My state, Utah, just passed a law like Florida’s, to give schools grades (A through F), based on several factors, mostly test scores. This is just another bad idea in a national series of bad ideas, basing funding and school status on student test scores. This one’s particularly bad because Florida has in place another law to limit class sizes, which can ensure more personal attention to students, while Utah has the highest class sizes in the nation (a prolific population).
This begs a very important question: what is good teaching?
The avalanche of wrong thinking out there today says that good teaching is demonstrated by good test scores. Of course that’s nonsense. Very bad teachers could produce good test scores. Very good teachers may not produce good test scores, depending on many factors, including the actual students in the classroom. As one writer put it, “Teachers don’t have a say on who comes into their classes.” Students come to us variously prepared and variously skilled. We take everybody in and do the best we can–but the once-yearly high-stakes test cannot possible demonstrate what we do, and whether we do it well or not.
Truth is, for many years, it’s been terribly hard to pinpoint what good teaching actually is. Studies have found that all kinds of teachers turn out to be really good ones, whether they do small-group interventions or lectures. There is one thing they all have in common, but it’s something that will never show up on standardized tests.
I call it MAGIC.
It’s that indescribable combination of passion about a subject and love for people, including the ability to create moments of pure delight and fascination. Some of this comes down to storytelling, some to innate psychology, and some of it, we must admit, to great showmanship. It comes down to pacing, to intuition, to commitment to kids and commitment to excellence.
Like the famous quote on pornography, we can’t always describe it, but we know it when we see it.
I’ve never seen “magic” on a teacher evaluation form, but most principals I’ve known recognize it and value it. I imagine the only way TO value it, in terms of grading schools and evaluating teachers, is to stop emphasizing test scores so much and to visit classrooms, talk to kids, see what’s really going on. Good teachers are at a premium, and so is their magic–and that has little to do with standardized tests.