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The Challenge of Teaching Higher-Order Skills

Could teacher evaluations begin to offer us the best portrait yet of what instruction actually looks like in America's classrooms? And what changes might such information spur in teacher preparation and on-the-job training?

Those are implications raised by a couple of different papers looking at teacher evaluations. I've written about them on this blog before, but only from the technical aspects of the systems. In reviewing the reports again, it strikes me that they also have a lot to say about instructional quality—some of which seems frankly troubling.

First up is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's most recent release from its Measures of Effective Teaching study. As part of the study, observers scored thousands of taped teacher lessons against a bunch of different teaching frameworks.

The key data are in the charts on Pages 26-7. In essence, no matter what framework was used, teachers got higher scores on procedural tasks like planning and behavior management, but relatively low scores on things like "analysis and problem solving," "using investigation/problem-based approaches," "student participation in making meaning and reasoning," and "relevance to history and current events."

Second, the Consortium on Chicago School Research recently released final results from that city's pilot implementation of the Danielson Framework for Teaching and found similar results. Here, too, teachers generally scored lower on the domains of "using questioning and discussion techniques" and "engaging students in learning" than on managing the classroom. (See Page 14 of the report.)

It's worth pointing out, by the way, that the Chicago study also found that principals were not much better at using these techniques than teachers: They struggled to ask questions to elicit good information from teachers on their practice during the post-evaluation conferences.

The findings would appear to highlight some fairly consistent weaknesses in instruction and raise big question marks for teacher and leadership preparation—especially since the common-core state standards call for teachers to help students master precisely these kinds of higher-order reasoning and analytical skills.

Most educators in our field would agree that teachers should enter the classroom with a good repertoire of pedagogical techniques. Equally important, principals should know how to get appropriate assistance for a teacher who isn't quite up to snuff.

There's room for other interpretations in these findings, of course, such as whether the No Child Left Behind Act's focus on basic-skills tests has shifted the focus of instruction. We do know that the NCLB law has caused changes in teacher practices, but we don't know all that much about what the instructional process actually looks like in most places.

(Education Week receives Gates grant support. )

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