Disincentivizing Good Teaching

Over the past year, I have observed approximately twenty-five public school classrooms. In these classes, I have seen dynamic and effective teachers who captivated their students (and me) as they told the story of the Pony Express or shared the secrets to balancing chemical equations. In contrast, there were also teachers who were flat and inept.

While I certainly saw teachers present material incorrectly, I’m going to ignore this type of incompetence for this article. Rather, my main concern here is the educational philosophy espoused by the inadequate, mediocre-at-best, and even average teachers in the face of standardized tests.

Time and again, I heard students ask their teachers why they had to learn the material they were learning. Time and again, my heart would sink as I heard teachers respond: “Because it’s on the state test.” What a terrible answer. Learning material to only regurgitate those facts and skills on a test denigrates the complexity of the material and crowds out natural curiosity and motivation.

To give these teachers credit, most of them probably can see the true merit of the material they teach. However, with the response, “because it’s on the state test,” these teachers demonstrate that they do not believe it is important for their students to share that understanding—it is only important that the students know the information and can perform in very particular ways. In these cases, the standardized tests have been undermining greater educational goals. Unfortunately, the tests incentivize robotic teaching and learning because these teaching approaches can result in decent performance on such tests.

That said, I am not completely against testing. Indeed, I think it is imperative that we have specific goals and standards for our teachers and students. We must have ways to measure student and teacher performance so that we can fairly uphold those standards.

However, these standards need not distort education so that it becomes bland. There is a distinct difference between teaching to the test and teaching material that will be tested. The problem with teaching to the test is that it disconnects the lesson from the students and the real world—the only value the information has is with respect to a particular test. The beauty of teaching material that will be tested is that students do not even need to know that they are preparing for a standardized test.

Indeed, most of the material covered in state standardized tests is perfectly reasonable. Students should be able to perform well on math and English tests if their math and English teachers are truly doing their jobs. These teachers are the ones who take the required material and connect it to their students in meaningful ways. They are the ones who present puzzles that truly challenge and engage their students such that the solutions—the required material—are relevant and stick.

And truthfully, the same principles need to apply to education at all levels. While standardized testing is not an issue I have faced in college, professors’ genuinely connecting the material to their students has been a challenge.

At Stanford, this has come in two flavors. The first case is when the professor seems to be apathetic about the class; these are the classes that feel like the professor could be talking to a brick wall and the lecture itself reflects that. The second is when the material does not seem to have real world application. At the university level, students certainly share responsibility in finding real world and personal connections to their classes. Nevertheless, the best professors are the ones who care about their material and their students—they stay focused during class and are still able to convey the material in relatable ways.

At all levels of education, we want to incentivize good teaching and reward results. Our challenge is to design evaluation systems that do not compromise the virtues of education. As is, I am fairly comfortable with the structure of most state tests. I am not comfortable with the style of state test preparation.

Specifically, I do not like the extensive test preparation books that the state gives to schools. These books closely follow the structure of the actual test, including test questions. Teachers literally read from these books to help their students memorize solution types, thereby replacing creative teaching with banal lessons. The good teachers do not bother with these prep books. The state should not provide the crutch of such books. Instead, the state should provide detailed subject goals. Teachers would then have to independently design lessons that cover these topics and relate best to their students.

The laws of quantum mechanics hold that by studying a specimen, we change it. In education, we study teachers and students. But we should study them in a way that changes them for the better. Our current system just does not fulfill this goal.

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