Understanding teacher quality: a look into the classroom


Written by Claire Bove, Former Associate Director at Mills Teacher Scholars

In the national conversation about education, many voices are asking questions about teacher quality: how do we quantify it? How should we report it? But shouldn’t we begin by asking, What is teacher quality? What does it look like? And how can we help teachers develop it, increase it, and share it?

In the Mills Teacher Scholars  program, we provide coaching and tools to teachers in East Bay schools, so that they can understand their students’ learning, and figure out what is getting in the way of learning. The teachers we work with frequently use standardized test scores and assessments such as benchmark tests and standard reading scores. For example, teachers rely on Diagnostic Reading Assessment scores to find out where students are having difficulty learning, but standardized assessments do not tell teachers what is getting in the way of learning, nor how to help a student overcome the obstacles to learning. The teacher scholars in our program collect data to find out how their students learn, and they work collaboratively to develop teaching strategies to help their students overcome obstacles to learning. The following example illustrates this process with Shelley Grant, an eighth-grade science Mills Teacher Scholar.

When Shelley wrote the words that follow, she had been teaching for five years, and had been a Mills Teacher Scholar for two years. At the beginning of those two years, she used the results from the standardized science test her students had taken at the end of the year as a catalyst for her inquiry. Her students’ scores on the questions about balancing chemical reactions were very low, so that is where she decided to focus her attention. In a paper that Shelley presented at AERA on the complexities of differentiation she writes:

[F]rom my first year’s data, I learned that counting atoms was the fundamental concept. Namely, students who mastered atom counting proceeded to learn how to balance a reaction. Students who could not atom count could proceed no further. Atom counting is the lock. From watching my year one video, I figured out how to engage my students in the fundamental task of atom counting.  My video data gave me the key.

The camera was framed on my focal student group: Eliki, Stephanie, Andrew, and Rondie (pseudonyms).  Their task for the period was to build molecular models. (We used model building at the start of this unit hoping to give students a concrete introduction to atoms and molecules before introducing the abstract chemical language of chemical reactions.) Eliki was my FBB student in the group. He struggled to learn science. This activity was designed specifically for him.

Stephanie, Andrew, and Rondie dutifully built the assigned molecules (CH4, H2O, CO2). Eliki built bracelets, dogs, and spinning tops. On several occasions during the video sequence, I stop at his table and try to get him back on task. But in each case, when I walk away, he returns to his own creations. In the same video sequence, I observed other students coming to my Eliki’s table to show him their elaborate designs. In each case, they had not built the assigned molecules. They built their own creations. At the end of the segment, the video shows Eliki copying all the drawings and atom counts from Andrew who had made all the assigned molecules. Eliki, as well as many other students, did not learn to count atoms or balance chemical reactions. Conversely, Andrew, Stephanie, and Rondie, who had build and drawn all the molecules and counted atoms, learned to balance chemical reactions.

As a classroom teacher, I was horrified to watch Eliki off-task for much of the period. I was disappointed that he had missed the opportunity to complete the activity that was planned with him in mind, and that he didn’t learn to count atoms or balance chemical reactions. But then I realized that it wasn’t Eliki who was at fault, but it was the curriculum. It was the activity that had failed to engage him. He and his classmates wanted to build molecules, just not the boring ones we had assigned. So in the second year of my study, I took advantage of my students’ creativity and love of building. I let the students build their own molecules and count the atoms. It worked beautifully. Nearly all my students learned to count atoms and subsequently balance chemical reactions. After finding the key, I could unlock the lock.

The approach Shelley took to understand how students, and especially students who struggle with chemistry, learn was very specific and fine-grained. She looked at one Far Below Basic student, Eliki, learning (or rather, not learning) one specific skill: balancing chemical equations. She spent considerable time looking at one piece of videotape, a piece of videotape that questioned her teaching ability. Together with other Mills Teacher Scholars, Shelley found that the “best practice” she was using, an adult-designed, hands-on, kinesthetic activity, intended to engage students, failed to engage Eliki (and probably others).

By struggling to understand what had gone wrong, by using her colleagues’ insights, by noticing what did engage this student, that is, creating his own “molecules,” Shelley was able to design an activity that would engage all students. The result was that, in the second year of her study, nearly all of her students were able to balance chemical equations. Furthermore, by sharing with the other teachers in her department the lessons she developed through this inquiry, nearly all the students in the eighth grade at her school are now able to master this difficult skill, in stark contrast with students from past years.

There are two important points about this study: first, it took a collaborative effort to figure it out. It was not one teacher toiling alone in her classroom to discover what was wrong, and to figure out how to make it right. It took collaboration among a small group of Mills Teacher Scholars to notice Eliki’s actions and interest and to redefine this as an asset to exploit in future teaching. Furthermore, the results have benefited more than just Shelley’s students in that one classroom. A new teacher coming to her school, the colleagues who did not take part in this inquiry, and a teacher who will join the department in the future, all benefit from her insight and teaching that followed.

Second, this study of Shelley’s took time: two years. If Shelley had been assessed on the quality of her teaching after that first year with the results of the standardized test that she had used to decide where to focus her inquiry, she would have failed. She is currently studying how her students learn graphing, and she is in the third year of that study, the implications of which include changing the way graphing is taught in her department from sixth through eighth grade.

As we continue the conversation about teacher quality, let’s listen to the voices of educators who have a deep and nuanced understanding of teaching and learning: to Pam Grossman on the essential role of teacher retention in the development of teacher quality ; to Linda Darling-Hammond on the importance of treating teachers as professionals, providing them with opportunities to learn with one another:  what keeps good teachers in schools; to Anthony Cody on the complex nature of learning, and of the relationship between great teaching and dynamic learning.

And most importantly, let’s listen to the voice that has so often been left out of this conversation, that of teachers.