Sometimes a study appears that makes you want to shout from the rooftops. That's how I feel about this recent one from the Gates Foundation, designed to evaluate what really makes a good teacher and reported on at length in the New York Times. What Gates has found is that students who rate their teachers highest not only tend to earn the highest grades but also do best on standardized tests. This reverses one of the cynical prejudices of the past that students rate their teachest highest when they get a good grade. Implicit in that idea is the cynical one that those teachers who grade easy get the best evaluations--and, in the long run, shortchange their students. Dig deeper, and the implicit assumption is that the only real reason students rank their teachers highly is because they are easy, and implicit in that assumption is that the chief aim of students is to get off easy. . . In other words, a lot of negative attitudes towards students and learning are packed in the tried-and-true (but untested) assumption that students only like the easy teachers and those "easy" teachers fail their students in the long run. Except it doesn't quite work that way, according to the Gates study of current high school students.
It turns out that those students who rate their teachers highest tend to write the best evaluations--and do better on standardized tests. Students have a good handle on what makes a good teacher--and they do well in those classes. That shouldn't be surprising but it runs counter to a lot of cant about "grade inflation" and "easy graders" and so forth. The external measure suggests that the system works, not that it is being gamed. You teach your darndest. Your students learn the most. You give them as many As as are deserved (not as many as some bell curve says you should give). They give you a great evaluation. And, guess what? They go off and take some standardized test that confirms (for this is what testing should be for) the system is valid, efficient, and ideal. For the best teachers and the best students, it's all working. And it is working not because they did well on the standardized test, but because the judgment of the teacher and the judgment of the student is in perfect alignment. The standardized test score merely corroborates, externally, the success that has been achieved. If you want to read the New York Times article, you can go here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/education/11education.html?_r=1
All my career I have done battle with those who insist, in one way or another, that a class has to have a bell curve or some other distribution from highest to lowest grades. At Duke, I believe there is still even some metric that lets us see how our grading compares to others--our grading is grading. The reason I say that with some cautionary indefiniteness is, frankly, I've never looked at that grade. My goal in my classes is to set the bar as high as I know from the beginning, to have anyone who isn't up to the challenge drop the course and make a space for someone who lives to be challenged, and then to have the students work together to challenge one another in ways I never even dreamed of. Do a lot of them earn A's? If I am successful, they do. Do I tend to earn excellent teacher evaluations? Well, yes, I do receive that lovely letter from the dean most semester saying my evaluations put me in the top 5% (yes, we are graded too). Do I believe that my students rate me highly because I grade them highly--as some cynics would say? Not on your life. I think they rate me highly because I push them to think, they push one another to think, and then, free to pursue an idea, they work harder than they ever have before and leave the class feeling enormous accomplishment at what they have done. That's an A, by any standards. But it is also an A because I have structured the class quite purposely so that earning an A is the collective goal of each student in the class, not an outcome achievable only by the best. (It's a subject of another blog, not this one, but there are lessons for the workplace here too, contra standard HR philosophy.)
The Gates Foundation has now given us an external measurement, for the first time in my knowledge, that shows that what I and other good teachers have been saying for decades, is true. Some lazy students may clamor for that cake course that requires no work and delivers the automatic A. Since I now do contract grading, I am amused that those students do not take my class because I tell them, if they are too busy for an A, all they need to do is contract for a C and I will respect them for making such a wise choice about their own time management. They drop the course. The really specious, bogus easy A course is not about responsibility but irresponsibility and students may vote with their feet and take the course (we all need a break sometimes) but they rarely vote with their written, carefully offered year-end evaluations. I've been on teaching committees where you see the responses to the known easy courses and they are, well, about as thoughtful as you'd expect.
I also know, from those same committees, that many brilliant teachers do not get excellent feedback because they have not structured their courses, syllabi, and methods in a way that students recognize as brilliant. That is the other take-away from the Gates study: it is when there is synchrony between the student high achievement and their high evaluation of their teachers that students also do well on standardized tests. That doesn't mean the opposite, by the way. We know that there are great, brilliant teachers who may not teach in a way that is accessible or apprehensible to students as great teaching; it does not readily translate for students into learnable, learned, absorbed and mastered content and methods. Those students may not rate their teachers highly and they may also not do well on standardized testing. That particular set of outcomes is worth looking at sometime from a flipped and complementary perspective.
So to reiterate: What Gates has found is quite specific. Their study finds that students who rate their teachers highest not only tend to earn the highest grades but also do best on standardized tests. The stars align. Knowing that, allows us to think about other ways to align teaching, feedback, evaluation, testing, assessment methods, and so forth. Since I am a champion of just-in-time, in-process assessment everyone learns from at the time (game mechanics, peer grading, contract grading, and other real-time feedback forms), the Gates is extremely important, a foundation to build upon. And I hope this study is a beginning to more engaged and engaging metrics for all of us. I'm curious, for example, about field disparities. Nationally, human and social sciences tend to grade higher than natural and computational sciences. We also have a national problem of interesting young people in STEM subjects in higher education. Is it possible there is a misalignment of incentives, teaching structures, teaching methods, evaluative methods, and expectations that call for a follow-up study by discipline too? And where the end isn't just evaluating teacher evaluation but thinking about the forms of feedback that most encourage expertise? (I especially think of the truly brilliant--off the chart scary smart--open web developers I met in Barcelona who have given up on higher education because of its method, culture, and irrelevance to their field.)
Next up: what about bad students, bad teachers, and poor test scores? If we have the system working for the best, what can we do for the others? I hope Gates will tackle that crucial question next and, in the meantime, I hope administrators who worry about high grades will learn to trust their instincts and those of the faculty and students. Ask any of us who the good teachers are and I bet we can come up with a list that pretty well mirrors what the faculty themselves and the students would produce. That part of the system---all those stores of grade inflation that worry some people obsessively--is not where we need to pay attention. Let's concentrate on how we can improve teaching and learning for those (teachers and students) who are not part of the positive feedback of excellence in teaching and learning.