What Makes A Good Teacher

November 01, 1989 5 min read
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Underdal was one of 40 teachers-- 20 elementary school literacy teachers and 20 high school biology teachers-- who compiled portfolios last year as part of Stanford University’s Teacher Assessment Project. The closely watched project is a three-year, $2.5 million effort to develop a new generation of assessments for teachers. It is viewed as a key element in the move to professionalize teaching.

Evaluation of the portfolios, which took place in June, marked the end of the project’s second phase. In its first phase, the research team designed a number of exercises that could be used at special teacher-assessment centers.

During the project’s final few months, staff will analyze data from the two phases. But most of the work is now complete, and Lee Shulman, the education professor who designed and directed the project, says his team has accomplished its main objectives.

According to Shulman, today’s methods of assessing teachers are “utterly inadequate.’' He is convinced that the portfolio and assessment-center approach offers a workable alternative that “gets at teachers as thinking, decisionmaking individuals working in a context that has real history.’'

The new assessments place teachers, rather than administrators, at the center of the evaluation process. “We think that putting the experienced teacher--the expert teacher--in the key role in both setting standards and implementing them is at the very heart of any conception of the professionalization of teaching,’' Shulman says.

The portfolio and assessment-center prototypes that Shulman and his team designed and tested could serve as models for the new National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is establishing a national voluntary certification system. If such a system is to gain widespread acceptance, workable and acceptable teacher assessments are essential, so the standards board is keeping a close eye on Shulman’s work.

Although the standards board and the assessment project are both sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Shulman points out that there are no formal ties between the two efforts. His prototypes are among the most detailed working models of new forms of teacher assessment developed to date, but the board will look at many sources in constructing its national certification system.

Shulman envisions national certification as a “marriage of insufficiencies.’' By themselves, all forms of assessment--written tests, classroom observation, portfolios, and assessment centers--have weaknesses. But if integrated into a comprehensive certification process, they could provide a fair and accurate mirror of the complexities of teaching.

What’s more, Shulman believes that the new assessment process will help produce better teachers. “Our assessments are so much more closely related to teaching that if you take preparation for the assessment seriously, you are going to improve your teaching,’' he says.

The assessment-center phase of the Stanford project culminated with teachers of high school history and elementary school mathematics from around the country participating in a two-day field test. During the test, they were run through a series of teaching exercises and then evaluated. Some exercises were common to all teachers, such as delivering a lecture or planning a lesson with colleagues. Others focused on the subject matter: Math teachers were asked to select various items--such as poker chips, a ball of string, measuring cups, and a clock-- from a box and explain how the items could be used to teach equivalent fractions; history teachers critiqued a videotape of another teacher delivering a lesson on the Spanish-American War. In all, the teachers completed about 10 exercises, each ranging from 45 minutes to three hours.

The assessment-center exercises, however, lack important elements-- the school setting and students. That’s where the portfolios enter in.

“We designed our portfolio to allow varieties of style,’' says Angelo Collins, who has taken over as the project director while Shulman is on sabbatical. “There is no one right way to teach. One of the values of the portfolios is that they allow teachers to bring some of their uniqueness.’'

Collins, a former biology teacher, typifies the central role teachers have played in designing and evaluating the assessments. She and four other experienced biology teachers designed the different sections of the biology portfolio. Teachers also served as evaluators when the portfolios were presented.

Nancy Knight, a 2nd grade teacher at Juana Briones Elementary School, was one of the evaluators of the literacy portfolios. Knight, who has been teaching for 25 years, says that the teachers she was evaluating were not the only ones to gain from the experience.

“It made me think about my role as a teacher, and it made me more reflective about what I do and why I do it,’' she says. “It was like putting a microscope on something I have to do all the time.’'

Furthermore, Knight says she intends to incorporate some of the things she saw in the portfolios into her own teaching. For example, she discovered some new ways to approach the often difficult task of communicating students’ progress to parents.

Evaluating the portfolios and assessment-center exercises posed the biggest challenge, but Shulman says disagreement among evaluators was not as extreme as he had expected. Even in areas of practice where there is a great deal of controversy over theory, he says, “when you get down to the concrete examples, there’s much less disagreement.’' When evaluators critiqued an example of teaching photosynthesis in a high school biology course, for instance, they reached a high level of consensus.

Shulman says the key is to set standards for good teaching that are reasonable and flexible enough to allow for differences in style. “I think there will be a lot of room for variation’’ in portfolios and assessmentcenter activities, he adds. “The beauty of this kind of assessment strategy is that, unlike multiple-choice tests, you don’t have to decide on one right answer or the best answer. You can leave open the possibility of pluralism, what I would call a pluralism of excellence.’'

Less encouraging were reports from participants about the many hours it took to compile portfolios. “Schools are organized almost to prevent teacher reflection on their work,’' Shulman says. “There simply is no time and space for teachers to do the kind of careful analysis that you have in other professions. The teachers who worked with us did beautiful portfolios, but a fair amount of what they did really had to come out of their hides.’'

Shulman came away convinced that improved teacher assessments cannot stand alone; they must be part of a more general movement to restructure schools and teaching. “Restructured schools, as we envision them,’' he says, “are places where teachers have the opportunity to carefully document what they do, what their students are doing, and to work collaboratively with their peers on drawing the proper inferences from that kind of documentation. That’s a very rare opportunity for teachers today.’

--Daniel Gursky

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Teacher Magazine as What Makes A Good Teacher


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