Federal and state governments have begun defining good teachers based on student scores on external tests. Yet every one of us knows that a drill sargent who drills-and-kills student interest and excitement in learning in an attempt to raise test scores is anything but a good teacher.
Look back at your good teachers. They changed your life by building your confidence. —Boosting enthusiasm. —Helping you develop good habits. —Insisting on respect. —And helping you earn respect from others.
Good teachers treated you and other students as individuals. Students came in as different personalities with different skills. And you graduated out as different individuals. Unlike many of today’s schools, your teachers never tried to make you a uniform student "product."
Today, education schools are falling in line to salute the new factory model. They design checklists of traits that all teachers will demonstrate. They push "best practices" to raise scores. They assign numbers to teacher evaluation scales and pretend the numbers make teaching a science.
As a trained scientist, I know these checklists are pseudoscience. A very mediocre teacher could look at the checklist, change a few trivial classroom activities, and rate as a superteacher. Genuinely outstanding teachers may rank as average. When outstanding teachers follow the checklist, they set aside their unique skills. They increase their checklist score and lose their ability to inspire. Evaluating teachers on external student tests and standardized teacher checklists is for education what leeching is to modern medicine.
Teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art. And artists vary in the methods they use. Checklists can no more develop and rate outstanding teachers than they can rate outstanding artists such as Picasso or Rembrandt. External uniform assessments and checklists reduce art to paint-by-number.
My job requires that I evaluate student teachers. I do not sit at the back of a classroom and watch the back of students’ heads. I need to sit forward enough to see students’ eyes: their “ah-hahs,” their excitement level, their level of engagement, and the puzzled looks that draw a teacher’s response and change the lesson. If a teacher is interacting with students (not giving a test or showing a video), I can tell if the teacher is effective with ten minutes of observation.
But there is one caveat—the evaluator has to know the subject being taught. Long ago, a set of researchers sent a fraudulent teacher, a Dr. Myron L. Fox, into a classroom. This actor had been carefully coached to teach with great enthusiasm but avoid teaching anything of substance or accuracy. His entertaining ability won the day and not one student detected the fraud. To avoid this “Dr. Fox effect,” an evaluator must know the course subject. A principal who was formerly a science teacher can evaluate a new science teacher, but perhaps not an English teacher.
Schools and university accrediting agencies that insist on using external evaluations to judge teachers drive out the creativity and academic freedom and responsibility that have made American schools the rich producers of Nobel laureates, inventors and problem solvers of earlier decades.
A dramatic drop in creativity is just one of the disastrous results for our K–12 students under No Child Left Behind teaching-to-the-test. To move this standardized system of external assessment and checklists to university teaching and accreditation shifts American academics away from unique teaching of unique students.
Art, music, literature, surgery, arguing a case in court—all join teaching as quantities that cannot be checklisted. It takes a professional to know a professional. And I can defend this assertion by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart, in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio explained the impossibility of defining pornography, concluding "But I know it when I see it...."