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Is a Good Teacher One Who Makes Kids Happy or One Who Raises Test Scores?

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On average, teachers who are good at raising test scores are worse at making students happy and engaged in school, a new study finds

The study, written by David Blazar, an assistant professor of education policy and economics at the University of Maryland, looks at ways teachers can be effective beyond test scores—mainly by boosting students' confidence in their math skills, helping to improve their behavior in class, and making kids happy. 

The study looked at data from 4th and 5th grade teachers in four school districts from three states over three school years.

Blazar found that teachers do have substantive impacts on students' attitudes and behavior, particularly students' happiness in class. And he also found that the teachers who are skilled at improving students' math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy in class.

This negative correlation between student happiness and test scores was statistically significant, but not strong in size, so it's important to note that the study did include teachers who successfully improved both measures.

Still, in the study, Blazar concluded that these findings were important for policymakers to consider when evaluating teacher effectiveness.

"Many, including myself, see students' social and emotional development as a central goal of teachers' and students' work," he wrote. "Yet, accountability systems that focus predominately or exclusively on student achievement send a message that the skills captured on these tests are the ones that policymakers want students to have when they leave school."

Instead, Blazar wrote, policymakers should broaden what it means to be a successful student. Schools should also use measures of teachers' effectiveness at improving students' attitudes and behaviors to connect teachers with targeted professional development, including coaching. 

Ideally, he said in an interview with Chalkbeat, school leaders will use the data to get teachers to a place where they can both raise test scores and engage students. 

Ronen Habib, a teacher and the founder of EQ schools, which provides emotional intelligence training for educators, recently wrote for Education Week Teacher that when one of his high school students had committed suicide, it changed his whole outlook on school and the role of teachers

"I wouldn't worry about academic standards, content, or grades, until I made sure they felt like they belonged and gave them more skills to ride the waves of life," he wrote. The result? He had stronger relationships with students, and they were more focused, which saved instructional minutes in class.

"It's time for us to prioritize and infuse our schools with more joy, connection, and a focus on well-being," Habib continued. "Learning will deepen, academic achievements will improve, and we'll raise a generation of happier, well-adjusted, and creatively confident people."

The theme of focusing on student achievement versus their social-emotional competencies is explored in Education Week's and NPR's three-part series on a brand new Washington, D.C., high school for young men of color. The school's philosophy is to pair high expectations with unconditional love and restorative justice. But the final installment, released this week, looks at the "irreconcilable differences" between the demands of meeting the students' social-emotional needs and the mounting pressure on teachers to educate students who are years behind in math and literacy. 

Image: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

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