Despite being described as “creative” and “motivating” by her supervisor, fifth-grade teacher Sarah Wysocki found herself out of a job when her students’ test scores didn’t improve as much as required by the District of Columbia Public Schools’ complex formula for evaluating her performance.
As the Washington Post’s Bill Turque reports, Wysocki had even been urged by her school’s assistant principal to share her classroom techniques with other teachers. Just a few months later, when her students’ test scores missed the mark, Wysocki was fired. Positive classroom evaluations weren’t enough to override the district’s “value-added” formula, which is supposed to quantify the effect Wysocki had on her students’ learning.
Such formulas are not fool-proof, as researchers themselves are quick to warn. Dale Ballou, a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, said he’s concerned that the current evaluation models are being oversold “as if they represent the answer to all kinds of problems, and that they give you the truth.”
What the formulas do offer are estimates, Ballou said – and ones that are subject to error.
“You’ve got to recognize these are not flawless instruments,” Ballou said. “Anytime you try to evaluate an individual based on this kind of data, there’s a possibility you’re going to make a mistake.”
(If D.C. Public Schools made a mistake by firing Wysocki, it’s probably too late to correct it. She was quickly snatched up by a public elementary campus in Fairfax County, Va., according to the Washington Post.)
Few issues in the education arena are getting more attention these days than teacher evaluations. Dozens of states are grappling with the question of how to measure educator job performance and whether to tie student achievement data to those reviews.
To be sure, good teaching is hard to quantify. Value-added formulas have been touted by the Obama administration as a more equitable way of measuring performance.
Wysocki, who is settling in to her work in Virginia, makes it clear that she knows she has much to learn, and she isn’t afraid to ask for help.“Teaching is an art,” she said in the Washington Post story. “There are so many things to improve on.”
But is Wysocki right? Is teaching an art that requires a degree of talent that simply can’t be quantified? Or is it a craft – a profession — that with proper methodology can be taught?
The answer to the question of art or craft is, like most education issues, more complicated than it first appears. While there certainly may be a degree of magic to great teaching, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to identify the backbone of solid instructional techniques and then replicate them.
Teaching “is not common sense, and it takes a high level of skill that most people have to learn in order to do well,” said Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, which was recently praised by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as one of the nation’s standout teacher preparation programs.
“There are people who have a gift for teaching, but they are in the minority,” Ball told me. “Most of what goes into teaching are highly learnable, technical skills. You don’t go out and pick a surgeon who hasn’t had careful training, so why would a teacher be any different?”