Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

I am under the microscope right now, being poked, prodded and examined. Well not me really, but my department. Most of you who read this blog know that I am an education professor, but what you probably don't know is that I chair the department. I've held this unhappy position since 2000. Unhappy? Absolutely. Administration is not my cup of tea. I am a teacher. Just put me in a classroom and let me do my stuff. Because of my administrative responsibilities, I teach less than some of my colleagues. I'd like to teach more.

I've spent the last year and half (longer, perhaps) looking at our program to prepare teachers, and analyzing miles of data in an effort to demonstrate that we prepare teachers who are "competent, caring and qualified." I've correlated, calculated measures of central tendency, run regressions, created scatterplots, analyzed variance (have I lost you yet?) and gone bug-eyed over statistics. What has it told me? Well, I'm not sure. I know it's not enough to say that experience has taught me what a good teacher looks like, and that on paper, the numbers don't always tell the whole story. For example, that 4.0 graduate may be an outstanding student and know his/her content, but will he/she be flexible enough to meet the demands of the classroom? The answer? Not always. How about that 2.9 grad? Some of my most creative and passionate teachers have less than stellar grades.

I had professor in grad school who insisted that gifted statisticians could make the data "say" whatever they wanted. I guess it all depends upon the "lens" through which we choose to look at these things. The numbers can be helpful to an extent, but seeing candidates in action is really the most telling piece of evidence we have. I DO know a good teacher when I see one, and so do you.

What say you, dear readers. What does a good teacher look like? Share your thoughts, because I would love to hear them. And by the way, no statistics needed.


  1. To me communication skills are paramount. I've had brilliant teachers who just couldn't convey their brilliance. And what goes along with that, of course, is people smarts, empathy, patience, and gut instincts about what a student needs and how best to reach him. Flexibility, ability to think outside the box for creative approaches when standard methods fail. I don't see how statistics can measure the "knack" for teaching, or the love of the profession. A good teacher teaches a student how to learn.

  2. Ah, the joys of accreditation.

    For me effective teachers are those who are able to share their enthusiasm for the material they are teaching and for learning with their students in a way that engages the student and makes them want to know more.

  3. A good teacher likes his students. All of them. Not just the ones that are easy to teach. A good teacher encourages students to want to learn and understands that there are many many kinds of "smart" - a good teacher knows how to make a child feel successful every day - in something. Good teachers listen more than they talk. They know how to encourage students to talk about whatever the subject is and to learn from each other.

    The sad and simple truth is, however, that because of NCLB good teachers really don't matter. At least not on the elementary level. My son has an incredible teacher this year who is being watched intensely because of his students' test scores. It is all about money and it just stinks. Only math and reading matter - science and social studies I have been told - don't matter at all. Woah.

    Anyway - I believe that the things that make a teacher great are intangible and I honestly don't know that they can be taught. They can be encouraged and refined - but great teachers are born that way. My mother is one.

  4. Right now, she looks tired. Lesson plans, grading, the push to meet AYP, parent conferences, interim reports...

    But she's not whining. She knows she made a difference for at least one child today. In the end, it's all worth it for that.

  5. A good teacher is a good observer. Watches, listens, absorbs, intuits. And then the good teacher reflects back so that students know themselves in a more complete way. A good teacher knows that most of what she needs is internal and interactive, not imposed from the outside. A good teacher's students know that they are truly liked and cared for...

  6. I agree with much of what has been said. A good teacher teaches people, not curriculum. He/she sees curriculum as a means to an end, not the end in itself.

  7. I wrote
    in response to a prompt from Weekend Wordsmith... it wort of addresses this issue as well. Thought I would share.