Some Subjective Comments on Effective Teaching

Billy F. Cowart, Ph. D

The University of Texas Pan American


I have used this paper primarily as a means of clarifying my own thinking about effective teaching and America's seemingly endless preoccupation with educational reform. At times these thoughts may sound a little like the ramblings of J. Abner Peddiwell without ever reaching that level of insight. But your patience will be appreciated and I look forward to our few moments of discussion at the end of the presentation.


Webster describes the term "reform" as a transitive verb, (1) to make better by removing faults; correct. (2) to make better by stopping abuses, introducing better procedures, etc. (3) to put a stop to (abuses). (4) to bring a person to give up misconduct and behave better.

As a noun, (1) an improvement; correction of faults or evils, as in social problems. (2) an improvement in character and conduct. (p.624)

It is interesting that most of the usage's included within this definition carry value laden connotations, mostly negative. On the basis of this definition, it would be difficult to utilize the term to describe the "reforming" of even a routine change of process or procedure without the connotation of deficiency or wrongdoing. Could this explain why educational reform tends to be so negative? The term "form," on the other hand, has a number of definitions, as a noun, related to physical shape, body or figure but it also includes one usage as a transitive verb, "(1) to shape; fashion; make as a school formed after Oxford." (p. 294) This definition refers to function and carries no particular connotation, positive or negative. It is interesting that the term utilized to describe the need for change in education does not provide the same option for a neutral connotation in the English language as the term "to form." It is interesting that Americans utilize the same term to describe the need for change in education that they use to describe behavior in their penal institutions. Perhaps this means that there should be a predictable relationship between the rate of recidivism in the penal system and the reoccurring need for educational reform.

Problems With Reform

In their book, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Educational Reform, David Tyack and Larry Cuban offered some revealing conclusions:

1. most reform efforts fail to recognize the resilience of the school as an institution;

2. that the institutional structure of the school probably has more influence on the implementation of policy than policy has on institutional practice;

3. the grammar of schooling is the result of previous reforms that have powerful political allies and a strong foundation in the social expectations about schooling;

4. to bring about improvement at the heart of education---namely, classroom instruction---is the most difficult kind of reform;

5. better schooling, in the future, will result primarily from the steady, reflective efforts of the practitioners who work in schools and from the contributions of parents and citizens who support (while they criticize) public education; and,

6. the major aim of reform is to improve learning defined as rich intellectual, civic, and social development, not simply impressive test scores. (Ibid., p. 134-136.)

In The Manufactured Crisis, Berliner and Biddle commented that,

Above all, we should bear in mind that the best ways to improve our schools are those that enhance the dignity of parents and the autonomy and professional status of educators. When they are able, the adults of our country who care most about our youngsters---our parents and our teachers---generally take care of their charges well. When they fail in their missions, they fail because they no longer have meaningful and fulfilling employment, because they cannot earn wages that provide a decent standard of living, because they are not given respect, and because, as a result the youngsters they serve no longer have hope. (p.342)

These are all excerpts from nationally recognized authors highlighting characteristics considered important to effective schooling.


But one of the more damaging aspects of the current reform effort has been the serious intrusion by public policy elites into the curriculum of teacher education. In a democratic society, the public, hopefully in the form of parents with a deep personal interest in effective schooling, must retain the overriding responsibility for the determination of objectives, funding and final assessment of their system of education. The concern arises in differentiating between the role of the lay citizen to develop policy and the role of the professional to develop a program. The same is true in contracting for the services of architects, engineers, lawyers, and medical doctors. The public must decide, for example, if they wish to build a new school, how much they wish to invest, and a vision of the functions which the school building will be expected to perform. They will then hire an architect to draw up the plans and supervise the construction of the building. If they are dissatisfied with the services performed there are a variety of options which the board, as a public entity, can pursue in taking action against the firm or the profession but those options do not traditionally include rewriting the curriculum for the School of Architecture.

In a related area, the public must decide if they wish to fund cancer research and at what level, but they will traditionally contract with the medical research community to conduct the research and to recommend programs for remediation, if not cure. The public has never attempted, as laymen, to rewrite the curriculum of science or medicine in spite of their slow progress in solving the problems of cancer. Discovering the cause or causes of cancer is obviously a process of great complexity but so are the conditions affecting the learning processes of 50 million children enrolled in public education. There are differences associated with "contracting for services" and "contracting for employment" which may accurately reflect the fact that teacher education has yet to convince the public that we have much in the way of "a recognized and exclusive body of knowledge" which can be used to address the learning problems of children. In his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B. F. Skinner expressed concern in 1971 over the lack of public interest in the problems posed by human behavior. He stated,

It can always be argued that human behavior is a particularly difficult field. It is, and we are especially likely to think so just because we are inept in dealing with it. But modern physics and biology successfully treat subjects that are certainly no simpler than many aspects of human behavior.... We are not close to solutions.... We have used the instruments of science; we have counted and measured and compared; but something essential to scientific practice is missing in almost all current discussions of human behavior. It has to do with our treatment of the causes of behavior. (pp. 4-5)

I am not interested in moving beyond "freedom and dignity" to address the "causes of human behavior" but I am interested in the deficiencies Skinner mentioned regarding our understanding of human behavior, deficiencies which affect our work in teacher education every day. I particularly support his call for a major expansion of research into human behavior. In the case of teacher education, that expanded research should be centered around topics such as child development, learning, and establishing a meaningful relationship between teacher work and student learning. If the issue of promoting such a public commitment is left to the behaviorists, they will control the parameters of the research whether it comes through the National Science Foundation, private foundations or the private sector. In their textbook, Education Today, Joan and Glenn Smith reported on cognitive science as an emerging field which includes research from neurosurgery, neuropsychology, developmental psychology, cognitive and educational psychology and computer science. They cite the work of Robert Glaser who describes cognitive science as working toward the development of "a cognitive basis for pedagogy that fosters thinking and reasoning in school learning." (pp. 158-159) All of this work will, by definition, follow the mandates of scientific methodology but to be of any value to education, there must be an expanded participation of individuals directly involved in the teaching/learning experience and probably an expanded use of action research.

With all of the emphasis on cognitive development emanating from the reform movement, my attention was drawn back to the work of Boyd Henry Bode in How We Learn, Gilbert Ryle's, The Concept of Mind, and John Dewey's, How We Think. Each of these writers attempted, in different ways, to deal with the thinking process in terms of the serious contradictions which they found in the traditional concepts of the mind such as the doctrine of formal discipline, the mind-substance theory, the theory of mental states, apperception, and behaviorism from a philosophical, rather than a scientific perspective. Rather than reveal new information about minds, Ryle set out to "rectify the logical geography of the knowledge which we already possess." ( The Concept of Mind, p. 9.) Dewey advocated reflective thinking, as an educational goal because "it makes possible action with a conscious aim." ( How We Think, p. 17.) He went on to describe mind as "the power to understand things in terms of the use made of them." (Democracy and Education, p. 39.) Bode came to the conclusion that "methods of teaching are determined by our conception of mind." (How We Learn, p. 279.) These are basically philosophical concepts but if they hold a key to the determination of method, they must be moved into the mainstream of policy and curriculum decision-making in teacher education. They are examples of philosophical thought that perhaps cannot be replicated in scientific research but must serve to enlighten our judgment.

In 1983, Lee Schulman noted an impending change in educational objectives and certification standards in the Handbook on Teaching and Policy.

Early in the 1970's, ... the beginning of a new research tradition emerged. Instead of asking whether schools or teachers made any difference, scholars modified the syntax of their inquiries ... Their assertion (became) that resources had to be transformed at the school level into teacher behavior and pupil responses to render a meaningful account of school effectiveness. (pp. 486- 487.)

Later in the same article, he stated,

... the teacher must remain the key. The literature on effective schools is meaningless, debates over educational policy are moot, if the primary agents of instruction are incapable of performing their functions well. (Ibid., p.504.)

Shulman went on to cite the work of Edmonds in formulating five principles of effective schooling which emerged as a result of these studies.

The correlates of effective schools are

(1) the leadership of the principal characterized by substantial attention to the quality of instruction,

(2) a pervasive and broadly understood instructional focus,

(3) an orderly, safe climate conducive to teaching and learning,

(4) teacher behaviors that convey the expectation that all students are to obtain at least minimum mastery, and

(5) the use of measures of pupil achievement as the basis for program evaluation. (Ibid., p. 487.)

In 1988, Western Oregon University initiated a research project which would attempt to relate teacher work to student learning based on a methodology, developed internally, entitled Work Sample Methodology. After six years of funding through institutional resources, the project was funded externally at a level that permitted the sharing of the data from our project with the broader research community on a more systematic basis and to promote dialogue regarding teacher effectiveness at the national level. The project could have been limited to the development of a model and the reporting of that model to the profession through the literature. We chose instead to organize the Teacher Effectiveness Project under the general supervision of a campus Research Design Committee composed of faculty, and a national advisory panel with broad representation from educational assessment, curriculum theory, educational psychology, and social foundations. The project has sponsored three annual conferences on the subject of teacher effectiveness with participation from a cross section of universities, school districts and state departments involved in research on teacher effectiveness. The choice was a deliberate one on our part with the intent of both sharing information and testing the reaction of scholars from the broader community of educational research to the results of our work. The latter was motivated by a desire to bring an additional element of science into the assessment of effective teaching. I continue to reflect on whether we made the correct choice but to have followed another course of action would have ducked the issues of validity and reliability which, in the context of this type of research, constitute the ultimate measure of scientific inquiry. Until you go through a discussion regarding validity and reliability, with individuals seriously into educational assessment, those of us who are not deeply involved in the field do not quickly recall or never fully understood that a relationship between teacher work and student learning which will stand the test of validity and reliability has never been established, at least as it relates to high stakes decisions such as tenure, salary, and termination of employment. In point of fact, all of the process/product research done in the 1960s and 1970s could find "no significant relationship" between teacher work and student learning. How is the public to interpret research data such as this when it emanates from a profession that is constantly professing the need for a lower teacher/pupil ratio and higher salaries as the only means of improving student learning and attracting and retaining quality personnel? Will it simply be labeled as "misleading information" emanating from a very "complicated process," which no one fully understands, or will it serve to reinforce a perception of contraction and incompetence? The public reaction is particularly problematical when it is understood that the annual cost of education constitutes the largest single item in state budgets today and personnel costs are the largest single item within the operating budget of the local school district. Thirty years ago these budgetary commitments were above question. Today they are under constant attack! At one point in the midst of a discussion on the process/product research data, I proposed, to the group sitting at our table, a research project to test the "no significant relationship" hypothesis wherein the experimental group would have no teacher assigned. The initial thought being that all direct contact between the school and the students assigned would be limited to providing the material, resources and support normally provided to a classroom teacher. The control group, on the other hand, would have to "suffer" the tribulations of having a regularly assigned teacher. I was probably fortunate that no one took me up on my proposal but it is the type of proposal that would challenge a myth and, in my judgment, the type of challenge that teacher education must embrace if it is to regain a preeminent position in the formulation of policy for American education.


It is important to note here that a major problem encountered by researchers in attempting to use the current tests of validity and reliability in relating teacher work to student learning is that they have been unable to neutralize the "human potential" to influence, distort or misuse the data. This is particularly evident in the willingness of assessment personnel to accept student learning data as a part of formative evaluation of teacher performance but the denial of its use as a part of summative evaluation. The result is that as long as teachers voluntarily seek to improve themselves, they will be allowed, by current research methodology, to gather and utilize data on student learning. However, the administration, the district or the state cannot base so-called "high stakes" decisions regarding tenure, salary or termination on student learning data for any specific teacher. This, or course, does not mean that decisions are not made regarding tenure, salary, or termination, but it requires that they be explained on some basis other than the ability of the teacher to foster learning in students. It also means that the student learning data is not available to protect teachers against irresponsible administrative decisions, to provide feedback to students on their academic progress, or to evaluate programs.

A Recent Development

Before proceeding, I must state that at our last annual conference, a representative from the Dallas Independent School District indicated that they have solved the problem of how to relate teacher work to student performance on standardized tests based on a combination of their research methodology and the methodology developed in the Tennessee project. If this materializes, it will significantly enhance the efforts of states such as Texas and Tennessee to utilize data from state-developed tests such as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills as the primary basis for the evaluation of teachers and schools, assuming that it can satisfy all of the legal challenges that will certainly be raised. The Dallas Value-Added Accountability System, the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, and the Oregon project utilizing Work Sample Methodology are all described in a recent publication edited by Jason Millman entitled, Grading Teachers, Grading Schools: Is Student Achievement a Valid Evaluation Measure? The discussions sponsored by the Oregon Teacher Effectiveness Project served as the genesis for the publication which outlines in some detail the work being attempted in the area of accountability as well as the considerable degree of disagreement remaining regarding the issues of validity and reliability.

In reality, many of the issues are more ethical than technical or legal but the public and profession forum for the resolution of ethical issues seems to have been surrendered to the courts which I believe is a serious loss for professional education.

Another Alternative

The Oregon project on teacher effectiveness took a different approach to the problem by attempting to relate student performance to actual teacher work in the classroom. However, for any system of teacher accountability to be more than a tool for the enforcement of public or administrative whim, teachers must be protected from the variables affecting student learning over which they exercise little or no control. To address this problem, the Teacher Effectiveness Project has been attempting to identify the variables affecting student learning and to study the relationship and/or interaction between these variables as they relate to student learning. Each student is required to complete two work samples during the course of their student teaching experience which are monitored for a number of factors including content, methodology, assessment procedures, student learning gains based on pretest and posttest results, and the level of educational objectives utilized in the work sample.

The use of standardized test data will always be attractive to school districts and state departments because it facilitates the handling of large populations of teachers and provides a basis for comparison across districts, across states and across the nation. However, by design, it ignores the particular contextual variables which the teachers must address in practicing their profession. The design of a project in this format also provides an opportunity to assess the performance of the teaching faculty against the total curriculum of the school (as opposed to only approximately 30 per cent represented by most standardized tests), and to deal more directly with the treatment of variables over which the teacher has no control. I recognize that it is possible to make some adjustments to testing procedures at the state level and at the district level, which can attempt to limit the impact of certain variables. Direct knowledge regarding these variables, however, is available only at the building level by a principal actively involved in the role of instructional leadership and in open and continuous dialogue with the teachers that work under his or her supervision.

Criticisms and Concerns

As with any research methodology, there are potential limitations both with design and with implementation which must be addressed. Dr. Dan Stufflebeam, the Director of the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University, noted in his critique of the Oregon Teacher Effectiveness Project,

It matters little whether ratings of teacher performance are associated with pupil gains in work sample performance if the student teachers employ biased outcome measures or assess low-level knowledge and skills. (Grading Teachers, Grading Schools: Is Student Achievement a Valid Evaluation Measure?, p. 57)

Dr. Peter Airasian, Professor of Education at Boston College, expressed the need to the quality of the pre- and posttests constructed by student teachers, the quality of test items, the levels of student learning being assessed, the variability in difficulty across tests, the number of items per test, the format of items, and the comparability of the pre- and posttest items. (Ibid., p. 47.)

These are all valid concerns which must be addressed to insure accurate and reliable assessment of student learning, but they do not appear to raise serious questions regarding the theory or the structure of the methodology. The primary concern appears to be the potential for misuse of the methodology which relates back to the difficulty which all assessment measures have encountered with "the human potential to influence, distort or misuse."


In conclusion, it is my thesis that the profession does not have a definition of effective teaching and the College or School of Education does not have one which is utilized in any functional sense. Curriculum and Instruction may have a definition related to content and methodology, Educational Psychology may have one related to learning theory or child development, Foundations of Education may have one related to social, historical and philosophical issues, and Education Administration may have one related to effective classroom management but the sum of these parts is not necessarily an effective teacher.

During the recent educational reform effort, teacher education has been particularly harmed by the fact that graduates of our programs have joined the critics as major protagonists against the quality of their preparation. Other segments of the profession have taken the position that criticism is to be endured and utilized as justification for budgetary increases. My hope would be to gain increased insight into the process and on the basis of that new insight, to be in a better position to respond: in short, to enhance the credibility of the profession. Ignorance will never serve as a deterrent to educational reform. Everyone, unfortunately, believes that they know something about education and insist on demonstrating their ignorance. I believe that it is the function of the professional to develop and propose solutions. We are better prepared by both training and experience to do so but we must be capable of demonstrating our competence and be willing to defend our actions. To do less in this age of self-indulgent competition between citizens and public institutions will be to forfeit any possibility of meaningful participation in the decision- making process about the education of children.

But let me conclude with a definition of teacher effectiveness which might serve, at least for discussion purposes as a focal point for the development and assessment of programs.

Definition of Effective Teaching

My first assignment in Teacher Education was the supervision of student teachers, with only a single course to be taught in Foundations. It seemed to be a natural thing to ask for a copy of what was being used as a definition of effective teaching. I was surprised to find that there was no general agreement about a definition of effective teaching. I was aware that, historically, it had been defined in terms of a teacher's use of methodology, content knowledge, and the ability to maintain discipline in the classroom. Knowledge about student learning at that time was limited, and while the profession has always been relatively comfortable with the assessment of student performance, it has never had the capability of relating teacher work to student learning. This would appear to be a major deficiency for a profession whose sole responsibility is the development of teacher behaviors, however broadly defined, which foster learning in students because if it is possible for a teacher to "foster learning in students" it must also be possible for a teacher to inhibit or impede learning in students which can hardly be described as a desirable end result.

A definition of effective teaching is important only to the degree that it can serve as the focal point for the development, delivery, and assessment of programs of instruction, and allocation of resources. It should be sufficiently broad that it can serve as a guiding principle for the development of curriculum theory and professional programming. It should be sufficiently explicit to provide meaningful direction but make no attempt to define the program. It should identify the most fundamental purpose of teaching but allow for the inclusion of both the art and science of teaching. It should be sufficiently meaningful to identify explicit direction for program development but make no attempt to set specific objectives. It should, in fact, be "objective free" in order to serve as a criterion for effective instruction without being identified with any particular set of objectives. In this sense, the definition can remain constant as the focal point for program while the objectives can be modified in response to new developments in the art and science of relating teacher work to student learning. In this sense, the definition of effective teaching will provide the overriding purpose of teacher education while the objectives serve as the defining points for the curriculum within the context of the established definition. Education has long been cited as the means by which society perpetuates itself. Student learning would appear to be a necessary requisite to accomplish this purpose. Therefore, if student learning is to be the focal point of education, and the teacher is the primary agent of instruction, the ability to relate teacher work to student learning must become the defining element of teacher effectiveness. It will also become the key factor in expanding the "recognized and exclusive body of knowledge" related to the professional status of teacher education. If it were to be stated as an equation it might take the form of:

Teacher Effectiveness (TE) is a function (f) of Student Learning (SL) TE = (f) SL


Student Learning (SL) is a function of Teacher Effectiveness (TE) SL = (f) TE

After putting this material together, I could not help but relate student learning, as it is used in this definition, with the concept of growth which Dewey described in Democracy and Education.

Since growth is the characteristic of life, education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself. The criterion of value of school education is the extent in which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies means for making the desire effective in fact. (p. 53)

  • A version of this paper was presented as the William Drake Lecture at the 1998 meeting of the Texas Educational Foundations Society.


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