According to many policymakers and researchers, teaching should be more like the “flight of a bullet” rather than the “flight of a butterfly.”* Using the latest social science findings, they are determined to re-engineer teaching to make it more efficient, less wasteful, and far more effective than ever before. Behind the current passion among policymakers and politicians for using test scores to evaluate teacher performance (and pay higher salaries) is the current “science” of value-added measures (VAM) that leans heavily upon the work of William Sanders. But these smart officials have ignored the long march that researchers have slogged through in the past century.
Before William Sanders, there was Franklin Bobbitt in the 1920s, Ralph Tyler and Benjamin Bloom in the 1950s, Nathaniel Gage in the 1970s and 1980s, and many other researchers. These scholars believed that teaching can be rational and predictable through scientifically engineering classrooms; they rejected the notion that teaching can be unpredictable and uncertain–”the flight of a butterfly.”
In How To Make a Curriculum (1924),Franklin Bobbitt listed 160 “educational objectives” that teachers should pursue in teaching children such as “the ability to use language …required for proper and effective participation in community life.” Colleagues in math listed 300 for teachers in grades 1-6 and nearly 900 for social studies. This scientific movement to graft “educational objectives” onto daily classroom lessons collapsed of its own weight by the 1940s, and largely ignored by teachers. Elliot Eisner told that story well.
By the early 1960s, another generation of social scientists had advanced the idea that teachers should use “behavioral objectives” to guide lessons. Ralph Tyler, Benjamin Bloom and others created taxonomies that provided teachers with “prescriptions for the formulation of educational objectives.” As Eisner pointed out, teachers generally ignored these scientific prescriptions in their daily lessons.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Nathaniel Gage and others sought to establish “a scientific basis for the art of teaching.” They focused on teacher behaviors (questions asked, how students are called upon,etc.)–the process of teaching–and the products of effective teaching, student scores on standardized tests. This line of research called “process-product” continued the behavioral tradition from an earlier generation committed to a science of teaching. Using experimental methods to identify teaching behaviors that were correlated to student gains in test scores on standardized tests, Gage and others came up with “teacher should” statements that were associated with improved student achievement.
The limitations of establishing a set of scientifically prescribed teaching behaviors soon became apparent as critics pointed out how many other factors (e.g., the content of the lesson, students themselves, the classroom environment, the school) come into play when teachers teach students. Again, teachers generally ignored the results from “process-product” studies.
And here in 2010, the re-engineering of teaching through science again seeks “the flight of the bullet.” Who among researchers and policymakers ever mentions the artistry of teaching? Evaluating and paying teachers on the basis of student test scores through value-added measures dominates reform talk.
Researchers and policy advocates now prescribe teaching behaviors that will yield gains in student achievement. Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion lays out 49 “should” behaviors extracted from research in high teacher-turnover, largely minority and poor urban schools. The aura of “science” hovers over these prescriptions. Ditto for VAM.
Even though many researchers challenge the use of VAM metrics and methodologies to evaluate teacher effectiveness,Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles–note how most top-performing suburban districts in the nation have taken an oath of silence on VAM–have embraced it. The “science” of measuring teacher effectiveness, in short, is sharply contested–and, yeah, that bullet zigs and zags.
The point of all this is to be clear that, yes, some parts of teaching can be improved through scientific studies. Empirical findings time and again have improved teaching from decoding skills in reading to classroom management. But what has been learned from science is not the lion’s share of what constitutes daily teaching. As Philip Jackson said in 1968:
“teaching is an opportunistic process [where] … neither the teacher or [her] students can predict with any certainty exactly what will happen next. Plans are forever going awry and unexpected opportunities …are constantly emerging. The seasoned teacher seizes upon these opportunities and uses them to … his student’s advantage.”
Surprise and uncertainty greet teachers daily even for their best-planned lesson. Experienced teachers know this in their bones and in finessing the unpredictability of classroom life (or flopping) know that few researchers, especially among VAM-obsessed ones–care for such artistry because it cannot be connected to students’ test scores.
Those who still dream of engineering classrooms into rational places where empirically-derived prescriptions help teachers become effective have failed to grasp that daily teaching is a mix of artistry, science and uncertainty.
*Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms, 1968, pp. 166-167.