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EVIDENCE: The paradox of “good” teaching


What is “good” teaching? Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. Hollywood appreciates teachers who believe in their students and help them achieve their dreams. Influential education economist Eric Hanuszek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that good teachers improve the performance of their students. Teachers are expected to teach many things, from how to study and take notes, to how to share and take turns. Deciding what constitutes good teaching is a messy business.

Two researchers from the University of Maryland and Harvard University got into this mess. They analyzed 53 elementary school teachers who were randomly assigned to classrooms in their schools located in four different areas along the East Coast. Focusing on math learning, the researchers compared the students’ math scores to questionnaires that fourth- and fifth-grade students completed as part of the experiment. Students were asked to rate their math class in the same way that consumers fill out customer satisfaction surveys: “This math class is a happy place for me.” “I feel sad or angry in this math lesson;” “What we have done this year is very interesting”; “Thanks to this teacher, I am learning to love mathematics”; and “I like math lessons this year.”

Academics have found that there is often a trade-off between “good teaching” when children learn and “good teaching” that children enjoy. Teachers who were able to raise test scores tended to get lower student grades. Teachers with excellent student evaluations tended not to increase test scores.

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