The LA Times is running a series of articles that takes up this question, and uses a trendy “value-added” approach to rating individual teachers, whose names and scores it intends to publish. Unsurprisingly, teachers and teachers’ unions are objecting, some vehemently, to such individualized scrutiny, and to what they feel is a reductive approach to a complex art (to be fair, in the report I heard, one of the series’ lead reporters repeated multiple times that this is not by any means the only or best way to measure teaching effectiveness, nor is improvement in standardized test scores the full measure of any teacher).
Despite the facts–what we do at the college level is fundamentally dependent on what is happening in K-12 education; many of our alums pursue advanced degrees and careers in the field–one can generally spend much of one’s professorial life largely ignoring what goes on in public education in this country, with the exception of cocktail-party chatter about the declining state of our schools. (Of course, as with all generalizations, this generic truth doesn’t apply to certain programs, especially on a campus with a popular and effective MAT program.)
The series is fascinating (there’s also an NPR story about its methods), and raises difficult questions that are no less relevant to a discussion of university education: what makes a good teacher “good”? How much variation will we accept in effective teaching? To what extent can we isolate the teacher’s role in what is, by almost any account, a clunky, inequitable, massive, and often ineffective system, with huge variations in funding? Does an approach like the “value-added” metric (which, effectively, attributes test-score improvement or decline from a pre-established base rating to the teacher) reduce the interpersonal art of teaching to a kind of balky production line model? Is it fair to hold individual teachers solely accountable when their “raw materials” and facilities vary so widely by race, class, culture, opportunity, funding, and all the other factors that affect academic achievement? On the other hand, with the stakes so high, why not hold teachers to higher standards? Why protect weak or ineffective teachers at the students’ expense?
At the core, though, the question boils down to this: is teaching a “science,” an “art,” or some combination thereof?