“If Your Teacher Likes You, You Might Get A Better Grade”

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This nugget of wisdom was brought to us by Anya Kamenetz at NPREd (http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2015/02/22/387481854/if-your-teacher-likes-you-you-might-get-a-better-grade?sc=tw), the result of a study at the Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg in Germany. While this study seems to be another case of spending research dollars to prove the obvious, and the results are hardly shocking, I did stop to read the article and some of the comments. The comments are much more interesting than the article, as a number of commenters assert that teacher-negativity contributed to or even caused their academic failures.

True? Not true? Any kernels of truth are likely to be found between the lines here. Lack of adult support for student efforts affects future efforts without doubt. Student misbehavior can lead to a lack of adult support, as can numerous other factors. If I were a parent, I’d teach my child to treat teachers respectfully. I’d communicate with the teacher, showing that teacher how much I valued my child’s education. If my child was struggling, I’d sit down with my child to help with homework. Navigating the educational system can be tricky. I don’t want to downplay the issues cited in this article. They matter. They need to be addressed.

In a way, though, this study’s silly. Of course, teacher bias exists and affects grades. My daughter once got a “D” on a very well-written, middle-school assignment in which she took the stand that women should be stay-at-home moms. Her teacher told her firmly that her essay made no sense. I’d say that essay made a good deal of sense, and was well-supported, except for the fact the teacher disagreed with my daughter’s position.

If there’s a kid out in America who doesn’t think that teacher bias affects grades, I’d like to meet that kid. Most students have internalized this fact by early elementary school if they’re observant. Another daughter had great difficulties with a third-grade teacher who diminished her efforts and abilities repeatedly. My girl survived, learned unfortunate facts about human nature, and went on to graduate summa cum laude from one of America’s best universities, aglow in a sea of ribbons and tassels. (I should have raised more hell that year, though. If you have a child making these complaints, you have a perfect right to take on the educational system with absolute ferocity.)

I found a few comments from this article rather frightening. Commenters used the article to assert the need for more standardized tests to weed out teacher bias. From the trenches, I want to shout out a resounding, “No!” Those tests would have been great for my daughters, but they are killing some of my students.

A few trenchant observations from the trenches:

If a student is struggling academically, standardized tests make that student feel stupid. In a less-standardized universe, a good teacher can help manage this academic struggle by differential grading. I’ll confess to my own bias. If I see a student who is trying hard, I will grade more mercifully to encourage those efforts. Effort deserves to be rewarded. Some kids just have a harder time learning. They need encouragement. They don’t need more bubble sheets to fail.

Blow-off efforts should not be rewarded. If a student has created a paragraph that is better than most of the paragraphs in the class, but blew through the assignment in 3 minutes while other people worked five times as long, he should get a decent grade. Decent efforts should get decent grades. I am perfectly justified in taking that student aside to talk to him/her about the need for effort, however. Standardized tests don’t allow or control for sloppy efforts, at least not well. These tests are almost always multiple-choice tests. Blow-off efforts don’t show up in multiple-choice tests the way they do in essay tests. In fact, often blow-off efforts don’t show up at all, except as the disasters created by students who don’t bother to read the questions before they fill in the bubbles. Unfortunately, a modicum of effort can disguise any lack of strenuous mental exertion.

Essay tests tell us a great deal about student understanding of topics and reveal grammatical holes in the learning process. Unfortunately, those tests have all but vanished in many places. I can always justify a multiple-choice test as standardized test preparation. It’s easier and faster for me to grade. If my school is giving that test to the whole grade, then I may not even have to write the test. Somebody will write the test for me. Somebody or something may even grade the test for me. I can grade 125 tests in a few minutes if I feed bubble sheets into a Scantron. The group of academic coaches in my school periodically grade standardized bubble tests I am required to give. An academic coach* on Friday apologized because their bubble-sheet scanner was acting up. I might have to wait awhile before I got my results back, she said. Given that the test I had to give is about three to four years above the learning level of my students — as indicated by multiple previous standardized tests — I’m not too worried about those results. I’ll be more surprised by the right answers than the wrong answers. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m teaching as fast and as hard as I can, but I also know a lot about what my students know. If you test Physics 101 students on Physics 312 material, you should not be surprised by low scores.)

Eduhonesty: Putting my kernels in a nutshell, standardized tests are not the answer to the teacher-bias problem. Teacher training to help teachers recognize and control for their biases will attack this problem much more effectively. Teachers want to teach. They want their students to succeed. The more we try to extricate teachers from the teaching process, the more inferior, second-rate, subpar, faulty, defective, shoddy, shabby, unsound, and unsatisfactory American education is going to become. And as I test, test, test and buy more Number 2 pencils to sell, I think we’re well on the road to an academic meltdown in some urban and financially impoverished districts.

Simple solutions to complex problems seldom work well.

*Academic coach: A full-time, non-teaching employee charged with making building teachers better while managing a great deal of standardized-test data. We have a number of them wandering into various classes at odd times.