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Half-Baked Teaching Analogy

May 26, 2011

This blog has been following Education Nation quite closely, out of a great curiosity regarding this latest big-media venture into education coverage.  We’ve run a few blog posts about the Teacher Town Hall meeting, and will soon run a guest blog post about a panel NBC called “Job One.”

Education Nation also has a couple of guest blog posts on its site, and the difference between the two posts offers clear evidence of why educators look askance at some outside “experts” – people whose expertise in policy, politics, business or statistics has been taken as expertise in students, teachers, and classrooms – however unwarranted that assumption may be.

I won’t spend too much time discussing what I consider the “good” post on teacher evaluation, authored by Linda Darling-Hammond.  Her expertise in the subject is well-established, and her work is esteemed by both education researchers and practitioners.  She also happens to be the faculty sponsor of Accomplished California Teachers, and she features our network and our teacher evaluation policy report in her blog post, so let’s just put that up front.  Yes, it’s bias – I’ll put it right out there and let readers conclude what they will about the merits of her work or ours.

But the other guest blog post that caught my eye on Education Nation is by Chester E. Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and a senior fellow at The Hoover Institute.  Finn is a veteran of the education reform debate, and though I often disagree with his analysis and views, I continue to pay attention.  But whatever his credentials in the broader field of education, this time Finn offers up a flawed and deeply disappointing analysis of teaching, learning, and evaluation.  At the core of his post, we find this analogy:

The second recent development [making testing more important] is the widening use of student test results as part of teacher evaluations. The logic here is irrefutable: just as a chef’s main product is nourishing meals that people want to eat, a teacher’s main product is the nurturing of skills and knowledge in her pupils’ heads. If one wants to evaluate the teacher’s effectiveness, shouldn’t the starting point be whether the girls and boys in her classroom are learning what they should? And how will we determine that other than by testing them?

The logic, Mr. Finn, is entirely refutable, because the analogy is barely half-baked.

The chef (or restauranteur) sets the menu, chooses the ingredients, and has control over every aspect of the cooking – the what, when, where, and how.  The pot or pan starts out empty, and is indifferent to how it will be used.  The ingredients react in entirely predictable and consistent ways.

Now, let’s consider your cooking analogy at school.  Imagine you are the chef/teacher.  I want you to try to cook thirty of the same dish at the same time – half in an oven, and half on a stove top.  Some of your ingredients are fresh, some are stale, some are frozen, some are thawed.  All of your ingredients are actually partially mixed and blended in ways you can only partially discern – but you never get to start from scratch!  Most of your measuring cups and spoons are accurately labeled, but some are not.  Some of your ingredients are mislabeled: the thyme is really oregano, and no one is really sure if that’s baking soda or baking powder.  Some of your pots and pans and bowls haven’t arrived when you start cooking, but you will be responsible for catching them up; some of your dishes will be removed from the kitchen whether you’re finished with them or not, and you will have no warning.  As you cook (or attempt to cook), other chefs will come through the kitchen to help you, but you will have little if any interaction with them.  Some of them are skillful and will make adjustments for which you will want to claim the credit, while others are skillful but have a different vision from yours regarding the dish.  Some of those other chefs are new to the profession and will make mistakes that you won’t be able to see, and you won’t be able to remove the ingredients they add or un-scald the food they singed.  And just for good measure, let’s put you in a Disney kitchen, where the pots and pans actually have thoughts and feelings and personalities.  Some of them love everything you do and can even adjust slightly to your mistakes, while others want nothing to do with your cooking and will even sabotage your efforts (bless their little Pyrex hearts).  You have to understand their personalities and coax the best you can get out of each one.  Despite the odds, some days you’ll make this cooking look easy, and other days you’ll feel like you’re floundering.

The test of your effectiveness, however, is entirely objective.  Bring out the dishes at the appointed time whether they’re done or not. (Unlike a restaurant, you can’t ask the patrons to wait a few more minutes and placate them with a complimentary appetizer in the meantime).  Your skill as a chef will be rated using a complex mathematical formula that captures a few qualities of the food you prepared, but you will have no say regarding the creation or use of that mathematical formula; (you won’t even be able to understand it unless you have an advanced degree in mathematics).  Testing done, we will return tomorrow, mix up all of these factors, cook up some more dishes, and compare your performance from day to day, and compare you to your fellow chefs.

Good luck!

Mr. Finn, I feel a little bad for critiquing your analogy so thoroughly, so here’s an offer in case I’m off-base: if you can find a classroom teacher who will send me a guest blog post preferring your analogy of teaching and learning over mine, then lunch is on me next time you’re at Stanford, and I’ll have learned a culinary lesson.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2011 7:04 am

    Ka-boom. That was @CohenD hitting a home run. (We can’t let too much time go by without a sports analogy, after all.)

    Nice work. Does Education Nation take comments?

  2. Tom permalink
    May 26, 2011 7:32 am

    Incisive! Nailed it.

  3. Jolynn permalink
    May 26, 2011 12:25 pm

    David, I am applauding you right now! Excellent post. Thank you!

  4. Paul Muench permalink
    May 30, 2011 7:47 am

    Sticking with the analogy, my definition of french cooking has been, “How to make anything taste great”. I mentioned this to a friend recently and he quipped, “Yes, add butter”. Which is good analogy to the current discussion, “Just add a good teacher”. So yes we know this analogy breaks down, but we all know teachers that are like butter. So we should at least try to address the butter side of the story, is there anything we can do to have more butter available?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      May 30, 2011 9:32 am

      Paul, I agree there’s plenty we can do on the teacher side of the instructional equation, and I would even agree with Mr. Finn that there are significant differences in teacher quality that should be examined and understood. In the chaotic kitchen that I describe, some chefs would still demonstrate superior skills – but I don’t think you could use the daily results as a reliable way of capturing that information, as there would be no control for understanding what they started with and what they dealt with along the way. In teaching, we have all sorts of variability from year to year and no reliable way to factor those variables into any equations foisted on us from outside the school system. The testing advocates answer is that the differences can be controled for in the equation, or ignored as insignificant because they have minimal impact, or identical impact. They also struggle with the issue of random assignment. So, I’m not surprised that the rankings are pretty volatile and error prone in so many studies. I’m not surprised that a study was able to show 5th grade teachers influencing 4th grade scores (a “false positive” – since that is an impossibility, if it appears in the data we know we have a problem in the data or the assumptions we make about the data). The most recent study I’m hearing about from the National Research Council (but I haven’t looked at it yet) came from a 9-year review of data and – bottom line – has been summarized as finding that all this focus on testing does nothing to improve learning. Mr. Finn’s interest in putting more emphasis on testing would have troubled me any time, and that much more so with yet another piece of evidence that testing is not improving education.

  5. Margo Kipps permalink
    June 13, 2011 6:41 am

    The purpose of the testing has never been to improve education. They are designed to make us look bad so that vouchers and other forms of privatization can be voted in by the duped public. And the butter/teacher is not necessarily the ingredient that will fix anything. Many a great teacher just washes out from lack of support, low wages, and other factors. Burnt butter tastes terrible. Money for libraries, salaries, supplies, aides, janitors, and most importantly financial systems to end the poverty that affects kids’ learning would work; I know of no failing or PI schools where the income levels are high. There’s a 1:1 correspondence one can see without a degree in statistics.

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