Reflections on Waiting for "Superman"

Artwork (c) Paramount Pictures

Artwork (c) Paramount Pictures

When I decided to become a teacher it was because I desired to share my love of science with others.  Great teachers open doors for students and I wanted to be able to open the doors of science to young people, especially girls.  It was a lofty ideal, but I don't know that I really understood what I was getting into at the time.  No, let me correct that, I had no idea.  Now that I've taught for a decade, I understand that teaching is truly a career of service.  Teachers, myself included, often remark that it's all about what is "best for the children".  Is that really true?

Now I see, in a lot more coherent ways, why things are the way they are. It all becomes about the adults.
— Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of DC Public Schools

For a profession that claims that it is all about what is best for kids, we seem to spend an awful lot of time concerned with ourselves. Not to sound too full of it, but teachers are important - not just any teacher though.  We need good teachers.  It is easy to say that, to type that here on my screen.  It is another thing, however, to define exactly what that means.  And as a profession, it seems that we are threatened by attempts to define what a good teacher really is and is not.  

Education policy makers have turned to business for suggestions for how to define effective educators.  In the business world, success is measured by profits turned out, units shipped, etc.  From my perspective, measuring success in the business world is relatively straightforward because business outputs are easily measurable, but perhaps that's simply due to my naivety.  To make the connection to schools and teachers, the outputs need to be easily measurable.  And that's where it gets tricky.

Some of the outputs are measurable.  Students need to be able to read fluently, communicate proficiently with the English language and demonstrate mathematical reasoning.  Those outputs can be measured through standardized testing.  And if that's all that we valued in schools, our work in defining the outputs of good teaching would be done.  But we all know that it is not that simple.

Education policy makers have turned to business for suggestions for how to define effective educators.  In the business world, success is measured by profits turned out, units shipped, etc.  From my perspective, measuring success in the business world is relatively straightforward because business outputs are easily measurable, but perhaps that's simply due to my naivety.  To make the connection to schools and teachers, the outputs need to be easily measurable.  And that's where it gets tricky.

Some of the outputs are measurable.  Students need to be able to read fluently, communicate proficiently with the English language and demonstrate mathematical reasoning.  Those outputs can be measured through standardized testing.  And if that's all that we valued in schools, our work in defining the outputs of good teaching would be done.  But we all know that there's more to it than that. 

I think the fear of linking measures of teaching effectiveness to test scores is that test scores alone cannot measure good teaching.  Can you measure how much I have inspired my students to pursue science in the future?  Can you measure how well I taught my students to work collaboratively and creatively?  Incidentally, those were both critical skills desired by employers at a recent panel discussion I attended.  These soft skills are important and must be taught in schools to ensure that students are ready for the world of work.  The problem is that these soft skills, which we claim are also desired outputs of our system, are not easily measured.  So, how do we measure the outputs of good teaching and, therefore, define what a good teacher looks like?

Teachers know that a single measure of a student does not provide a comprehensive view of what students know and can do.  The same applies to teachers.  Thinking about this personally, I think teaching portfolios could go a long ways to demonstrating what good teaching practice looks like.  Those portfolios need to include traditional measures of student achievement, but they also need to include narratives, student work samples, reflections and the like.  I loved George Couros' suggestion that we maintain a digital portfolio in the form of a blog to share our practice with others. His blog posts were tagged with the standards for, in his case, administrators in his context.  Why not do so for the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTPs)?

I want to be part of the solution.  Because, you know what they say, "If you're not part of the problem, you're part of the...precipitate!" 

My apologies for the science teacher humor, I couldn't help it.  In all seriousness, fearing the work being done to define what good teaching is will not help solve the problem.  It makes us look like we fear being held accountable for good practice.  And that only adds to the image problem that public school employees already have.  

When I consider Michelle Rhee's quote shared earlier, I wonder what she meant by, "It becomes all about the adults."  Did she mean that in terms of the problem being with adults?  Or did she mean that the solution lies with us?  Or both?  

While I ponder that, I think I'm going to try out a reflective blog as a portfolio for my practice.  Can it be used as a tool to demonstrate how I am effective?  Let's find out.