Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Quality: Investing in What Matters

By Arthur L. Costa, Robert J. Garmston & Diane P. Zimmerman — November 13, 2012 6 min read
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Spurred by awards of federal funding under the Race to the Top competition, many states are adopting teacher-evaluation systems with student achievement as the ultimate goal. This drive to create robust evaluation systems places far too much emphasis on inspecting and testing. A system of quality control founded on the belief that inspection and multiple-choice tests are valid measures of effectiveness is flawed. The investment in external measures hides our most valuable assets—the cognitive resources of teachers. Too often, standards are the basis for inspection, with minimal dialogue and little attention to teachers’ intellect, wisdom, intuition, and creativity.

Quality matters. How we assess it is important. However, the idea that the complex processes of teaching can be easily inspected or measured by answers on a bubble test is erroneous. As educators, we are puzzled that more people are not voicing concerns about this trend toward an oversimplified system of quality control. A few in the field have become outspoken and urge a more thoughtful approach. Policymakers ought to heed the collective wisdom of these thought leaders.

Notably, Diane Ravitch changed her direction and advice, which was pro-standards, when the emphasis moved toward an obsession with test scores. Charlotte Danielson, a leading expert on research-based frameworks for instruction, cautions against simplistic “drive by” observation models. She advises that even after training, “most observers require multiple opportunities to practice using [her] framework effectively and to calibrate their judgments with others.” Despite her cautions, far too many policymakers advocate for an inspector’s toolbox full of rubrics and a singular focus on making inspections better.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Thomas Kane, a Harvard University professor and the director of the Gates Center for Policy Research, and Stanford University professor Linda Darling Hammond debate the use of tests for teacher evaluation. Kane, a proponent of the value-added system of measuring gains and evaluating teacher quality with tests, admits that “student-achievement gains are imperfect measures,” and then justifies his position by saying that “the same is true for all measures.”

When external evaluators treat a prescribed map as complete and do not engage in deep and meaningful conversations, they lose sight of the fact that educators have vast storehouses of tacit knowledge."

Darling-Hammond cites the wide variation in test scores, pointing out the many variables that impact test scores, including one of the most startling: summer vacations. Researchers at John Hopkins University found that summer vacations make a large difference in the variation in test scores. After the three-month vacation, upper-middle-class students show the most gains in test points, while students from low-income families show the most gains across a school year. That the enriched summers of upper-middle-class students could make so much difference in test scores should shake anyone’s faith in these reductionist measures of teacher quality.

How have we ignored the years of inner wisdom developed from practice, from teachers’ cognitive capital? Within teachers’ repertoire, there is layered expertise including, but not limited to: knowledge of content, pedagogy, child development, learning styles, culture, classroom management, and, importantly, knowledge of self. More often than not, teachers have valid reasons for why they might deviate from a prescription. When being assessed, however, they are seldom asked, nor do they proffer explanations.

When external evaluators treat a prescribed map as complete and do not engage in deep and meaningful conversations about the larger territory of teaching and learning, they lose sight of the fact that educators have vast storehouses of tacit knowledge based on experience.


The often-cited research on adult learning by Norman Sprinthall and Lois Thies-Sprinthall demonstrated that teachers with higher conceptual levels are more adaptive and flexible in their teaching styles. They act in accordance with a disciplined commitment to human values and produce higher-achieving students who are more cooperative and involved in their work. More recently, Daniel Pink, the author of the popular book Drive, and the researchers Carol Dweck and Albert Bandura have argued that an emphasis on external criteria over which professionals have no control oversimplifies and negates the complex decisions that are the nexus of professional learning.

In our years of coaching teachers and training future coaches, we have learned that teachers whose schools support cognitive engagement and growth have the advantage when it comes to instructional quality. With regular coaching, teachers develop a strong internal sense of control or efficacy through reflecting on their classroom decisions. When teachers are reflective, flexible, and adaptive, students learn and professional knowledge expands.

Cognitive capital—what goes on in a teacher’s head that allows for complex decisions in the classroom—is a missing aspect in the current quality-control paradigm. How teachers think about their thinking and reflect on their actions—before, during, and after instruction—is an important measure of quality instruction. It is one thing to hold teachers accountable to standards, and yet another to pair this knowledge with a practitioner’s internal maps and mental models for teaching and learning. When teachers weave internal expertise and external criteria together into an intricate tapestry of teaching and learning, they gain confidence in their ability to make a difference for all students. Rather than spending time becoming better inspectors, informed leaders can focus on helping educators investigate, articulate, and expand practices that yield high returns for their students. When teachers find success and share it, they propagate this vast pool of internal resources to colleagues and the next generation of teachers.

The best path to self-efficacy—and, indeed, collective efficacy—found to overcome even such barriers as social-economic conditions is for a teacher to take time with colleagues for personal and collaborative reflection about the effects of his or her teaching on student learning, in a continuous spiral of inquiry. When teachers join together and become more conscious of their ability to make the difference, and they are in control of their multiple options, they demonstrate true craftsmanship. Furthermore, when they begin to meld the complexities of external and internal resources, they develop a vast storehouse of knowledge that enriches and expands their conversations about teaching and learning.

Growing numbers of teachers, administrators, university professors, and policymakers agree that the current evaluation system, which evolved over the past 100 years as an educational expression of an industrial model of efficiency, is broken. Too many people are placing their hopes on standardization and a deeply flawed belief that teachers and students are interchangeable parts, rather than thoughtful, unique, caring, experienced, and often passionate human beings. We should be supporting systems that develop the essence of teachers who inspire a love of learning and inquiry, in contrast to those who just get students to demonstrate mastery on achievement tests. Are we educating for a life of tests or for the tests of life?

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Cognitive Capital: An Investment in Teacher Quality


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