The other part of teacher success

March 05, 2007|By Walt Gardner

LOS ANGELES -- With the No Child Left Behind law up for renewal this year, reformers have an opportunity to change the way the effectiveness of teachers is measured. Yet nowhere in the 75 specific recommendations made by the nonpartisan Commission on No Child Left Behind is mention made of the importance of noncognitive outcomes in the classroom.

This omission is all the more puzzling because of what educators have long known about this subject based on their collective experience and a vast body of research.

While knowledge and skills are undeniably crucial components of curriculum and instruction, attitudes and values are no less worthy of evaluation. This is particularly the case today, as classrooms become increasingly turned into test preparation factories to boost standardized scores that have become the sine qua non of success. When that happens, it's altogether possible to teach students a subject thoroughly but to teach them to hate the subject in the process.

Drill has its place in instruction, but not to the extent that it is being employed. Yet the blue-ribbon commission fails to take this distinction into account, preferring instead to focus inordinately on test scores as proof of educational quality. That does children a disservice, because long after subject matter is forgotten, attitudes and values remain. Skeptics need only attend 20- and 30-year class reunions to see what former students say about their teachers.

The case put forward against taking noncognitive outcomes into account is that they are difficult to measure and often don't appear until many years later. Both arguments have a grain of truth, but they are not excuses to avoid efforts to do so.

Anonymously completed attitude inventories given to students at the start and end of the semester, for example, can yield accurate feedback to be used to evaluate teachers.

The most widely used are the Likert inventories. These consist of a series of statements to which students register their agreement or disagreement on a five-point scale. If encouraging students to read were a goal, for example, they would be given a statement such as "I like to read on my own when I have free time," and then be asked to respond in five gradations ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree." The statements can easily be varied for very young children by their phrasing or by reading them aloud.

Businesses routinely use a similar approach with their customer satisfaction teams. This strategy has special relevance to the nation's need for graduates who are equipped to meet the demands of the new global economy. It does little good to inculcate concepts in math and science if students are turned off from careers in those strategic fields as a result of classroom practices. And yet that has been the experience of many nations around the globe.

Japan is a case in point. As early as 2000, before the fissures in the Japanese model of education became apparent, a survey conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement ranked Japan's students 36th out of 37 nations for their interest in math, and 22nd out of 23 for their interest in science. Yet these same students ranked near the top in both fields on tests of international competition.

There's an important lesson here that America avoids at its peril. If taxpayers want to promote real accountability, they need to remind the members of the Commission on No Child Left Behind of the adage that in education, what is treasured is measured.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. His e-mail is walt.gard@verizon.net.

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