The Empiricists Strike Back?

Two things have colluded to initiate this piece: 1) The teacher strike in Seattle (as symptom of Common Core implementation problems) 2) I just made my first acquaintance with the work of John Hattie. Visible Learning (2008) contains some compelling arguments for improving schools and evaluating teachers. For now at least, I want to keep my comments to the latter–lest I muddy the waters, brackish as they are.

Let me dispatch with the notion of testing. When economic/business minded people approach the school system, they do so with what appears to be an undying need to quantify and make accountable. This process usually starts with graduation rates and, as of late, trends toward measuring student outcomes. These well-meaning administrative progressivists have berated the American public with ideas of minimum standards and return on investment for over a century. After all, who in his or her right mind would disagree with efficiency and efficacy?

The problem necessarily lies in the measuring instruments. You can only measure what the instrument is capable of measuring. Where is the yardstick or barometer for effective teaching? If there were such a thing, why would the yardstick be lined up to measure the students? In other words, shouldn’t someone put eyes and ears on the actual instruction in order to determine its efficacy? Put this way, it is plain that testing students in order to gauge teachers is prima facie illogical.

If only we had the resources to evaluate teachers through ongoing observation, you say. Well, John Hattie believes we do. According to Hattie (along with: Irving, 2004; supported by: Bendig, 1952; Tagamori & Bishop, 1995) teacher evaluations should be executed by the students themselves. It is a myth, he argues, that students will rank their instructors on some capricious whim. If Hattie (and Irving) is right, then why is it so hard to convince the empiricists? The cynic in me thinks it is political in nature. The public wouldn’t understand; it isn’t common sense; juggernauts of testing have too much money involved. But I’m not convinced that educators have made the argument for themselves. While I haven’t researched specific cases, I have not seen many solutions to the testing debate, just troves of disgruntled teachers and students.

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