08 June 2012

Should We Allow Psychologists to Evaluate Teachers?

How can we evaluate educators to ensure teacher effectiveness? So asks Wade George at Psychology Today's Blog (here). George quotes Bree Frick an instructor of education psychology who observes: "I believe it [evaluation of educators] could (and should) be done, but how one creates an appropriate, widely approved measure for the quality of the learning process - as opposed to a strictly summative evaluation - is a challenge."

Such an observation, one might imagine, would make psychologists approach this task with some modesty. But George notes that members of the APA's Division of Education Psychology felt strongly that theirs was a role critical  to advancing "teacher effectiveness across the country". Frick, to her credit, was not naive about the challenge:
Testing for a teacher's ability to foster higher-order thinking skills, such as problem-solving ability and hypothetico-deductive reasoning, is indeed a goal worthy of pursuing.... Unfortunately, as we all know, standardized tests that measure rote memorization and test-taking skills (over evidence of deep learning) are a breeze to use in norm-referenced analyses. Bubble sheet assessments measuring student progress—which in turn are used to determine teacher quality—are far less costly than classroom observations or alternate forms of assessment that focus on teachers themselves.

That's a good point. But surely the answer to George's question demands first an historic appraisal of the role that psychologists have played in the evaluation of educators and in changing the education landscape. I'm currently reading an older volume entitled Michael M. Sokal's Psychological Testing and American Society, 1890-1930. The picture is a not wholly edifying one for education psychology and I think the reasons why are noteworthy. It seems that psychologists have historically been unable to recognize: 1) that there is a strongly ideological component to evaluating individual teachers, and 2) that their methods have constructed universal subjects of highly diversified individuals (to read about that, see here).

In the former instance, psychologists have seemingly denied that the content of an education arises from the entire experience of education - i.e. in the experience of teachers who are good and bad at their jobs, in their difference in methods, in the variety of their moral frameworks, and in the way in which they approach didactics. In a word, context.

The causes of this evil ultimately originate out of such inventions as standardized testing, given to us by none other than educational psychologists. The proliferation of standardized testing - SAT, ACT, MCAT, LSAT, GRE, etc - suggest that teachers ought to teach content that satisfies the aims and requirements of these exams. That's fine if you believe that an education taught to those exams will prepare students for life. I would submit that no one believes that!

This problem has become really significant. Parents, politicians, and education psychologists routinely place the emphasis on the content that education supposedly delivers, all the while hand-waving at wishy-washy, qualitative concerns. Thus (a-b)(a+b) = A^2 - B^2 is taken to be singularly more important than the fact that some teachers only teach this rule once while others review such facts again and again. In evaluating these educators, we would probably find that the former covers more content but has less proficient and successful students. Meanwhile the latter covers less but does so more successfully.

But the point is that both teachers - the one who believes that a fact taught is a fact learned and the one who believes that a fact worth knowing is one worth repeating - are giving their pupils very important demonstrations of how life is actually practiced. Some people don't repeat instructions or facts. Some do.Sometimes teachers talk about facts with thick 'foreign' accents. In the USA, a country that often acquires its health care providers from other places, that lesson might be important too.


My point is that when people ignore the context of the education experience, they also tend to miss some of the ways the education is transferred to students. Educational psychologists might be more helpful if instead of thinking up new evaluative technologies to examine teacher performance they helped parents and policymakers broaden their benchmarks for understanding the education process. In so doing, they might also help teachers understand better their own work and practice and in this very small and modest way improve student learning and performance across a number of areas.

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