"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Praising and Bashing Teachers

Larry Cuban has a post about praising teachers while, at the same time, bashing them.
I know from teaching for nearly 15 years and research that there is much variety among teachers in effectiveness as there is among lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, and CEOs. I know that figuring out fair and equitable ways of determining success among these professionals goes far beyond looking at numbers. I also know that the anti-union hostility is anchored in error and ideology.

One only has to contrast right-to-work states with those allowing collective bargaining to determine whether the absence of contracts has improved schools and made them more solvent financially, or, better yet, raised teacher salaries and demonstrated more trust in teachers. They have not.

One only has to look at the dominant metrics that command attention from reform-minded policymakers and business-driven coalitions. Standardized test scores come into play constantly in plans to evaluate and pay teachers. No measures of the student-teacher relationship or what students learn exist beyond the narrow band of knowledge and skills captured by multiple-choice test items. Nothing else counts.

One only has to look at zero tolerance policies on discipline and drugs where automatic penalties strip away principal and teacher judgment when students break school rules.
People writing comments discussed the difficulty of evaluating teachers. It was a thoughtful exchange and I left a comment of my own...(edited a bit since I've had time to read it more carefully):

The evaluation of teachers is difficult. As we all seem to agree, numbers don't tell the whole story. Teachers have to be counselors, nurses, and parents during their work day. Reaching students takes more than just "telling students" what they need to learn. The process of evaluation is dependent on more than just what happens in the classroom. A competent evaluator is a necessity. Principals have to be trained to give helpful feedback. A poor teacher is often ignored by an equally poor administrator.

Teachers have an incredible work load. Most teachers don't have the luxury of telling their secretary, "Please hold all calls and don't let anyone bother me. I have to get this paperwork done." The paperwork is usually done during short "preparation periods" (guaranteed by union contracts) or at home. It's not just a question of looking at student work and grading it either...it has to be analyzed and the analysis needs to be incorporated into the next day's lesson plans.

Students and their parents also need to be accountable. "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" is a truism when it comes to trying to educate our children. Sometimes the parents and students have no choice or options...children who come to school hungry or traumatized will not think about subject matter so much as survival.

One important aspect of teaching that I find missing in most discussions, however, is the human factor. Teachers are human...and have different styles of teaching and different ways of relating to students. A teacher who is a life-saver for one child, may not be able to reach another. My own children had good and bad teachers, too, but some of those teachers were the same person. Even a SUPER teacher might be mediocre for some students. To think otherwise is to deny the reality of the classroom. I have watched a lot of teachers teach...the last 15 years of my career was as a pull out teacher for students who were having difficulty in the classroom. I've seen excellent teachers, yet even the best teachers failed with some students. True, it's a teacher's responsibility to do everything she can to help a child succeed, but it's impossible to do that 100% of the time. The greatest teacher in the world may not be able to overcome the challenges of poverty, parental indifference or antagonism, ADHD, childhood depression and a host of other things which prevent a child from learning.

It's not possible everywhere, but to the extent it is, parents should have a hand in choosing their child's teacher. Current year's teachers should also have input into whose class a child will be in the following year.

Finally, over the course of my career I have worked in four schools with probably 150 different teachers. I would agree that about 10% are either bad or mediocre. I can count the bad ones (at least in my opinion) on one hand...and even the mediocre ones often had students who soared under their care. On the other hand, one thing I am unable to do is name a teacher or principal I worked with who didn't care about his or her students.
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