a test of happiness

When teachers are better at raising test scores, their students are less happy, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students practice for a standardized test.

Is a good teacher one who makes students enjoy class the most or one who is strict and has high standards? And are those two types even at odds?

new study that tries to quantify this phenomenon finds that on average, teachers who are good at raising test scores are worse at making kids happy in class.

“Teachers who are skilled at improving students’ math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy or less engaged in class,” writes University of Maryland’s David Blazar in the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.

The analysis doesn’t suggest that test scores are a poor measure of teacher quality, but does highlight the different ways teachers may be effective.

The research uses data from four school districts across three states between 2010 and 2013; in one year, students were randomly assigned to fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, allowing researchers to study what effect different teachers had on students. Those students were also surveyed about their behavior, self-efficacy, and happiness in class.

A large body of past research has found that teachers have a meaningful impact on student test scores, and a number of more recent studies have found that teachers also impact other measures — sometimes called non-cognitive outcomes — such as behavior and attendance. 

The latest study asks a few big questions.

First: Do teachers have an impact on students’ attitudes and behavior, as measured by student surveys? Here, the answer is convincingly yes, consistent with the emerging research.

Second: Are the statistical estimates — often called value-added  measures — of teacher impacts on test scores and non-cognitive skills accurate? The study examined this by comparing the statistical estimates to the results from from random assignment, and it found that the answer varies. Value-added measures are quite accurate for predicting test scores — an important finding in light of the charged debate on whether to judge teachers by these metrics. But it concludes that the statistical models are often biased for measuring  impact on student attitudes, suggesting that attempting to evaluate teachers in this regard may be misguided.

Finally: Is a teacher’s performance, measured by test scores, similar to performance according to other measures? This question is especially important because it’s key for understanding how to think about teacher quality and how to evaluate it.

The study concludes there was only a weak relationship between test score performance and student behavior and feeling of efficacy in math. But when it came to student happiness, there was a moderate negative association — on average, greater test score gains meant less happy students.

What explains this potentially surprising inverse relationship?

It could be that teachers who were less demanding were more popular because their instruction was less likely to promote learning — but more enjoyable for students. Maybe those teachers just popped in a video on many days; perhaps they never gave homework.

Blazar, for his part, is skeptical of this theory.

“I’m not sure that’s a likely explanation in large part because teachers’ emotional support for students … seems to be really predictive of how happy students are in class,” he said. “Building an emotionally supportive classroom environment is something that educators and researchers have cared about for a long time.”

Another interpretation, then, is that measures of teacher effectiveness based on test scores leave out important dimensions of what makes a good teacher — such as caring for students, something that might show up in happiness surveys.

Blazar emphasizes that while the correlation was negative and statistically significant it was not strong in size, meaning that there were certainly teachers who succeeded in improving both test scores and happiness.

Past research has generally shown that test-based measures capture some, but not all, of the components of effective teaching. Test score results tend to be only modestly related to other measures of performance, like classroom observations or effects on student attendance.

On the other hand, teachers’ impacts on tests have rarely been negatively related to other measures. In fact, there is usually a small positive association, including with regards to student surveys. Moreover, a number of studies have linked teachers’ and schools’ test score impacts to longer-term results, including adult income and college success.

“[Test score value-added] clearly can’t be all about things we don’t care about, such as test prep, if it translates into longer-run outcomes,” Blazar said.

“I think that both are likely important,” he said, referring to test scores and students’ engagement and happiness in class.

“Hopefully we can get to a place where teachers are good at multiple skills,” Blazar said. “Rather than just documenting this pattern, I would want to use this information to say, if you’re good at raising test scores but not as good at engaging students, how can we get you to a place where you can do both at the same time?”

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hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, last week. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However, teachers attending the monthly meeting disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.