Amanda Ripley, Believe Her or Not!
. . . Norway seemed to be slip sliding into the abyss, despite having virtually no child poverty?
The poverty narrative made intuitive sense. Te child poverty rate in the United States was about 20 percent, a national disgrace.Poor kids lived with the kind of grinding stress that children should not have had to manage. They learned less at home, on average, and needed more help at school. The mystery was not so simply solved, however. If poverty was the main problem, then what to make of Norway? A Nordic welfare state with high taxes, universal health care, and abundant natural resources, Norway enjoyed, like Finland, less than 6 percent child poverty, one of the lowest rates in the world. Norway spent about as much as we did on education, which is to say, a fortune, relative to the rest of the world. And, yet, Norwegian kids performed just as unimpressively as our own kids on an international test of scientific literacy in 2009.
To Dissect a Polemic: First, Examine the Polemicist
“Can Michelle Rhee Save Our Schools?” (Time, Nov 26, 2008)
A decade ago, an economist at Harvard, Ronald Ferguson, wondered what would happen if teachers were evaluated by the people who see them every day—their students. The idea—as simple as it sounds, and as familiar as it is on college campuses—was revolutionary. And the results seemed to be, too: remarkable consistency from grade to grade, and across racial divides. Even among kindergarten students. A growing number of school systems are administering the surveys—and might be able to overcome teacher resistance in order to link results to salaries and promotions.
Nubia Baptiste had spent some 665 days at her Washington, D.C., public school by the time she walked into second period on March 27, 2012. She was an authority on McKinley Technology High School. She knew which security guards to befriend and where to hide out to skip class (try the bleachers). She knew which teachers stayed late to write college recommendation letters for students; she knew which ones patrolled the halls like guards in a prison yard, barking at kids to disperse.
If someone had asked, she could have revealed things about her school that no adult could have known. Once Nubia got talking, she had plenty to say. But until that morning of her senior spring, no one had ever asked.
When I called Nubia Baptiste over the summer with the survey results, she was not surprised. “Everybody knows the good teachers from the ones who don’t really want to be in the job,” she said. When I started describing the huge variation between teachers, she interrupted me. “I lived the dynamic,” she said.
Nubia was on her way to Temple University, where she was considering studying science or engineering. Having personally witnessed many of the recent reforms in D.C., she was wise to what mattered most.
“I don’t care about the results,” she said. “I care about the change the results bring. If I come back in five years and some crappy teacher is still sitting at that crappy desk, then what was the point of the survey?”
In towns around the country this past school year, a quarter-million students took a special survey designed to capture what they thought of their teachers and their classroom culture. Unlike the vast majority of surveys in human history, this one had been carefully field-tested. That research had shown something remarkable: if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most—and least—effective teachers.
“There are some students, knuckleheads who will just mess the survey up and not take it seriously,” Ferguson [the Harvard Economist] says, “but they are very rare.” Students who don’t read the questions might give the same response to every item. But when Ferguson recently examined 199,000 surveys, he found that less than one-half of 1 percent of students did so in the first 10 questions. Kids, he believes, find the questions interesting, so they tend to pay attention. And the “right” answer is not always apparent, so even kids who want to skew the results would not necessarily know how to do it.
Just an fyi:
The Atlantic web page for this article tells me there are no Google+ recommendations but 3,000 Facebook recommendations.
Oh, I suppose it’s not a surprise that this is Gates-Funded research.
But, in truth, there does seem to be common sense here (not science, I know) from which we might learn something.
Of the 36 items included in the Gates Foundation study, the five that most correlated with student learning were very straightforward:
1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.
When Ferguson and Kane shared these five statements at conferences, teachers were surprised. They had typically thought it most important to care about kids, but what mattered more, according to the study, was whether teachers had control over the classroom and made it a challenging place to be. As most of us remember from our own school days, those two conditions did not always coexist: some teachers had high levels of control, but low levels of rigor.
A brief closing aside: as Ripley notes in her abstract, student-grading of professors is common-place. Here is an article by Mark Edmundson (who I must admit is the author of a favorite study on Emerson included in his book Towards Reading Freud) on that very thing back in 1997: “On the uses of a liberal education: as lite entertainment for bored college students.“
A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.
Finally, what does letting the “consumer review”decide the quality of education and the quality of instructor tell us about our culture?