Malcolm Gladwell, V. Darleen Opfer, and Laura Hamilton at RAND's Politics Aside event in Santa Monica, November 12, 2016

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November 16, 2016

The Challenges of Measuring Effective Teaching

Malcolm Gladwell, V. Darleen Opfer, and Laura Hamilton at RAND's Politics Aside event in Santa Monica, November 12, 2016

Photo by Maria Martin/RAND Corporation

While educators, policymakers, and parents may agree on the importance of teacher effectiveness and the need for more effective teachers, they often use different criteria to judge whether schools are doing their job, according to RAND Education experts who spoke Saturday at RAND's Politics Aside event in Santa Monica.

“When we look at school level effectiveness, we oftentimes see that some of the schools that parents think are the best are not actually getting the most gains in student outcomes,” V. Darleen Opfer, director of RAND Education, said during a panel discussion on “Measuring the Unmeasurable.”

Parents have different priorities for what they want in teachers, like a nurturing teacher versus a strong disciplinarian, as well as for what they want in schools, such as prioritizing the amount of extracurricular activities offered. These subjective attributes of both teachers and schools can contribute to the disconnect between a parent's evaluation of a school and those of others.

Policymakers have, in recent years, focused their assessment of teachers and schools on the progress students make on standardized achievement tests. The panelists noted that more and more states and districts have begun using value-added measures which tell how much learning gain is achieved by teachers during the year while controlling for student inputs such as past achievement and socio-economic status. These measures have sometimes shown that schools that are perceived as good using other criteria have smaller learning gains than parents probably realize.

However, the quality of existing tests varies, which limits their utility for understanding teachers' contributions to student learning, and test scores alone don't capture qualities that observers might hope schools are promoting, such as citizenship or social skills, said Laura Hamilton, associate director of RAND Education.

Panel moderator and journalist Malcolm Gladwell asked: Can a school be judged as “good” based on a quality that is not related to the effectiveness of its teachers?

“I'm not sure you can have a lot of teacher effectiveness in a school that does not have the conditions to support that,” Opfer replied. The collaboration that happens in successful schools allows teachers to do their jobs well, she said. At the same time, Hamilton pointed out that in such highly collaborative environments it can be difficult and even counterproductive to measure an individual teacher's contribution to student learning gains.

The panelists noted the importance of transparency to promote effective school choice and accountability. Parents and others need access to high-quality information that goes beyond simply indicating which schools serve high-performing students and instead provides evidence of how schools are contributing to improved outcomes for all students.

The discussion was part of RAND's Politics Aside event, a post-election forum that brings together policymakers, philanthropists, and RAND experts for a nonpartisan examination of pressing policy challenges.

— Sara Rouche