Monday, September 19, 2011
Sweating the small stuff: Measuring students and teachers.
Reading Moneyball, I've been thinking about how we measure students and teachers and my general feeling is we are going about most of it in a completely wrong-headed method.
At Laney, the big new thing is Standard Learning Outcomes in every math class. I think this is a fairly good system, especially because the amount of material is about half a quiz by my way of doing things. Teachers of a class have some input into what the allegedly important topics are, though in one class I teach regularly, Math For Liberal Arts, a topic I usually don't even cover was the SLO. This class is somewhat amorphously defined, so it's not that surprising that this would occur. In other classes like trigonometry or the algebra sequence, the SLO topics are things I would say are the core of the class.
For me, I almost never teach the same class twice. I'm always trying to learn new ways to present material, and often there are "standard" topics I think have reached their expiration date and new material that makes a strong case for being part of the core curriculum. For example, in statistics, the old school way of doing this was table look-up. Nowadays, a high end calculators and spreadsheet programs make table look-up obsolete. The z-score is now an unneeded middle step between a normally distributed data set and a percentile, which is a shame because z-scores really help define what it is we are trying to do.
I think of both teaching and learning as art forms. Being a person of strong opinions, I have my own ideas about what is good and what is bad, but I haven't come up with standardized tests for what I like. What is it exactly we are supposed to do? Should students become better citizens or better workers or better thinkers? Are we there to instill a love of learning? If so, I can certainly point to successes in my career, but I can honestly point to some failures as well.
It's a thorny problem and I clearly do not have the brilliant solution. I understand the desire to measure teachers and students, but most of the methods we have come up with so far, like the time honored but flawed boxscore in baseball, are doing more harm than good in my opinion.