In praise of data

Just as our language might be appropriated by the corporate education deform movement, so we might reappropriate our language. This essay critically examines what we mean when we use the phrase “teacher effectiveness.” Part 2 of 3.

I write out of hope, because hope blossoms from despair. Despair comes to us from the Latin desperare, the prefix de- meaning “down from” combined with sperare meaning “to hope.” At the root of despair we find hope. From out of the depths of despair, arises hope.

After defining the terms, second, we must define their opposite before we can have any hope of getting to know one another, getting to know the complex interrelations between teaching and learning, getting to know what it means to measure teacher effectiveness. Has our present system of measure proven its efficacy? What does it mean to be an ineffective human being? What does it mean not to be? Are we truly free?

Just as my drawing student taught me the power of praise, I write in praise of data, drawing from the database of my memory one tiny datum, Latin meaning “something given” or daring to give. With something to give, I dare to write out of hope, remembering an earlier encounter with data used to measure teaching effectiveness.

One of my jobs in college was to organize the materials for a graduate level lecture course taught by a team of research scientists. In those days, student evaluations were collected on bubble sheets, the numerical data scanned, and any written comments typed in by a clerk before the results were collated and returned to the faculty for their reflection on their teaching effectiveness. More than a decade later, I still remember one comment from a doctoral candidate in molecular biology at an institution globally renowned for its research in human genetics: “I like Professor XYZ’s scarves.” I extrapolate this datum now to ponder the efficacy of our system of data collection in measuring teacher effectiveness.

What might we learn about teaching effectiveness from this sole comment about wardrobe, style, or aesthetic? Does this praise communicate that the student learned how to be an effective scientist from the teacher’s style of delivery? Or did the student intend the comment as sarcasm, communicating the teacher’s ineffectiveness in training another generation of researchers? Or does this student’s witty communication measure not teaching effectiveness so much as the absurdity of data collection as an evaluation of teaching?

Lacking inflection, facial expression, knowledge of this individual student’s relationship with this individual professor, knowledge of the doctoral candidate’s earlier learning experiences, early childhood development, or future life narrative, we have no way of measuring teacher effectiveness from this evaluation of the professor’s aesthetic. Combined with the numeric data, this comment might communicate this particular student’s assessment of this particular teacher’s effectiveness on a scale of one to five; extrapolated, it lays bare our system of measuring teacher effectiveness.

What is the measure of a teacher? Is a teacher measured a success if his pupils sit in obedient columns and rows and pass a battery of tests in a given subject by selecting answers from multiple choice questions? Is a professor effective if her students ace their exams, perform innovative research, and one day replace her at the front of the auditorium?

Hypothetically, let us imagine for a moment that this professor’s scarves inspired this would-be biomedical researcher to withdraw from his program, become a fashion designer, and produce a line of clothing that shifted the male gaze so our society no longer objectified women, easing the hurdles for women pursuing careers in the research sciences, empowering the girl who grows up to become the scientist who discovers the cure to cancer, thereby changing the world? Of course the cure for cancer will not be found by a rogue scientist working on his own, Professor ABC in his white lab coat with bow tie askew, but by teams of human beings, working in concert, not competitively but collaboratively, communicating with one another, paying attention, listening as the other speaks.

If we extrapolate this qualitative datum received from one doctoral candidate in the research sciences and apply it systemically across fields and levels to elementary education, we learn the three weaknesses in our present system of measuring teacher effectiveness: a) that classroom data is collected for the purpose of data collection rather than teacher improvement, b) that students even in the highest echelons of learning do not respect data surveys enough to provide criticism intended for teaching improvement, and c) that teaching and learning are communicative processes interdependent between student and teacher, or, as my college painting professors taught me, “You get out of this class what you put into it.”

I write out of hope, hoping beyond hope that the abysmal failures of our current state, and the state of debate in education policy will inspire us to reevaluate our system for measuring teacher effectiveness and elevate the status of intellectual pursuit. I write out of hope, hoping that if our policy makers, administrators, and political leaders refuse to listen to the voices of experts in the field of education, hoping they will listen to the wisdom of military experts and get to know your teachers.

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