1.  Or if you thought about it a bit, you would say that you don't have enough data.  Here are the names of the players:

  1. Scott Skiles, 88.9%
  2. Jeff Hornacek, 87.7%
  3. Mario Elie, 85.4%
  4. Spud Webb, 84.8%
  5. Michael Jordan 83.5%

With no disrespect to any of the players on the list, but I'd choose Michael Jordan to be on my team, even though he's the lowest in rank.  In fact, let's consider Shaquille O'Neil.  Shaq's career free throw percentage is 52.7%.  He's terrible by this measure, yet, in his prime he'd be one of the first players you'd pick for your team.

Let's relate this back to teaching and learning.  As free throw percentage is an incomplete measure of basketball ability, so are today's standardized tests an incomplete measure of student mathematical ability.  Today we can test for achievement of basic skills, but we do not test for problem-solving ability, proof writing, argumentation, the ability to experiment and explore, and so on.   No kid thinks shooting free throws is the end all, be all of basketball.  No kid thinks bubbling in scantron forms is the heart of mathematics.

The example goes on.  It would not be fair then to compute the team free throw percentage and determine if a coach is good or bad.  Let's look once again at the 1992-1993 NBA season.  The Chicago Bulls were ranked 22nd out of 27 teams that year in team free throw percentage.  By this standard, Phil Jackson should be have been fired as a coach after the end of the season, his name shamefully listed on the internet for all to see with disdain.

What happened that season? The Chicago Bulls won the NBA title over the Phoenix Suns.  The Bulls didn't "test" well, but they sure ripped apart the competition.  Clearly we didn't use the right evaluation tool here.

Thus, while I agree that we need to ensure high teacher quality, this doesn't excuse using the wrong tools or using a tool prematurely before we are sure it's the right one.  I propose that we evaluate teachers in a smart way, and develop a trustworthy evaluation system.  This is a big job, and will require a ton of resources.  Administrators and teachers must come to an agreement on a fair system that uses scientifically proven methods as well as classroom visitation and other forms of data (such as student portfolios).

Sixth, we have lost sight of the whole system.  What we are doing is the proverbial rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  If we continue to teach rote skills in passive learning environments, no matter how well we test our students or evaluate teachers, the probability to transform the system is zero.  The reason why I believe this to be the case is that focusing only on teacher evaluation misses big pieces of the system like curriculum, learning environments, developing critical thinking, community and school support of academics, switching to student-centered instruction (e.g. IBL) that support higher-level thinking, etc.  Teacher evaluation is but one (small) piece.

What should we do?
We should rethink our basic assumptions about education.  Now that we live in the google era, it isn't enough to just teach the three R's (reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic).  We need superbly critical and creative thinkers.  Guy Claxton does a wonderful job of describing what we should do in "What's the Point of School?"  Claxton states that the point of school is the great eight qualities.  They are:

  • Curiosity
  • Courage
  • Exploration
  • Experimentation
  • Imagination
  • Reasoning
  • Sociability
  • Reflection
These qualities are the kinds of big objectives that supporters of student-center or inquiry-based learning methods agree with and pursue daily in our classes.  We have seen immense growth in our students in these qualities, when allowed the time and space to give our students challenging math problems to solve and discussion collaboratively.

Consequently, what we should be doing is working as a team or community to help teachers create class environments that support the learning of these great eight qualities.  Professional development efforts are the best bang for the buck.  Help teachers use effectively the best teaching practices we have available today with better, more modern curricula.  Other countries are more supportive of their teachers, especially high performing, modern nations like Singapore, Japan, Finland, and South Korea.  Some of these countries view their teachers as "nation builders."  Teachers are supported, respected, and given working conditions that allow them to be more effective in the classroom.

Pointing fingers at teachers is counterproductive, and in fact, it is potentially destructive, since we are ignoring more pressing issues.  If hypothetically a foreign power wanted to dismantle our educational system, what strategy would they employ?  Would they like to see us working together with civility towards a common goal or pointing fingers at one another?

In our rush to judge teachers, we have lost sight of some of the overarching issues that need to be addressed.  It's time to shift the discussion to the great eight qualities and how we can pull that off in our classrooms.  Teachers are the ones who will implement this, and they need our support and our respect.   I encourage teachers, parents, administrators, students, and policy makers to rethink basic assumptions about education, and consider how we can work together, without pointing fingers, to upgrade our system to better educate our youth. 

Upward and onward!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Thinking About Thinking

One of the main reasons why IBL produces superior learning outcomes compared to non-IBL teaching methods is metacognition.  Metacognition described simplistically is thinking about one's own thinking.  Professional academics do this as a habit of mind.  We ask ourselves, "What is my approach to this?"  or "The way I'm thinking about this is..."  It's one of the reasons why we are peculiar.

Students sometimes (often) do not think about their thinking.  Most have not had experiences in school that support this.  This is easy to think about.  If all you do is follow rules and procedures to compute algorithms you don't have to think about your own thinking.  All you need to do is follow the thinking of someone else.  My intuition about why passive learning fails for most people is that unless you are predisposed to independent thinking, there is little in traditional education that can transform one towards independent, critical thinking.   Monitoring one's own thinking is part of the sophisticated set of thinking processes that distinguish experts and novices.  And it can be trained!

Where this comes into play in IBL math classes boils down to this:  students in IBL math classes must explain their reasoning on a regular basis.  I claim that the process of justifying answers engages the metacognitive process.  It goes something like this:
Student: "I believe the statement is false."
Instructor: "Can you tell us why?
Student: "Well... I looked at these examples and then I thought that this one here doesn't satisfy the second condition."
Instructor: "Very interesting.  What do the rest of you think?..." <discussion ensues>
The support of metacognition in IBL classes is much richer than what is presented in the vignette above.  Students are stuck on problems.  They are proving theorems from first principles, and are asked to write proofs outside of class.  Moreoever, students are required to present their proofs to the entire class for peer review.  Students cannot get through class without having to think about their thinking.

Some questions to get you to think about your students' thinking about their thinking:

  • Do your students think about their thinking and how do you know?
  • If you are not sure students are thinking deeply about their thinking, what can you do in class and via assignments to encourage this?
  • What mathematical tasks and class setup could you use to support thinking about thinking?