The other report card: Grading teachers

The quality and contribution of a teacher is easy to see, but difficult to measure

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Aug 13, 2013 01:56:35 PM UTC

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about

"Your son is lucky, he has a good teacher this year. We are stuck with the worst one ever” - Overheard at the school gate.

“As if they teach anymore! Parents have to teach everything these days... I have to sit with my daughter for six hours every day after school” - Reported by a parent after a writing workshop for children.

teacher

“It's alright for them to goof off at school, they go to tuition for four-five hours every evening. That teacher does all the subjects with them. I still don't like the thought of tuitions” - From a social gathering.

“Our teachers are the best! They have been trained in the latest methods” - From the head of a school.

And as I was writing this one, I get a distressed call from a parent-teacher, “Meeta, What do the teachers at school actually do?”

The question was a big one, but more than that was the  the pain of the parent. Many of us, it seems, have gone through the trauma of having to explain to our children what the teacher meant when they said, “Don’t worry about this, it won’t come in the examination.” How can knowledge be lobotomised so? Does the teacher even know what damage it does? Is this a teacher who helps their wards focus, or is this one who limits their world view?

The eternal question has been: How does one know whether a teacher is good? There can never be a simple answer to this one. Some teachers are remembered for life just because of that one thing they said that changed a child’s life. Others are remembered for the hard training they provided that set up a person with excellent work ethics and habits. Some are remembered for the warmth they brought and the security they wrought. Most, are forgotten. But it is these teachers who worked daily, balancing the needs of the moment and the needs of the future in every sentence they spoke in class.

Some got it right, others struggled.

Many struggled to even know what right or good teaching practices meant.

Of course they were taught how to teach. And that is part of the problem--it is never the same when they come to the classroom. In India, for example, I have rarely seen a lesson plan that marks out the lesson in 5-10 minute chunks. Honestly, I may even agree with the teachers that it would be an unnecessary administrative burden given the potential for chaos in the class. Power cuts? Cannot use the audio visual equipment. Internet? Not connecting, buffering. Textbooks? A student spots a mistake. Accidents? Possible; when were the desks and chairs last subject to a health and safety check?

Yes, teachers have many excuses. But the excellent ones don’t. They are able to get things done, balance the requirements, and deliver a good lesson. Rare, but true.

What are the marks of a good teacher? Most of us can answer this question in our own way. More importantly, can good teaching be measured? Ever. Even more interestingly, should it be measured? Pragmatically, if one does find the magic formula to measure teacher value, what does one do with the information?

Teacher achievement and teacher value-add are the simplest and the most complicated questions at the same time. Not really a case of you-know-it-when-you-see-it. More a case of you-know-when-the-teacher-is-terrible.

In India, we first identified the problem as one of pay. Teacher pay was abysmal and teaching conditions awful. The Sixth Pay Commission rectified that, and government school teachers are paid a fair wage. But still no improvement in results. Teacher absenteeism is still an issue, student achievement does not seem to have moved significantly.

Pause. We were talking about teachers. Why did we suddenly speak of student achievement?

This is the question that has been at the centre of the teacher quality debate for a very long time. There have been the Chicago strikes, and the current New York debate where teachers push back on being measured by others’ achievements. Student success is a function of many things, not just teacher inputs. Simple things like early nutrition, safety at home and peer group influence student results dramatically. Should teachers be held responsible for that?

But if not by student achievement, then how does one assess teacher performance? This is what they are responsible for, this is what they have been tasked with in the first place. Does one need a more complex formula for teacher performance? Do we need a Duckworth Lewis formula for measuring teaching performance? Maybe. But complex formulae have a way of not being very effective. Maybe one needs to simplify and understand what teacher performance really means. If we were to go by the logic used in the Right to Education Act, they should be measured on their inputs. That means, if teachers attend school, write up their plans, prepare their material, stand and deliver and then write up their assessments, they are good teachers. I don’t think any parents or school system will be happy with just that.

Which neatly leads us to the next question: Who should be a judge of teacher performance? The student, the peer group, the paying customer (government or parent), the agent of the stakeholders (the head teacher, a composite)?

Maybe, one could look at teachers through the lens of a business. Businesses are often used to looking at complex deliverables. As I ignore howls of protest from the academic community, the question that must be (and has been asked) is: What is the role of a teacher in the businesses of education?

Does a teacher enhance the value of the business? In measurable ways? Can the marginal teacher add value to the business of the educational establishment? Can a single bad one damage it? Can a teacher start a virtuous cycle of best practice and care in a school?

The answer, clearly, is yes. And the clue to figuring out teacher value addition is to look beyond the classroom and to the overall contribution to the school. Some of the gains will be tangible, others not. Some will be short term, and thus measurable, others will keep giving over the years. Maybe teacher performance must be assessed, and rewarded based on a broader measure of the value addition to the ecosystem, to the business of education. A business that is not just about profits, costs and revenues.

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