Friday, January 8, 2010

Can good teaching be measured?

In a great New York Times article on healthcare reform David Leonhardt describes the way in which Intermountain Health Care (IHC) helps increase quality and cut costs.  Among this list of best practices is the way in which IHC gathers data on the way in which physicians do their work.  Some data describes physician behaviors and other is focused on patient outcomes.  This data is reviewed and analyzed rigorously and then used to help physicians improve their practice.

A few hours after reading this article I attended a graduate-level "assessment of learning outcomes" course in BYU's Instructional Psychology & Technology department where the topic of discussion was No Child Left Behind and other federal enactments aimed at increasing the quality of education in the U.S.  There was a fairly strong sentiment among those in the room that student achievement should not be as large a factor in determining teacher effectiveness as it currently is.  

These two experiences (my reading and class discussion) left me wondering what assessment of teaching should and could look like.  It has always been interesting to me that educators want their craft to be viewed as a "viable profession," or a "respected field," but also want accountability to look much different for them than it would for say a car salesman or a doctor.  Why is it that we would fire a doctor for letting patients die, but we have a problem with applying the same logic to educators?  Please don't misconstrue this as an endorsement of NCLB.  I'm just saying that student achievement has to be part of the conversation (I also recognize that the conversation must also include discussion of what aspects of student performance should and should not be measured) and that when a particular educator's students consistently underperform (or overperform for that matter), we should make an effort to find out why.  This is what I see IHC doing in their hospitals and clinics and those of us that care about education could learn some lessons from them.

1.  Classrooms need to be structed in a way that allows for the collection of meaningful data.  By data I don't just mean test scores.  We've done that for a long time and, apparently, it isn't making a tremendous difference.  What I'm calling for are technology-supported classrooms that allow us to examine what teachers and students do while they are learning and trying to learn.  Good online learning environments like the Open High School of Utah (see also the recent SL Tribune article) are structured to gather data on student performance and what practices lead to effective learning.  It will be difficult and complex, but we need to find a way to do the same thing in traditional classrooms.  This data can then be used to help educate teachers about what they do well and where they can improve.  Observations are important, but organizations like IHC have found that objective data improves quality.  

2. "Chief quality officers" for schools/districts.  Although most school and district administrators care about the quality of teaching, the reality is that the bulk of their time and effort is taken up by other administrative duties.  What if there were a quality officer for every school as well as a similar individual for a district whose responsibility it was to ensure that data was collected on teacher performance?  These individuals could identify high performing teachers in their local area (which may or may not be those whose students score the highest on standardized tests) and then work to find out what it is that makes them successful (much like what IHC does with their physicians).  They would also be responsible for helping, not punishing, underperforming educators to revise their practices.

3.  Identification of "teaching protocols" that have been demonstrated to lead to positive outcomes.  Because they gather and analyze data so well, IHC knows what dosage of medication generally works best for a heart patient as they return home or what steps should be taken in the insertion of an IV in order to minimize the risk of infection.  Of course, there are times when physicians should and do stray from these "defaults," but more often than not the checklist they are provided with is close to exactly what a patient needs and will benefit from.  Gary Daynes' recent post on educational checklists convinced me that it wouldn't be unreasonable to develop similar checklists or standard processes for particular parts of the educational system.  This, of course, is dependent on our ability to gather data and link particular processes to positive learning outcomes for students (see #1 above).  And, like IHC, schools and districts could continue to collect data so that the checklists can be revised and refined as new information becomes available.  

As I write this I am realizing that I'm echoing a refrain that I've made on this blog before--schools need to be learning organizations that change and adapt over time.  We expect this of students. . .why don't we follow suit?

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