Willingham: In defense of measurement
By Daniel Willingham
I have recently written about the problems in trying to use student achievement data to measure teachers’ effectiveness.
But that doesn’t mean that I think teachers’ effectiveness should not be measured.
Indeed, I think it’s essential that it is.
People focus on just one of the uses to which measurement of teachers could be put: rewarding the successful and firing the unsuccessful. But if you’re interested in improving the practice of teaching, you must have a method of measuring teachers’ effectiveness.
That conclusion is part and parcel of the nature of education. Education is not a natural science. It’s an applied science.
In contrast, applied sciences do not describe the world as it is. They make the world more like it ought to be. To do so, applied scientists create artifacts. For example, civil engineers build bridges and dams. Aeronautical engineers build airplanes. Urban planners design city infrastructure and transportation systems. Architects design buildings.
Education is an applied science. Educators create artifacts--curricula and lesson plans—in an effort to make the world more like it ought to be.
Applied sciences are inevitably goal-driven enterprises. Biologists take the world as it comes and try to describe it. But an engineer designing a computer chip must define a goal. Is she trying to make it faster, more reliable, more energy efficient? Some combination thereof?
Crucially, the engineer cannot evaluate whether or not she is moving towards her goal unless she can measure the speed of the chip, the power demands, or whatever else is pertinent to her goal.
So it is with education. We must define what the goal of the teacher is, and have measures to tell whether or not a teacher is making progress toward the goal. Absent those measures, when we make changes in the classroom we have no way of knowing whether the changes have made things better or worse.
I would argue that right now, of the measures that can be administered broadly, we have reasonable ones for a narrow spectrum of student outcomes. The NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] tests do a good job of testing factual knowledge within disciplines.
The ability to measure broadly (that is, to measure lots of kids) is important because education interventions are notoriously difficult to scale up.
I haven’t met many people who think that the NAEP tests capture the full range of outcomes we hope for in education. But the consequence is that we can’t get a research toehold on improving educational practices on any of the other stuff we might care about. We can make changes, but we have no way of knowing whether or not they work.
We’re like an engineer who is hoping to design a faster, more reliable, cool-running chip who can only measure temperature.
It is discouraging to contemplate doing this very basic work. But until we can adequately measure the things we care about, we can’t improve them. And more likely, we will overemphasize the things that we can measure, instead of the things that we have determined, based on broader goals and values, are important to emphasize in education. In other words, we’ll end up with a slow, unreliable, but really cold computer chip.
In point of fact, this discussion about measures ought to follow a discussion of goals. After all, the measures must be determined by the goals. Yet there is remarkably little discussion of educational goals in this country.
More on that to come.
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| February 15, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Tags: accountability, teacher assessment
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