In my last post I wrote about the difficulty of distinguishing effective from ineffective teachers. Training, certification, experience, adherence to best practices, student achievement — none of these variables stands up to empirical validation. In a recent discussion on Jon Cogburn’s Blog we agreed that college students’ evaluations of their teachers isn’t the way to do it either.
Maybe we’re looking at the whole teaching thing backward. A good teacher doesn’t make good students; good students make the teacher good.
It’s not like this is some profound insight I’ve had. I suspect that most teachers would agree that they do a better job and enjoy themselves more when they get to work with a classroom full of smart, interested, open-minded, curious, creative, outspoken, serious students. If the teachers don’t have that good fortune, then they teach to the handful of bright and engaged and enthusiastic students who shine forth in an otherwise mediocre class. Tenured university profs typically choose to teach the upper-level classes, which are populated by students who have already demonstrated their scholarship and commitment in the lower-level classes that winnowed out their slow and indifferent colleagues.
Studies typically find that the highest-rated teachers teach in schools where the students’ average aptitude scores are higher. It’s usually assumed either that these schools attract better teachers, or that the students would be high achievers regardless of the quality of their teachers. Maybe though it’s the bright students bringing out the best in their teachers.
It’s been shown that students’ ratings of teachers correlate with students’ grades in the class. Often this result is interpreted as kiss-ass teachers inflating their students’ grades as a crass tactic for bumping up their own “customer satisfaction” scores. But what if good students are generally happier with their teachers than are bad students? Our daughter, a junior in high school, offers personal testimony supporting this hypothesis. She says that in her classes the students who are doing poorly blame the teacher, whereas the students who are doing well blame the low-performing students’ own inattentiveness and laziness. She contends that this effect is robust across classes: kids with higher GPAs generally rate their teachers highly, while kids with low GPAs don’t. This contention could be put to the empirical test — maybe it already has: do students’ overall GPAs predict their teacher ratings for the following school year? I bet yes.
Students don’t just make the teachers; they make the schools. For the past several months our mailbox has been flooded with brochures from universities and colleges trying to persuade our daughter to apply. I asked her how she’d characterize these mailings: “propaganda” was her immediate reply. How so? The schools all pitch the same features to the prospective students. Part of it is the attractiveness of the campus, but mostly it’s the attractiveness of the students. Glossy photos of energetic, ethnically diverse students, mostly in groups, smile out at you on every page. There’s the occasional nod to faculty excellence — so many Nobel laureates, highly ranked research programs — but mostly what’s pitched is the possibility of actually getting to know your professors. These schools are selling an attractive lifestyle, and that lifestyle is a communal one.
The best students compete for acceptance by the best schools, but how do the students identify the “best”? For the select few — Harvard, Stanford, MIT — the reputation for scholastic excellence is universally acknowledged. For most schools though it’s the measurable quality of the students: their SAT scores, their high school GPAs and class ranks. These metrics are readily available for all colleges/universities on the Internets. Somewhere back in history the first cadre of excellent students was attracted by the quality of the faculty at some previously ordinary school, but by now the excellence is self-perpetuating: this year’s good students go where last year’s good students went. The profs too compete for the opportunity to work at these high-reputation colleges. Part of it is the attractiveness of associating with prestigious colleagues, but I’m sure it’s also the appeal of teaching those bright, creative, high-performing, highly motivated students who enroll year after year.