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The Importance of Affect in the Classroom

The New York Times published a front-page story about the delayed impact the best kindergarten teachers have on their students ("The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers") on the same day I wrote about the benefit in delaying evaluation of teachers until years after their students graduate ("Who's a Good Teacher").

Raj Chetty, who conducted the Project Star study reported in the Times, is an economist. As a result, he understandably placed heavy emphasis on the pecuniary benefits to students who were taught in kindergarten by an inspired teacher. He says that all else being equal, these students were making about $100 a year more at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up on standardized tests. That would come to about $1,000 more a year than a student who scored average. Projected out, the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers totals about $320,000 - hence the headline of the article.

Although economists do not profess to know the exact reasons for this increase, it is likely due to the attitudes that successful kindergarten teachers inculcate in their students. These include such things as discipline, perseverance, patience and manners. Despite the importance of this wherewithal, reformers make no attempt to assess the ability of teachers to achieve these non-cognitive objectives. Certainly, they are aware of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook II: Affective Domain (David McKay Company Inc., 1964). But it seems that their obsession to measure only cognitive outcomes in two or three subjects has blinded them to their oversight. As Bloom wrote: "The fact that we attempt to analyze the affective area separately from the cognitive is not intended to suggest that there is a fundamental separation. There is none."

In my previous post, I pointed out that it is counterproductive to teach a subject well but to teach students to hate the subject in the process. What do we gain as a nation if students are left with such strong negative feelings about what they have studied? At best, they will be reluctant to pursue further learning in that field. And at worst, they will refuse to do so. Therefore, before patting ourselves on the back when we boost standardized test scores as the sine qua non, we should ask ourselves what price we have paid for doing so.

Defenders of the exclusive emphasis on cognitive results will argue that affective outcomes are not as easily assessed. But that doesn't mean they can't be measured. One of the ways of doing so is through use of an attitude inventory that is anonymously completed by students before and after instruction. Perhaps the best known of these is the Likert inventories that were introduced in 1932. Typically, there are five possible responses to a statement, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Its format is familiar to most students today because they are used to rating movies and other content.

Reformers will maintain that these results constitute "soft" data. But teaching is more than merely instilling skills and knowledge in students. It's this acknowledgement that was conspicuously absent from President Obama's speech delivered on July 29 at the centennial convention of the National Urban League. He proclaimed that "We have an obligation to lift up every child in every school in this country, especially those who are starting out furthest behind."

If Obama genuinely means what he said, then it behooves him to explain how converting classrooms into test preparation factories in order to boost standardized test scores will serve students most in need of enrichment. Drilling has its place, but when it becomes the overwhelming - perhaps sole - pedagogy used with these students, they will continue to be shortchanged. Their attitudes about learning matter more than reformers comprehend.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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