Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

The Case of the Three Teachers, Part 1

February 20, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Hypothetical High School in Imaginary, Minnesota has three tenth grade English teachers: Ms. Holmes, Mr. Chandler, and Ms. Spade. All three have been teaching at Hypothetical for seven years, but they have very different styles. Their principal, Ms. Doyle, wants to know how each of the three is doing. Hypothetical's scores on the tenth grade MCA have been slowly trending upward for the past few years, but too many students were passed between the three teachers at semester each year for Ms. Doyle to know for sure what each teacher's “value-added” has been. A former English teacher herself, Ms. Doyle also knows there's a lot more to being good than an increase in reading comprehension scores.

Ms. Doyle decides to observe each teacher deliver a full lesson three times over the course of the year. Before each observation, she collects the teacher's stated objective for the lesson as well as any meaningful context that she needs to understand about why the teacher is making those particular choices. Ms. Doyle wants an objective for each lesson to confirm that her teachers have reasonable but ambitious goals in mind.

For one of her observed lessons, the methodical Ms. Holmes has adapted one of the state standards into an objective using student-friendly language: I can explain how different poems are like each other. The minute the bell rings, her students read two haiku and make a list of similarities and differences. They then share lists with a partner. Ms. Holmes calls on several partner pairs and creates class lists of similarities and differences. She projects four story elements – setting, character, plot, and theme – that the class already learned and asks a mixture of students to define the terms in their own words and offer modifications to their classmates' definitions.

Students then spend two minutes classifying the items on the lists they made earlier by story element. As students write, Ms. Holmes walks through the classroom, reading over their shoulders. Students then get two minutes to explain their classifications to their partners and jot down any questions they have. Ms. Holmes spends five minutes gathering and answering these questions, and then gives students the rest of the class to read a set of four poems, pick two, and write four or five paragraphs exploring the similarities between the two poems they chose. Observations are to be turned in at the end of class. As students work, Ms. Holmes walks through the class to answer questions or refer students to particular graphic organizers or other tools she's made available to help with writing.

Mr. Chandler is less regimented. His first observation comes at the beginning of a unit about writing research papers, and this particular lesson's objective is for students to be able to write a clear research question that is open-ended, yet defined enough to offer direction and the possibility of a conclusive answer. Instead of making that a student-friendly statement, he turns it into an inquiry: “How do I ask the right questions?” He opens his class with a few minutes of journaling with just that question as a prompt. He then leads the class through a discussion about their responses, focusing on what constitutes “the right questions” before getting to the matter of how to ask them. Finally, he has his students write down five or more “right questions” that interest them and turn the questions in.

As for Ms. Spade, her objective is, “Explain how an author's historical context impacts his or her writing.” She has prepared copies of eight different packets, each of which contains a picture of an author, a brief biography, a short story or group of poems by that author, and a graphic organizer with bubbles for “Historical Context” and “Elements of Writing” on opposite sides of a larger bubble labeled “Impacts of Context on Writing”. She begins the class by displaying the objective. She then asks if anyone has any questions. After fielding one question (“What's 'context' mean?”), she turns the kids loose, letting them roam the room to the different stations where she's put the packets. Once students have picked a packet, they can go wherever they want in the room to work on it. Ms. Spade circulates to make sure students are staying quiet and working alone. At the end of the class, she has students score how comfortable they are analyzing the effects of historical context on writing using a 1-5 scale and write a one-paragraph reflection on what they've learned and what questions they have.

When it comes time for Ms. Doyle to evaluate each teacher, she asks a series of questions:

  •  How appropriate was the objective?
  •  How well did the assessment actually assess the objective?
  •  What do student results say about their mastery of the objective?
  •  What student actions led to those results?
  •  What teacher actions led to those student actions?

How did our three teachers do? What does all this mean for teacher evaluation in Minnesota? Tune in tomorrow to find out!

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.