a test of happiness

When teachers are better at raising test scores, their students are less happy, study finds

Students practice for a state standardized test.

Is a good teacher one who makes students enjoy class the most or one who is strict and has high standards? And are those two types even at odds?

new study that tries to quantify this phenomenon finds that on average, teachers who are good at raising test scores are worse at making kids happy in class.

“Teachers who are skilled at improving students’ math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy or less engaged in class,” writes University of Maryland’s David Blazar in the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.

The analysis doesn’t suggest that test scores are a poor measure of teacher quality, but does highlight the different ways teachers may be effective.

The research uses data from four school districts across three states between 2010 and 2013; in one year, students were randomly assigned to fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, allowing researchers to study what effect different teachers had on students. Those students were also surveyed about their behavior, self-efficacy, and happiness in class.

A large body of past research has found that teachers have a meaningful impact on student test scores, and a number of more recent studies have found that teachers also impact other measures — sometimes called non-cognitive outcomes — such as behavior and attendance. 

The latest study asks a few big questions.

First: Do teachers have an impact on students’ attitudes and behavior, as measured by student surveys? Here, the answer is convincingly yes, consistent with the emerging research.

Second: Are the statistical estimates — often called value-added  measures — of teacher impacts on test scores and non-cognitive skills accurate? The study examined this by comparing the statistical estimates to the results from from random assignment, and it found that the answer varies. Value-added measures are quite accurate for predicting test scores — an important finding in light of the charged debate on whether to judge teachers by these metrics. But it concludes that the statistical models are often biased for measuring  impact on student attitudes, suggesting that attempting to evaluate teachers in this regard may be misguided.

Finally: Is a teacher’s performance, measured by test scores, similar to performance according to other measures? This question is especially important because it’s key for understanding how to think about teacher quality and how to evaluate it.

The study concludes there was only a weak relationship between test score performance and student behavior and feeling of efficacy in math. But when it came to student happiness, there was a moderate negative association — on average, greater test score gains meant less happy students.

What explains this potentially surprising inverse relationship?

It could be that teachers who were less demanding were more popular because their instruction was less likely to promote learning — but more enjoyable for students. Maybe those teachers just popped in a video on many days; perhaps they never gave homework.

Blazar, for his part, is skeptical of this theory.

“I’m not sure that’s a likely explanation in large part because teachers’ emotional support for students … seems to be really predictive of how happy students are in class,” he said. “Building an emotionally supportive classroom environment is something that educators and researchers have cared about for a long time.”

Another interpretation, then, is that measures of teacher effectiveness based on test scores leave out important dimensions of what makes a good teacher — such as caring for students, something that might show up in happiness surveys.

Blazar emphasizes that while the correlation was negative and statistically significant it was not strong in size, meaning that there were certainly teachers who succeeded in improving both test scores and happiness.

Past research has generally shown that test-based measures capture some, but not all, of the components of effective teaching. Test score results tend to be only modestly related to other measures of performance, like classroom observations or effects on student attendance.

On the other hand, teachers’ impacts on tests have rarely been negatively related to other measures. In fact, there is usually a small positive association, including with regards to student surveys. Moreover, a number of studies have linked teachers’ and schools’ test score impacts to longer-term results, including adult income and college success.

“[Test score value-added] clearly can’t be all about things we don’t care about, such as test prep, if it translates into longer-run outcomes,” Blazar said.

“I think that both are likely important,” he said, referring to test scores and students’ engagement and happiness in class.

“Hopefully we can get to a place where teachers are good at multiple skills,” Blazar said. “Rather than just documenting this pattern, I would want to use this information to say, if you’re good at raising test scores but not as good at engaging students, how can we get you to a place where you can do both at the same time?”

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School shootings

Parkland teacher to future Indiana educators: Don’t be afraid to become a teacher

PHOTO: Provided by Indiana University Communications
Indiana University alumna Katherine Posada, an English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks to IU School of Education students on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Posada survived a mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida school where 17 students and teachers were killed by a former student.

Anxious students about to embark on their teaching careers might be even more worried about life in the classroom after the recent shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

But after surviving last week’s attack that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teacher Katherine Posada wanted to ease the fears of education students at her alma mater, Indiana University.

On Friday morning, she spoke to an auditorium of about 200 people in Bloomington about huddling with her 22 students while the school was on lockdown.

Posada acknowledged hard truths: that teachers can do their best to help struggling students, but there will be some — like alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from the school — who they won’t be able to save.

But her clear passion for teaching, and her hope for change for safer schools, rang through.

“Please don’t let this type of event discourage you or make you be afraid to become a teacher,” Posada said. “Because in this world, it is more important now than it ever has been to be able to give these messages to our students, and to be able to prepare them for the world they’re about to go into.”

Here are some excerpts from Posada’s talk:

On why she thinks arming teachers is a “terrible idea”:

“Teaching is about relationships, and it’s about respect. And if I am armed, and I have a weapon, my students no longer respect me. They respect my weapon. They fear my weapon. And I become a threat to them, or a potential threat to them.”

Posada said she supports safety measures such as requiring students to wear IDs and limiting access to schools by keeping entrances locked. But she said she believes it could have been dangerous for her to have a gun on the day of the shooting, particularly when law enforcement cleared the building.

“The first thing that we saw was the barrel of a rifle pointed at us,” she said. “I understand that they had to assess whether or not there was a threat in the room, but they’re pointing guns at us, and they’re shouting, and they’re saying, ‘Hands up! Get in the middle of the room!’

“If I’d had a gun at that moment, they would have shot me. Because they’re there to assess a threat. They’re not there to say, ‘Hmm, this person looks like a mild-mannered 10th-grade teacher who’s not a threat to me.’ … I don’t ever want them to wonder if I’m a threat to them.”

On Parkland students’ gun-control activism after the shooting:

“They are articulate and inspiring and educated. And they didn’t get there by accident.

“They got there because of people like you in this room. Because of their teachers. Because of people who have taught them to think critically about important issues. Because of people who have taught them how to formulate their words and given them the opportunity to practice those things, and educators who have told them they can change the world.”

On how teachers can prepare for school shootings:

“Many of you are wondering if you will ever be able to be prepared for a situation like a school shooting. Yes, you can be logistically prepared. You will do trainings, and you will do the drills, and you will talk to students, and you will know exactly what to do in those situations. But I will tell you, you can never be emotionally prepared for what that is like.”

But Posada said even if you’re in shock, your instincts will kick in.

“You do what you have to do to protect your kids. And that’s what they are: Every student who comes into your classroom, as an educator, is your kid. You form relationships with them, and you’ll do whatever it takes to protect them. You’ll know what to do.”

On what she really teaches in her 10th-grade English class:

“Empathy and the ability to relate to other people.

“Any time you pick up a book, you are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You are looking at the world from someone else’s perspective for that 300 pages, or whatever it is that you’re reading. That’s such an important thing to be able to do in this world where we are so polarized. It’s so ‘us versus them.’ ‘If you don’t agree with what I say, you must be a terrible, horrible person.’ I think we get caught up in that way of thinking far too often. … It’s OK to disagree with each other, you just have to do so respectfully.”

Posada said she teaches students to think critically by articulating their own arguments — and understanding other perspectives.

“I really try not to let my own personal views come across in the classroom. It’s not my job as an educator to tell my students what to think. It’s my job to teach them how to think for themselves.”

On how she plans to go back to school after the shooting:

“In many ways, I don’t think it will ever be the same.”

Posada expects students’ first days back will be devoted to talking about the shooting.

“I was in the middle of reading Macbeth when we left. How am I going to do that? How am I going to go back and read Macbeth to them at this point? Would anybody care? I don’t think so.”

She said she may shift her lesson plans to be more meaningful, to include a project for students to research and present on issues they feel passionately about.

“I don’t know that we’ll go back to Macbeth. I am going to teach the standards, maybe in just a little bit of a different way. .. I think it would be a disservice to the students to jump back into, let’s do some SAT prep.”

On being “more than just a deliverer of curriculum”:

“I feel like I’m their mom sometimes. I feel like I’m their parent. I think sometimes they’d rather I didn’t feel that way, because I expect a lot of my students, and sometimes I call them on stuff that they’d rather you let slide. … Some of them need an adult who can be a role model, or who can be someone they can talk to, because they don’t have that anywhere else. You feel like a therapist sometimes. So yeah, you’re definitely more than just a deliverer of curriculum. That would be easier, probably, less stressful, but you’re more than that.”

Her relationship with her students, Posada said, helps her see red flags in their behavior, in their writing, or from other students, in cases in which students may need counseling.

“Unfortunately, we can’t catch every single incident,” she said. “But you do the best you can.”

On whether there is “room in our hearts to love kids like Nikolas,” the alleged shooter:

“I think that the answer to things like this is more love, more understanding. More willingness to accept other people and their points of view and the way they might feel and the way they might think and to be open to everyone expressing themselves. So I think there’s room. It might take us awhile to get there, but I definitely think it’s possible.”

another round

New York wants to overhaul its teacher evaluations — again. Here’s a guide to the brewing battle.

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

State policymakers recently dipped their toes into one of New York’s most politically charged education issues: teacher evaluations.

At a meeting this month, state education department officials outlined plans to revamp the unpopular teacher-rating system, which was essentially put on hold more than two years ago. Shortly after, the state teachers union called for faster action setting the stage for a new round of evaluation debates.

To help explain the brewing debate, Chalkbeat has created a guide to the current evaluations, how they came to be, and what might be in store for them.

Here’s what you need to know:

How do New York’s teacher evaluations work now?

Teachers are evaluated based on two components: students’ academic improvement and principals’ observation of their teaching.

Every district creates its own state-approved evaluation plan that spells out how they will measure student learning. In 2015, state policymakers temporarily banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in evaluations.

In New York City, teams of educators at each school pick from a menu of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning.” Among the options are developed essay-based tasks and “running records,” where students are assessed as they read increasingly difficult texts. They can also choose to include the results of science tests or high-school graduation exams. (Certain teachers — such as those who teach physical education — are evaluated based partly on their students’ scores in other subjects.)

Teachers receive one score based on how much students improved academically, and another based on principals’ ratings. The combined scores are translated into one of four ratings, ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Teacher evaluations must still be a factor in tenure decisions and three “ineffective” ratings can trigger a teacher’s firing.

What are the outcomes of the current system?

Nearly 97 percent of New York City teachers earned the top two ratings of either “effective” or “highly effective” in the 2016-17 school year, according to preliminary numbers presented by the city teachers union president at a meeting in October. That is an increase from the previous year when 93 percent of teachers earned one of those ratings.

How did we get here?

Until 2010, teachers were rated either “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory,” and individual districts and principals were given latitude to determine how those ratings were assigned.

But in order to win a federal “Race to the Top” grant that year, New York adopted a new evaluation system that factored in students’ standardized test scores — a move strongly opposed by many teachers, who consider the tests an unreliable measure of their performance. The new system was based on a 100-point scale that allotted 20 points to state tests, 20 points to local tests, and 60 points to principal observations.

The battle lines were redrawn again in 2015, when state lawmakers led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to make it tougher for teachers to earn high ratings. The new system allowed for as much as half of a teacher’s rating to be based on test scores.

But that plan was never fully implemented. Following a wave of protests in which one in five New York families boycotted the state tests, officials backed away from several controversial education policies.

In late 2015, the state’s Board of Regents approved a four-year freeze on the most contentious aspect of the teacher evaluation law: the use of students’ scores on the grades 3-8 math and English tests. They later allowed districts to avoid having independent observers rate teachers — another unpopular provision in the original law.

Why is the state looking to overhaul the system now?

Over the past few years, state policymakers have revised New York’s learning standards and the annual exams that students take. Now, they are turning to the evaluation system.

The moratorium on the use of certain test scores in teacher evaluations expires after next school year, so the clock is ticking for state education officials to come up with a new system. They have said they hope to have a new system ready for the 2019-2020 school year — but they also floated the idea of extending the moratorium in order to give themselves more time.

What could change?

Everything is up for debate.

First, state policymakers must decide whether to create a single statewide evaluation system or let local school districts craft their own, as the state teachers union is urging.

Second, they must decide what to put in the evaluations. Should they include test scores, principal observations, or other measures? If they allow tests, they must determine which kinds to use and how much to weigh student scores.

However, they may run up against some obstacles. Besides the relatively short timeline, major changes to the evaluation system could require state lawmakers to revise the underlying legislation. And any new student-learning measures they hope to use could prove costly to develop.

Who are the key players and what do they want?

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has made it clear she wants to oversee a careful redesign process that will involve teachers and could lead to a revamped, statewide evaluation system. “This isn’t going to be a fast process,” Elia said during a legislative hearing at the end of January.

State teachers union officials have called for a much quicker process that results in local school districts crafting their own evaluations — a move that could eliminate the use of test scores. “First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, after the state outlined its plan earlier this month. Since then, union officials have said they want to work collaboratively with the education department.

Gov. Cuomo has shied away from this issue after pushing for the deeply unpopular 2015 law that tried to toughen evaluations and inflamed the teachers unions. And he does not appear eager to revisit the issue this year as he seeks reelection. His spokeswoman, Abbey Fashouer, told Chalkbeat: “We will revisit the issue at the appropriate time,” and noted that the moratorium will remain in effect until the 2019-20 school year.

State lawmakers have not indicated that overhauling the teacher-evaluation law this year is a top priority.

During a city teachers union event in December, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he was not sure the state could get to a “final idea” by the end of this year — but that he wanted to “start the dialogue.” The senate majority leader, John Flanagan, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I have not heard any movement on teacher evaluations this year,” said Patricia Fahy, a Democratic assemblymember who represents Albany, in an interview this week. “Normally something about that would be bubbling up already.”