Is There a Deep Structure to Teaching?

September 13, 2016

Can a teacher certification program be both flexible enough and robust enough that it can be applied with equal fidelity to a teacher in suburban Derrien, Connecticut, in inner-city Detroit, and in rural Mississippi? Can a teacher from small-town Idaho be trained to faithfully apply a scoring rubric to the performance of a teacher in inner-city St. Louis? These were the questions that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards had to answer if their advanced certification program was ever to get off the ground. As a practical, administrative matter, the National Board needed the flexibility to have assessors rate the performance of teachers regardless of their teaching context. Note that this problem does not come up in many other professions. An assessment of the quality of an appendectomy is essentially the same whether it is performed in Yuma or Chicago. Assessing the quality of a design for a bridge across the Mississippi River is not different in its essential features from assessing the design for a bridge across the Ohio River.

The assessment of teaching, however, presents fundamentally different challenges. First, it is necessary that teachers be assessed in the situations they happen to be in. Attempts to simulate various teaching environments or to have candidates teach a constructed “standard” classroom were rejected as artificial and unrealistic. The National Board could not ask, “How would this teacher perform in a different context, with a different set of students?”

It was essential for the assessors to understand the context in which candidates for certification taught. Assessors had to understand, for example, why a candidate was teaching basic grammar to 16- and 17-year-olds, or why she was teaching fraction to decimal conversion to students whose age suggested they should be taking Algebra II. Certification candidates were therefore instructed to describe in some detail their teaching context: Was the featured class an accelerated one? A remedial one? Were the featured students struggling and seriously behind their age group? What was the SES (Socioeconomic Status) of the school? What was the quality of school resources and support services?

The Board recognized that inevitably some teaching contexts were intensely more difficult than others. But the response to this circumstance was not to throw up their hands in frustration and declare the challenge too difficult to overcome. Rather, the Board’s response was to ask what the teacher did given her teaching context? A guiding principle was that excellence in teaching was not the exclusive province of those who teach in upper middle class communities with energetic, cooperative children who come to school eager to learn. Excellence, it was argued, could be determined on the basis of what teachers do in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The question actually boils down to whether teaching has a “deep structure” that transcends the very real and important differences in the “surface features” that characterize particular teaching environments. The Board concluded, correctly in my opinion, that teaching indeed has a deep structure and that experienced teachers can be trained to use a flexible yet robust scoring protocol that taps that structure.