a test of happiness

When teachers are better at raising test scores, their students are less happy, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students practice for a standardized test.

Is a good teacher one who makes students enjoy class the most or one who is strict and has high standards? And are those two types even at odds?

new study that tries to quantify this phenomenon finds that on average, teachers who are good at raising test scores are worse at making kids happy in class.

“Teachers who are skilled at improving students’ math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy or less engaged in class,” writes University of Maryland’s David Blazar in the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.

The analysis doesn’t suggest that test scores are a poor measure of teacher quality, but does highlight the different ways teachers may be effective.

The research uses data from four school districts across three states between 2010 and 2013; in one year, students were randomly assigned to fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, allowing researchers to study what effect different teachers had on students. Those students were also surveyed about their behavior, self-efficacy, and happiness in class.

A large body of past research has found that teachers have a meaningful impact on student test scores, and a number of more recent studies have found that teachers also impact other measures — sometimes called non-cognitive outcomes — such as behavior and attendance. 

The latest study asks a few big questions.

First: Do teachers have an impact on students’ attitudes and behavior, as measured by student surveys? Here, the answer is convincingly yes, consistent with the emerging research.

Second: Are the statistical estimates — often called value-added  measures — of teacher impacts on test scores and non-cognitive skills accurate? The study examined this by comparing the statistical estimates to the results from from random assignment, and it found that the answer varies. Value-added measures are quite accurate for predicting test scores — an important finding in light of the charged debate on whether to judge teachers by these metrics. But it concludes that the statistical models are often biased for measuring  impact on student attitudes, suggesting that attempting to evaluate teachers in this regard may be misguided.

Finally: Is a teacher’s performance, measured by test scores, similar to performance according to other measures? This question is especially important because it’s key for understanding how to think about teacher quality and how to evaluate it.

The study concludes there was only a weak relationship between test score performance and student behavior and feeling of efficacy in math. But when it came to student happiness, there was a moderate negative association — on average, greater test score gains meant less happy students.

What explains this potentially surprising inverse relationship?

It could be that teachers who were less demanding were more popular because their instruction was less likely to promote learning — but more enjoyable for students. Maybe those teachers just popped in a video on many days; perhaps they never gave homework.

Blazar, for his part, is skeptical of this theory.

“I’m not sure that’s a likely explanation in large part because teachers’ emotional support for students … seems to be really predictive of how happy students are in class,” he said. “Building an emotionally supportive classroom environment is something that educators and researchers have cared about for a long time.”

Another interpretation, then, is that measures of teacher effectiveness based on test scores leave out important dimensions of what makes a good teacher — such as caring for students, something that might show up in happiness surveys.

Blazar emphasizes that while the correlation was negative and statistically significant it was not strong in size, meaning that there were certainly teachers who succeeded in improving both test scores and happiness.

Past research has generally shown that test-based measures capture some, but not all, of the components of effective teaching. Test score results tend to be only modestly related to other measures of performance, like classroom observations or effects on student attendance.

On the other hand, teachers’ impacts on tests have rarely been negatively related to other measures. In fact, there is usually a small positive association, including with regards to student surveys. Moreover, a number of studies have linked teachers’ and schools’ test score impacts to longer-term results, including adult income and college success.

“[Test score value-added] clearly can’t be all about things we don’t care about, such as test prep, if it translates into longer-run outcomes,” Blazar said.

“I think that both are likely important,” he said, referring to test scores and students’ engagement and happiness in class.

“Hopefully we can get to a place where teachers are good at multiple skills,” Blazar said. “Rather than just documenting this pattern, I would want to use this information to say, if you’re good at raising test scores but not as good at engaging students, how can we get you to a place where you can do both at the same time?”

Want more Chalkbeat? Sign up for our new weekly national newsletter here.

meet the fellows

Meet the 38 teachers chosen by SCORE to champion education around Tennessee

PHOTO: SCORE
The year-long fellowships offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education were awarded to 38 Tennessee educators.

Six teachers from Memphis have been awarded fellowships that will allow them to spend the next year supporting better education in Tennessee.

The year-long fellowships, offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, train and encourage teachers and other educators to speak at events, write publicly about their experiences, and invite policymakers to their classrooms. The program is in its fifth year through the nonpartisan advocacy and research organization, also known as SCORE, which was founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from Tennessee.

The fellowships, known as the Tennessee Educator Fellowships, have been awarded to 150 educators since the program’s launch in 2014. This year’s class of 38 educators from around the state have a combined 479 years of experience.

“The fellows’ diverse perspectives and experiences are invaluable as they work both inside and outside the classroom and participate in state conversations on preparing all students for postsecondary and workforce success,” SCORE President and CEO Jamie Woodson said in a news release.

Besides the Shelby County teachers, the group also includes educators who work for the state-run Achievement School District, public Montessori schools, and a school dedicated to serving children with multiple disabilities.

The 2018-19 fellows are:

  • Nathan Bailey, career technical education at Sullivan North High School, Sullivan County Schools
  • Kalisha Bingham-Marshall, seventh-grade math at Bolivar Middle School, Hardeman County Schools
  • Sam Brobeck, eighth-grade math at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter Middle School. Shelby County Schools
  • Monica Brown, fourth-grade English language arts and social studies at Oakshire Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Nick Brown, school counselor at Westmoreland Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Sherwanda Chism, grades 3-5 English language arts and gifted education at Winridge Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Richard J. Church, grades 7-8 at Liberty Bell Middle School, Johnson City Schools
  • Ada Collins, third grade at J.E. Moss Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Lynn Cooper,  school counselor at South Pittsburg High School, Marion County Schools
  • Colletta M. Daniels, grades 2-4 special education at Shrine School, Shelby County Schools
  • Brandy Eason, school counselor at Scotts Hill Elementary School, Henderson County Schools
  • Heather Eskridge, school counselor at Walter Hill Elementary School, Rutherford County Schools
  • Klavish Faraj, third-grade math and science at Paragon Mills Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Mavis Clark Foster, fifth-grade English language arts and science at Green Magnet Academy, Knox County Schools
  • Ranita Glenn, grades 2-5 reading at Hardy Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Telena Haneline, first grade at Eaton Elementary School, Loudon County Schools
  • Tenesha Hardin, first grade at West Creek Elementary School, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools
  • Thaddeus Higgins, grades 9-12 social studies at Unicoi County High School, Unicoi County Schools
  • Neven Holland, fourth-grade math at Treadwell Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Alicia Hunker, sixth-grade math at Valor Flagship Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Alex Juneau, third grade at John Pittard Elementary School, Murfreesboro City Schools
  • Lyndi King, fifth-grade English language arts at Decatur County Middle School, Decatur County Schools
  • Rebecca Ledebuhr, eighth-grade math at STEM Preparatory Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Aleisha McCallie, fourth-grade math and science at East Brainerd Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education.
  • Brian McLaughlin, grades 10-12 math at Morristown-Hamblen High School West, Hamblen County Schools
  • Caitlin Nowell, seventh-grade English language arts at South Doyle Middle School, Knox County Schools
  • Paula Pendergrass, advanced academics resources at Granbery Elementary School,  Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Julie Pepperman, eighth-grade science at Heritage Middle School, Blount County Schools
  • Kelly Piatt, school counselor at Crockett County High School, Crockett County Schools
  • Ontoni Reedy, grades 1-3 at Community Montessori, Jackson-Madison County Schools
  • Tiffany Roberts, algebra and geometry at Lincoln County Ninth Grade Academy, Lincoln County Schools
  • Craig Robinson, grades 3-5 science at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, Achievement School District
  • Jen Semanco, 10th- and 11th-grade English language arts at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Amanda Smithfield, librarian at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Cyndi Snapp, fourth-grade math at Carter’s Valley Elementary School, Hawkins County Schools
  • David Sneed, 12th-grade English at Soddy Daisy High School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Yolanda Parker Williams, fifth-grade math at Karns Elementary School, Knox County Schools
  • Maury Wood II, grades 4-6 technology at Westhills Elementary School, Marshall County Schools

work hard play hard

Memphis teachers share basketball, even if they don’t share a district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Freedom Preparatory Academy is gathering teachers from district-run and charter schools to play basketball. The teachers, mostly black men, have turned it into a networking opportunity as well as a way to let off steam.