What teachers and students need to demonstrate

In the article Seeking - and Finding - Good Teaching by Julie Sweetland in The Obama Education Plan: An Education Week Guide, quality teachers are not found by using "hastily scribbled, ill-defined checklists that are the most common form of teacher evaluations - and which often aren't really evaluations at all, but instead a tedious chore that neither administrators nor teachers enjoy, value, or trust. Rigorous classroom evaluations aren't just someone's opinion; they are carefully conducted qualitative assessments that meet research standards for clarity and transparency. They guide trained observers to look for specific indicators of excellent instruction: effective questioning that pushes students to think critically; the ability to foster a positive; productive classroom environments; the use of engaging lessons that draw students into the learning process."

The emphasis on trained observers is mine - training is something I certainly lacked when I first entered a classroom as an observer and division chair a decade ago. In my hand I had while not necessarily an ill-defined checklist, certainly not one that evaluated effective questioning, critical thinking, classroom environment, nor the engagement of the students in the learning process. As a physical science instructor, the concept of "speed of learning" particularly tickled me.

Later Director Berger would develop and recommend the use of an instrument far more appropriate to the task of classroom observation. Overall instructor evaluation would continue to rely on a checklist, albeit one based on a faculty proposal developed circa 2003. 

My design intent hope for physical science class was to create a course that would foster positive, productive classroom environments, use engaging lessons that draw students into the learning process, and push the students to think about the systems they are investigating. 

While my formal evaluations are still a checklist based on form that parallels the 2003 faculty proposal, and as such does not provide specific details, as part of an incentive ceremony I was fortunate to receive a copy of comments made by faculty, staff, and students. Those comments suggest that while there is much to improve upon, my courses are accomplishing some of my design intent. 
  • "He knows how to teach and is able to make his class fun and interesting which also helps the student remembers what they learn."
  • "His teaching is easy to understand and fun."
  • "He is a smart person that teaches us valuable things in a fun way." 
  • "He has been performing outstanding performances and he has a professional teaching style which I admire. I've learned a lot from his classes. He is practical and creative on the courses that he is teaching."
  • "His classes are fantastic."
The above suggests that my courses are, arguably, engaging and have a positive classroom environment. Other assessments that I perform purport to document the learning of course outcomes, content, and concepts. Documenting that I am accomplishing the goals of fostering critical thinking and problem solving in novel situations is slightly more elusive, although laboratory 14 in my physical science course has these goals. 

What students need to demonstrate is, however, not necessarily aligned with what I am asking the student to demonstrate in the above goals. In the Education Week guide one Arkansas employer said in a focus group, "We want somebody who shows up on time, somebody who works hard, and someone who's trainable." (What Does Ready Mean? Lynn Olson, The Obama Education Plan: An Education Week Guide, page 186).

"James E. Rosenbaum, a sociologist at Northwestern University who's interviewed employers about their workforce needs, says, "Employers we interviewed said they were able to redesign jobs around academic skill deficiencies, but not soft-skills deficiencies." Nearly all jobs, he says, "require basic work habits, such as regular attendance, motivation, and discipline, and our schools are not taking steps to improve students in these areas." (page 186)

The article goes on to note that a focus on academic skillls - student learning often as measured by high-stakes tests - may cause a decrease in attention to these potentially more important soft skills.  

If what Rosenbaum asserts is true, that employers can better bridge an academic deficiency than a soft-skill deficiency, then attendance and work habits are important parts of any course. In my physical science course the students write up a laboratory report each week during the regular term using spreadsheet and word processing software. 

Each week the students hand in this report and are marked both for scientific content as well as for control of grammar, vocabulary, cohesion, and organization. The course requires discipline and a sustained, organized effort in order to succeed. The price of this structure is the coverage of less academic content in physical science. 

The result is a course that I hope does include a focus on so-called soft skills. There is, as always, much room for improvement in all of my courses. My students more often than not find jobs abroad. My students must be globally competitive, and the success of our alumni abroad anecdotally provides support for their ability to compete in the broader world. 

While the College of Micronesia-FSM, as is the case with all institutions, continues to seek to improve itself; the college has faculty and students demonstrating the skills they both need to succeed in this partnership that is education. 

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