It can be a lonely journey, learning to become a better teacher.

“Imagine that you were getting essentially no feedback on the work you were doing. And now imagine that you had one of the most important jobs in the world. No, I’m not talking about President Obama, because even he had the midterm elections. That’s what it is like to be a teacher.”

Despite that grim assessment, Harvard’s Tom Kane hopes to radically change that public school paradigm as head of a national initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Launched in the fall of 2009, the Measures of Effective Teaching Project is the largest effort of its kind to collect video, student perceptions, and assessments of student achievement and teacher knowledge. The project’s goal is to learn what effective teaching looks like.

The early findings, which were released recently, indicate students are very much in tune with who is effective at the front of their classrooms.

“The study shows that kids perceive big differences in teachers, and those differences are related to student achievement gains,” said Kane.

In addition to measuring student achievement on state tests, the project uses supplemental tests that evaluate students’ conceptual understanding, as well as classroom observations done through videotaping and student questionnaires to identify effective teaching techniques.

Working with Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, Kane and his team of project collaborators found that the feedback from student perception surveys offered important insights.

“In the classrooms where 75 percent or more of kids are saying things like ‘we use time well in this class,’ and ‘we don’t waste time,’ or ‘we learn a lot in this class every day,’ or ‘the teacher expects my best effort,’ that’s where you tend to see larger student achievement gains,” said Kane.

The program, implemented during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, includes teachers and their students in math and English language arts in grades 4 through 8, algebra I at the high school level, biology or its equivalent at the high school level, and English in grade 9.

The questionnaires were created by Ronald Ferguson, a senior lecturer in education and public policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Harvard Kennedy School.

Kane, HGSE professor of education and economics, and his colleagues also examined the connection between the teachers whose students performed well on the state’s achievement tests and those pupils who scored high on the project’s tests designed to gauge conceptual comprehension.

“We have seen there is considerable overlap,” said Kane. “Teachers who were successful in promoting achievement on state tests did so with the conceptual tests as well.”

For Kane, video is also a key to the project’s success.

“Improving teaching requires adult behavior change.  Imagine trying to get someone to quit smoking by showing them a video of a bunch of happy nonsmokers … and yet that is the way we do professional development for teachers, by showing them some third person teaching instead of showing them their own work.”

According to Kane, teachers need to see and analyze their own efforts, and then discuss with their supervisors what they are doing well, and what they could do differently to improve.

This can be done by showing teachers their own videos and by providing feedback that is related to student achievement. Heather Hill, an associate professor of education at HGSE, developed a rubric for guiding classroom observations that will be used to help score the videos. Project organizers hope the effort will help lead to a new approach to professional development.

“We are trying, said Kane, “to get people to quit smoking by taking them into their closet to smell their own clothes.”

The report’s video findings will be released this spring.

Authorities agree that better feedback is paramount to improving teacher performance. Under current systems, the majority of primary and secondary public school teachers typically rely on classroom visits from principals to gain feedback, said Kane, who argued that such visits are largely inadequate.

“It’s common to have 98 or 99 percent of teachers in a district receive the same ‘satisfactory’ rating from such visits, so it’s clearly a perfunctory exercise.”

The project includes 3,000 teachers and more than 100,000 students from seven urban school districts, including Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Denver; Memphis, Tenn.; New York City; Pittsburgh; and Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa.

Although the education sector has been slow to adapt to the push for performance management common in other professions, the process began to gain traction in 2002 when the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, said Kane. The legislation calls for states to develop standardized tests to measure and track student achievement.

“There has been an explosion of research over the last nine years linking teaching certifications and teacher experience to student achievement gains. It’s a byproduct of school districts just starting to track student achievement and to link it to teachers.”

Kane’s research also coincides with the Obama administration’s new Race to the Top program, a competitive grant initiative that rewards states for developing effective education reforms. The initiative has inspired school districts to create fresh teacher evaluation methods.

“If we can get the results out quickly,” said Kane, “we can have a huge impact on the way this work is done in 3 million classrooms around the country.”

“If you are going to have any hope of having an effect on how teachers are doing their job,” he added, “you have to have some feedback that is specifically related to what they are doing.”

From Russia, with love