I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, October 15, 2012

Newsflash: Students May Be Responsible For Themselves!

This is going to come as something of a shock to my reformy readers. After all, you all believe "great" teachers can overcome all obstacles to learning, including poverty, racism, and inadequate funding of schools.

But it just may be that students themselves are responsible for their learning gains!
While boredom is a perennial student complaint, emerging research shows it is more than students' not feeling entertained, but rather a "flavor of stress" that can interfere with their ability to learn and even their health. An international group of researchers argues this month in Perspectives on Psychological Science that the experience of boredom directly connects to a student's inability to focus attention.
"I think teachers should always try to be relevant and interesting, but beyond that, there are other places to look," said John D. Eastwood, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, and the lead author of the study. "By definition, to be in the state of boredom is to say the world sucks out there in some way. But often that's not the case; often it's an interior problem, and [students] are looking in the wrong place to solve the problem." [emphasis mine]
Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Are you head-shrinkers trying to tell me that sometimes students aren't motivated to learn... and it may not be the teachers fault?!
Under Mr. Eastman and his colleagues' definition, a student who is bored cannot focus attention to engage in the class activity—and blames that inability to focus on the outside environment. A dry lecture style or an uninteresting topic might trigger boredom, Mr. Eastman said, but so can other issues that interfere with a student's attention and working memory. 
For example, students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are more likely to report feeling bored than students with normal attention. Students tackling material that is too difficult for them—and thus taking up more working memory—also are more likely to report it is "boring" rather than simply frustrating, Mr. Eastman and other researchers found. 
"When people are in a negative emotional state, discouraged, or down, we know that causes attention problems," Mr. Eastman said. "We know when people are stressed it makes it harder to focus and pay attention at a very basic, fundamental level."
Quickly - bring in the technology! Call Joel Klein and buy lots of computerized crap that "stimulates" these bored children! Let's get a gamer culture going to entice the young ones into learning the order of math operations!

You best add inside those parentheses first, or I'll blast your a**!

Oh, hold on a minute... maybe this isn't such a good idea...
Effective ways to reduce boredom can be counterintuitive to students looking for a quick fix, though. "I think if someone is bored, the worst thing you can do is respond to it by overstimulating," Mr. Eastman said. "It's like quicksand; if you just thrash around, you're even more stuck."
"Although teachers try to create interesting lessons, they must be aware that despite their best intentions, some students may still perceive interesting lessons as boring," Ms. Nett concluded. "What is imperative to underscore at this point is that both teachers and students must take some responsibility for boredom, and both must be involved in finding an adequate way to reduce this emotion in their classrooms."
Yeah, but here's the problem: we're going to judge teachers based on how well these kids do on standardized tests. If the kids are bored - through no fault of the teacher's - it goes directly to the teacher's evaluation. The kids' responsibility for their own learning doesn't enter into the equation (let alone their parents' responsibilities).

If you were a teacher, and your livelihood depended on whether your students were "engaged," do you think you'd lobby your principal for the kids who were less prone to boredom - again, a trait that this article suggests may lie outside of the teacher's influence? Do you think that maybe you'd see that you have an advantage over your colleague down the hall if you got fewer "bored" kids than she did?

Once again, we see the folly of policies developed by people who have no idea how schools actually work. Every teacher in America knows that students can have similar demographics and yet be completely different. Where in the formula for rating teachers by test scores...

... is there any accounting for this fact? I'll tell you: it's nowhere. You can't account for it; it's stupid to try. And if principals don't assign students randomly to classrooms, there's no way to control for the bias of some teachers having more "bored" kids in their classes than others (in fact, there's probably no way to account for it even if the kids were randomly assigned).

I know we all desperately want to believe that every teacher can be a Mr. Chips or a Sir (With Love) or a Mr. Holland or a Jaime Escalante who will magically inspire every child around them to be all that they can be. And yes, every teacher should aspire to be just that, even if it is impractical.

But the sad fact is some kids just don't give a s***, and that's not the teacher's fault.
I would argue that the non-random assignment of kids who don’t give a sh^%t presents a significant concern for VAM. Consider any typical upper elementary school. It is quite possible that kids who don’t give a sh^%t are more likely to be assigned to one fourth grade teacher year-after-year than to another. This may occur because that fourth grade teacher really wants to try to help these kids out, and has some, though limited success in doing so. This may also occur because the principal has it in for one teacher – and really wants to make his/her life difficult. Or, it may occur because all of the parents of kids who do give a sh^%t (in part because their parents give a sh^%t) consistently request the same teacher year after year.
In all likelihood, whether the kids give a sh^%t about doing well – and specifically doing well on the tests used for generating VA estimates – matters, and may matter a lot. Teachers with disproportionate numbers of kids who don’t give a sh^%t may, as a result receive systematically lower VA scores, and if the sorting mechanisms above are in place, this may occur year after year.
What incentive does this provide for the teacher who wanted to help – to help kids give a sh^%t? Statistically, even if that teacher made some progress in overcoming the give a sh^%t factor, the teacher would get a low rating because give a sh^%t factor would not be accounted for in the model. Buddin’s LAT model includes dummy variables for kids who are low income and kids who are limited in their English language proficiency. But, there’s no readily available indicator for kids who don’t give a sh^%t. So we can’t effectively compare one teacher with 10 (of 25) kids who don’t give a sh^%t to another with 5 (of 25) who don’t give a sh^%t. We can hope that giving a sh^%t , or not, is picked up by the child’s prior year performance, and even better, by the prior multiple years of value-added estimates on that child. But, do we really know whether giving a sh^%t is a stable student characteristic over time? Many VAM models like the LAT one don’t capture multiple prior years of value-added for each student. [emphasis mine]
It's ridiculous to design a rating system for teachers without acknowledging this basic truth. And it's ridiculous to base a teacher's evaluation on the progress of students who clearly do not have the same inherent capabilities. No teacher should pay the price because she has to teach kids who don't give a s***.


Seth said...


What's that "Value-added Model" box from? Please tell me that's a satire. It's getting hard to tell these days.



David B. Cohen said...

Seth, I'm afraid the box is real. Pretty sure it was published in the New York Times (or NYT Mag.?) in the past 12-18 mos. It's a formula that probably couldn't be explained by more than 1% of the non-math teachers in education, but since it's math, it must be objective and accurate, right? They can quantify anything.