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Geoff Johnson: Project studies what makes a good teacher

The distraught Grade 11 student said she loathed a teacher because of how that teacher had marked up her essay. “Then see your counsellor and change to another class,” I suggested. “No, I can’t do that,” she said.

The distraught Grade 11 student said she loathed a teacher because of how that teacher had marked up her essay.

“Then see your counsellor and change to another class,” I suggested.

“No, I can’t do that,” she said. “That would be silly — she’s a very good teacher and we’re all learning a lot.”

The recent Bill and Melinda Gates-funded research report Measures of Effective Teaching supports the notion that my Grade 11 student, along with most students who have been in the classrooms of maybe 40 teachers over 11 years in school, had developed the ability to judge a good teacher.

Many within the profession will agree with the report, its findings and recommendations. But those findings and recommendations are likely to cause others to hyperventilate.

Measures of Effective Teaching was funded by a $45-million commitment from the Gates Foundation, and enrolled 3,000 teachers in Dallas, New York and elsewhere.

The voluntary project was implemented over the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years in math and English classes in Grades 4 through 8. Included was Algebra I at the high school level, high-school biology (or its equivalent) and English in Grade 9.

The research found that the three best indicators of teaching effectiveness were students’ progress on standardized tests, constructive observation of classroom teaching and student surveys.

Student progress on standardized tests is likely to be the most controversial of the findings, both politically and educationally. Given that class composition is traditionally thought to skew results on standardized tests as a measure of teaching effectiveness, the project looked long and hard at this indicator.

Nonetheless, research on 3,000 teaching situations found that the most effective teachers can spur test scores of students who had lagged under less-effective teachers.

Most important, the best teachers produced test scores and other academic gains even when students were randomly assigned to their classrooms — mixed groups of students irrespective of any preconceptions about ability.

Rather than relying solely on how well a teacher’s students do on assessments, the Measures of Effective Teaching project sought to uncover and develop other measures to form a more complete indicator of a teacher’s impact on student achievement.

The second indicator involved careful observations either by competent principals or other trained observers of teachers as they taught their classes. Evidence showed what most people know intuitively — that teachers matter more to student learning than anything else inside a school. Yet, school systems often fail to value and support truly effective teaching or to implement programs to improve overall teacher effectiveness.

Third, surveys of students about what goes on in the classrooms were taken into account. In other words, this research tells us that good teachers can help all students, not just those students who excel naturally, and students know that.

It is this last conclusion that is likely to ruffle a few feathers, but then most professions include “client satisfaction” as at least one measure of professional success, and who can deny that kids often know which teachers are most effective?

Every teacher knows that preparing students for success takes passion, dedication and skill. Think of the best teacher you ever had. The MET project’s goal was to measure those qualities so that other teachers can learn from those who do it best.

There will be reaction, both pro and con, to the finding that suggests not all teachers are equally effective, despite that fact that this is only common sense.

But the stated goal of the project is not to vilify anybody, but to support independent education researchers, in partnership with school districts, principals, teachers and unions, to develop objective and reliable measures of effective teaching.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.