Mouthy Kids Like Jeff Bliss Might Be the Best Measure of Teachers We Have

OK, I'll bite. Now that my two favorite psycho-moral philosophers have offered their opinions of the long-haired viral Duncanville kid who told off his teacher, I guess I will, too. I can't stay out of a debate where the word "cockeyed" has come into play. I can't tell you why. It's probably deeply Freudian. I just hate that word.

See also: Watch a Duncanville Teen Deliver a Blistering Classroom Sermon on Lazy Teachers

In a column at the end of last week, Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow came out against the kid who told off his teacher. Blow told readers: "One of the things that seem most cockeyed is that school officials quickly cleared [Jeff] Bliss of any wrongdoing -- and even praised him for raising important issues."

The day before Blow called the school cockeyed, Dallas Morning News editorial writer Tod Robberson said of the kid who told off his teacher, "He owes everyone involved an apology."

So that's it. Blow uses cockeyed. Robberson is giving the spurs to his hobby horse again. I gotta saddle up.

It so happens that during the pendency of this great American news story -- THIS JUST IN: TEXAS KID TELLS OFF TEACHER -- I have been working on a piece about school reform. In fact, pretty much on the day when the earth-shattering event occurred, I happened to be looking at some fascinating research published in September by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a report called, "Asking Students About Teaching." It's part of a body of research looking for ways to measure whether a teacher is good at teaching or maybe not so good.

Turns out you can use a number of measures. How did the teacher's kids do on standardized tests? How is the teacher rated by classroom observers? And, yes, what do the teachers' kids say about the teacher if you ask?

Oh, wait. Forgot. What is a good teacher? Is it a teacher whose kids perform well later on statewide tests based on mastery of a core curriculum? Or is it a teacher whose kids do well on broader national tests like the SAT or ACT that measure general cultural awareness and critical thinking skills?

Oh, wait again. Why is this all based on the teacher? What if the teacher gets a classroom full of kids who are general all-around hell-to-pay or at least hell-to-teach? Why put this all on the teacher?

So, given all the interest nationally in school reform, entities like the Gates Foundation have been hiring social scientists to look at these questions in rigorous scientific ways that won't get torn to shreds when they read their research papers at the next social science convention. And there are ways to do it, mainly depending on the word -- "randomize." If you want to be scientific, you gotta randomize. By the way, a bunch of this research took place here in Dallas, because, I don't know, maybe we're random.

They took care of the what-about-the-damn-kids question by randomizing the assignment of students to teachers. That way, the principal can't load up a teacher up with all hard-heads. Then they measured the kids before and after a year with each given teacher.

Some of the results were pretty predictable. If you want to predict which teacher will do the best job of preparing kids for state tests, look at prior test scores on state tests for kids who had that teacher. The teachers whose kids consistently do well on state tests are probably your best teach-to-the-test teachers.

But if you want to know whose kids will do best on SATs and ACTs, it turns out two quite different factors will predict. One is classroom observation, done the right way. The trick there is getting more than one observer and not depending solely on observations by the principal, who has management/personnel agendas interfering with objectivity.

But the other big predictor of higher level learning for students of any given teacher is student surveys. Ask the kids. May I say, encourage the kids to mouth off to you.

In student surveys used in the Gates report, kids were asked if their teacher taught them stuff in ways they could get. They were asked if the teacher went back and explained stuff they didn't get.

One yes-no question was, "I like the way we learn in this class." Another was, "Our teacher wants us to share our thoughts."

It seems to me two very interesting things are happening here. One is getting the kids to sort of rat out the teacher, like asking your own kid, "Does the babysitter spend a lot of time on the phone? What kind of stuff does she watch on TV?"

The other even further rejects the idea that kids should shut up, sit at their desks and do what the authority figure tells them to do. Implicit in the survey itself is the idea that a kid has a natural desire to be taught and knows deep down whether the teacher is meeting that desire.

Asking the kids if their teacher is any good really turns all the ancient spare-the-rod prescriptions on their heads. No matter how messed up a kid may be by what happened at home that morning before he showed up for school, there dwells deep down in that kid's soul a yearning to understand. If you give that kid a chance to speak up, he or she will tell you whether the teacher is making it happen.

This isn't a story about how it should be. It's a story about the science and how it is. Another Gates study looks at various ways of measuring teacher effectiveness and asks which single metric is best at what they call reliability. That is, which measurement is the best one over time at predicting how well a given teacher's students will fare on all tests, state and national.

It's Jeff Bliss, man. Student surveys. Don't just let the student mouth off about the teacher. Invite them to mouth off. Help them mouth off. If you want to know which teachers you can count on to show the best results, sit those kids down and get them to spill their guts.

Back on cockeyed. Why my phobia? I think it's because that word shows up most often in the expression, "Call me a cockeyed optimist." For whatever reason -- I really do not know -- I don't want to call anyone a cockeyed optimist, ever. But I would like to look at the facts again.

Were Blow and Robberson wrong to take the kid to task for the way he did it? Nah, not entirely. I admit. You do need a modicum of decorum, or nobody learns anything. But the even more important lesson here is that listening to the Jeff Blisses of the world is the best single way there is to find out what's working. I don't think you can have learning without decorum, but I know you can have decorum without learning. Learning is what counts.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze