Error in the quest for teacher quality

Jose, You make some really great points about what needs to happen to transform policy making to create a shared accountability system. I think some of your thoughts about lack of trust arise from fundamental errors in perception of policy makers. Your post dovetailed with an article I was reading in Educational Researcher by Mary […]

Jose,

You make some really great points about what needs to happen to transform policy making to create a shared accountability system. I think some of your thoughts about lack of trust arise from fundamental errors in perception of policy makers. Your post dovetailed with an article I was reading in Educational Researcher by Mary M. Kennedy about the overestimation of the importance of individual teacher traits to student outcomes. The article Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality (PDF) describes how attribution error, the overestimation of teachers’ individual characteristics on their behavior, is so widespread that it is not even considered in most estimates of teacher effectiveness.

The idea that teacher quality, and teaching quality are not necessarily the same is an idea that could change the course of policy making in America. After all, high concept reforms like Teach for America, (TFA) rely on the idea that if we can just get really smart young people in front of poor kids we can make serious gains in student achievement.   Most value-added approaches to accountability are created with the intention of controlling for student factors and teacher factors, not situational factors. They don’t necessarily address the quality of the structural support of education in a community or even a building. Our friend and Teaching 2030 colleague, Renee Moore, talks about how equity as an educational outcome can’t be addressed through teachers alone. It has to happen in the policies, funding, and approaches we adopt to create reforms.

Factors that contribute to attribution error are:

False perceptions

One of my favorite examples of this is when an outside observer sees  a student sitting by themselves.  A policy maker might think, “The teacher must have put them there for being bad” but, what if the student actually asked to be moved there because she knows she is easily distracted by her peers.

Inaccurate expectations

Most of policy makers ideas about what good and bad teaching looks like are based on experiences they had when they were children. This leads to skewed expectations. When we are kids, great teachers were wonderful, bad ones evil. We never saw when a good one had extensive training and a participated in a community of learning. We didn’t see when the bad ones implemented mandated shoddy curriculum  that was out of touch with current educational thinking.

Misinterpretation

Without a thorough understanding of effective pedagogy it is easy to misinterpret teaching strategies. A policy maker might think a teacher is responding to a single student’s misunderstanding of a math problem when in fact the teacher is using the student’s misunderstanding as a teaching moment.

Unreliable Causation

This occurs when, because a policy maker doesn’t understand the situational reality of teaching, they attribute a teacher’s success or failure to the teacher’s characteristics instead of their practice.

I think attribution error relates to your question: “If we trust teachers enough to create rubrics and measurements for our students, why not let educators have a say in how they should be measured?”  My answer to your question is that teachers understand the problem too well, that is why they are cut out of the problem solving.

Teachers get that there are fundamental situational differences between high, medium, and low poverty schools as well as elementary, middle and high school. Differences that range from principal expectations to unreliable heating, from access to technology to access to after school resources. Kennedy’s point is that we can’t start to accurately identify good and bad teachers until we start to identify strong and weak structural supports for learning.

Discounting the importance of the teacher shakes up my world. But, after thinking about it, I realized I have been guilty of attribution error myself when I have taken a hard line, no excuses, approach to judging my colleagues. I thought that just because I had been successful with my students my colleages should be able to be effective too. I considered their ineffectiveness a function of their personal characteristics. When I put aside the personal experiences, such as an abundance of materials and training, that led me to those false attributions I became much more understanding and saw more clearly the role that situational characteristics, such as un-supportive principals, or lack of resources played in my colleagues’ effectiveness. The house that is our educational system is the Teacher working conditions (e-Book) that influence their effectiveness.  It is time that we consider the foundation that student outcomes are built on, and not just the interior design that teachers can influence. Especially when some teachers are trying to design on a dime.

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