How Do You Measure a Good Teacher, Anyway?

It doesn’t seem like something you can do online

cybrarian77 / Creative Commons

October 25, 2015

Arthur Levine is not the first person you would expect to found an education school. As head of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, he has excoriated education schools for years. Teacher education is like Dodge City of the Wild West, he wrote in 2007 — it’s "unruly and chaotic. Anything goes and the chaos is increasing."

The scene has just gotten wilder, because Levine has announced plans to offer his own competency-based, mostly online graduate degree in education. The new venture — a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is also supported by various foundations — departs from the traditional classroom model in that students’ progress will be based on demonstrated expertise, not accumulated credits.

That emphasis on "competencies" rather than "seat time" typically signals that education will be conducted online, where students can proceed at their own pace. Levine has been promoting competency-based education for public-school students for years. His Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning will do the same for schoolteachers: Most instruction will take place online, in "modules" focused on particular skills.

Competency-based education breaks learning into parts and then assesses whether the student has acquired them. Students at Levine’s Wilson Academy will therefore have to reach "a set of outcomes or competencies" to graduate. Those requirements will be "rooted in what excellent teachers must know and be able to do."

That’s all well and good, but just what are those competencies?

The academy’s website has yet to offer specifics. The press release sounds like a political candidate on the stump declaring that she will "cut the fat" from the budget, but without naming any specific programs. Fingering targets is bad politics, of course: One voter’s fat is another one’s meat. Just as we may not agree on what counts as fiscal pork, we don’t necessarily agree on "what excellent teachers must know" either. It’s tactically understandable that Levine and his colleagues don’t want to offer specifics just yet — but their omission raises a caution flag.

Good teacher training is not 'just a matter of checking off boxes.'
Education schools may teach people to teach, but historically, their most important role has been to provide credentials. They’ve been manufacturing those credentials for more than 100 years, with a great burgeoning in the first few decades of the 20th century, when public high school became widespread. Education degrees have multiplied greatly in our own time, too. The number of master’s degrees granted in the field more than doubled to roughly 185,000 annually between 1990 and 2010.

Levine is certainly correct that the requirements for an education degree have varied widely over time, and that inconsistency has hurt the meaning and prestige of the degree. There’s a big marketplace for education degrees, and there’s not much agreement about the ingredients of what’s being sold. Every higher-ed professional has heard (or perhaps made) snarky jokes poking fun at education schools.

Plenty needs to be done, then, and Levine deserves credit for his willingness to experiment. He wants his academy to provide leadership for a troubled field. But I have a hard time imagining that online teacher training will aid reform.

I would happily trust a graduate of an online program in watch repair to repair my broken Rolex (if I owned a Rolex). But teaching is a different kind of craft. Good teacher training is not "just a matter of checking off boxes," said David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. We need "differentiation for personal styles."

I’ve lately been reading Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful book about the legendary racehorse. She describes how Seabiscuit turned in mediocre results as a colt because he fought his jockey instead of competing against the other horses in the race. It took a gifted trainer to change the horse and release his potential. He studied the horse, and constructed exercises that would allow Seabiscuit to appreciate a partnership with his rider. That trainer, with the help of a similarly intuitive jockey, taught Seabiscuit to enjoy racing. After that the horse became nearly unbeatable.

Seabiscuit’s trainer was a master teacher, but how do you test for competency like his? At the heart of good teaching is some kind of understanding of what goes on between instructor and student. The interaction is not an ineffable mystery, but it’s not easily quantified and measured either. "I question whether you can distill education leadership into a series of competency-based categories," said Bloomfield.

Teaching is a people-centered profession, but Levine’s model keeps people at a literal distance and makes mentoring — which is so important to advancement — difficult. Competency-based teacher training elides the craft (to say nothing of the art) of teaching in favor of the science of the practice.

For me, there’s a bottom line: If I were to sell my imaginary Rolex, I would not spend the money to take an online course in how to teach. Nor would I spend it to enroll my daughter in a class taught by a teacher who had just learned the trade from competency-based online courses, even from a fancy school like MIT.

In a similar vein, Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize winner and a professor of physics at Stanford University, recently suggested that we can measure teaching effectiveness by counting the number of times that teachers engage in certain methods (such as group-learning projects) and then correlate the numbers with student outcomes. This proposal seems to substitute a shovel for a scalpel.

Teacher training, whether it’s taught at education schools or as part of graduate programs in the arts and sciences, needs a personal element. One way you learn how to teach is by borrowing moves from the best teachers who stand in front of you — or beside you.

In fact, the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in how we teach teaching at all. "We don’t lack knowledge about what makes for effective teaching," says Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University. "The challenge lies in attracting and then retaining good future teachers in the current American public-school system."

Tangled in conflicting bureaucratic imperatives, the public-school workplace has become irrational for teachers and administrators alike. I have a feeling that if we paid teachers better and respected their work more, this debate would look a lot different.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His new book The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, is published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.