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December 13, 2018

Judge teachers using so-called intangibles: They matter as much or more than test scores

December 5, 2018
Test scores don’t tell us enough (FatCamera / Getty Images)

In the quest to identify the best teachers, test scores continue to be the sine qua non. While they are certainly the easiest way to do so, they do not capture the full impact of teacher effectiveness by a long shot. Yet there is some good news. A growing body of research shows that non-cognitive skills are finally being given the weight they deserve in making that determination.

Those who have worked in public schools know that long after subject matter is forgotten, students remember the personal aspects of their time with their teachers. The attitudes, values and interests that come under the umbrella of affective outcomes can play as great — or greater — role in a student’s future than cognitive variables.




I saw this often in the dozen or so class reunions I’ve attended of the high school where I taught for my entire 28-year career. Students ask me about particular teachers, expressing their gratitude for the kindness and support they received and how both have benefited them. I expect to hear the same thing when I attend a 50th class reunion next march.

Skeptics will rightly demand evidence of my view. A recent study published in Education Next by C. Kirabo Jackson of ninth-grade students in North Carolina attempted to compare the influence of cognitive and non-cognitive skills on students. It found that non-cognitive skills were 10 times more predictive of students’ long-term success in high school than test scores. In fact, many teachers who raise test scores do not improve non-cognitive skills, and vice versa.

By no means does that minimize the importance of teachers teaching their subject matter well. On the contrary. But it does call into question the obsession with test scores alone — even increases in test scores as measured in value-added measures — in identifying the best teachers. There are teachers who teach their subject well but teach them to hate the subject in the process. I call that a pyrrhic victory if the goal is to produce lifelong learners.

Unfortunately, little attention is placed on non-cognitive outcomes. One reason is that they are seen as more subjective than cognitive outcomes. But done properly, they can provide a fairer and more comprehensive evaluation of teachers than widely believed. One practical way is the use of Likert inventories. These consist of a series of statements to which students anonymously register their agreement or disagreement on a scale of, say, one to five. For example, “I enjoy reading a book more than I did before taking this class.” Or “Doing math in school no longer makes me anxious.” The key is anonymity.

Another way of approaching the subject is to have a team of teachers who are trained to look at the entire body of evidence available. Classroom observations and parent surveys can provide valuable feedback. Some teachers will argue that they are not in school to win a popularity contest. Their sole job is to teach their subject. But being alert to the effect that their daily instruction has on their students’ enjoyment does not preclude rigorously teaching their subject.

The last few years have seen religious constituencies opposing the teaching of values in the belief that that is the sole responsibility of the family and church. Yet it’s doubtful they would object to affective outcomes that are universally approved, such as enthusiasm for learning. Almost all parents understand the connection between attitudes and values and future behavior.

That’s one reason why the homeschooling movement has grown so dramatically to 1.8 million from 1.5 million five years earlier. But if public schools can demonstrate their ability to inculcate universally approved outcomes, they stand a better chance of winning support from disaffected parents. The key is teachers whose awareness has been raised at this crossroads in public education.

Gardner, who taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education, blogs about education at theedhed.com.

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