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Tom Wilson

Practice-Based Inquiry®

Brings Solutions to Education Reform Dilemmas

Evaluates Teacher Performance Effectively and Fairly

The recent shift to include measuring teacher performance in accountability policy moves school assessment closer to generating information about the quality of practice a school actually provides its students in support of their learning.

But, current attempts to develop ways to assess teachers are badly tripped up by the same set of faulty methodological assumptions that have marked the conceptual landscape of education assessment since the 1920s.

Effective, fair and thoughtful measurement of how well teachers teach requires actual observation and discussion with teachers about what they do. Methodological legitimacy is built from an understanding, rather that an avoidance, of what is being measured. Testing and most other approaches to measuring school performance assume it is more precise to avoid the complexities of actual teaching and learning. What teachers and local school administrators do during a school day as professional practitioners is complex, alive and greatly varied for multiple reasons. It succeeds best when it works with the particulars of students, subject and that day in a school. Thus an understanding of the context of a particular action is critical to understanding the meaning and value of an action. Understanding an action in its context is basic.  It is elementary to making judgments of value or progress. It is the basis for building valuable recommendations (or requirements) for how the teacher, student or school should move forward. At the end of the day, the complexity of school action considered within its context cannot be handled legitimately with a method of analysis that is limited by analysis based on data consistency, prescriptions or simple-minded algorithms.

Mired in the false belief that valid educational assessment can take place only when testing methodologies are employed, attempts to design fair and valid assessment of teachers at work have been mostly ludicrous. Schemes to assign numbers to discrete bits of practice, to calibrate scales against written standards, to ensure consistency of observations between observers, to create massive data bases all seek to remove professional judgment from the process, all seek to increase "objectivity" and assure the building of computer-centric data systems, all seek to be understood and controlled by statistical experts. Practitioners and the public are told to accept these schemes in the name of precision and objectivity. But, their value in generating judgments that have meaning or recommendations that are based on words rather than the latest organizational ideology is low.

Practice-Based Inquiry takes on these methodological issues. Evidence is dynamic; professional judgment is used as a research tool and agreement of legitimate findings is by deliberated consensus. While Practice-Based Inquiry has been tested and implemented as a methodology to assess overall school performance. Because it does provide a different methodology aimed at judging practice in context, its principles and technology provide a new basis for building new and much more valid systems for fairly measuring and judging individual  teacher performance. In addition, Practice-Based Inquiry is consistent with major modern developments in how to conduct social science research and how to study practice. Finally, it is built from a long international tradition of studying schools so it is not just a conceptual approach cobbled together by consultants looking for a new marketable approach.


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