Friday, February 27, 2015

Ineffective Teachers

I once sat in a classroom in Brooklyn as students listened to Walkmen (yeah, that's how long ago this was), tossed balls of paper out the windows, and wandered into the hallways and back. The whole time, the hapless teacher, who had invited me in, presented what I had thought was a foolproof lesson on Proper Nouns. He started by saying, "For example, I is a proper noun, because it starts with a capital letter."

This was back in the days when my then-employer, McGraw Hill Education, mandated three days in classrooms annually for every editor. It was a great plan; I learned more in those three days than in any days I spent in the office.

Now, that was an ineffective teacher. After all these years, I still can't imagine why he thought it was a good idea to allow a textbook editor to observe his incompetence. It is possible that he was delusional, or that he desperately wanted an objective witness to report back on the horrors of his classroom. I didn't do that; it wasn't my role. I did go back to the office and revise the lesson.

I have no doubt that there are ineffective teachers. I've seen them from the backs of classrooms; I've suffered through them via my daughter. I have no doubt, too, that there are brilliant teachers; again, I've witnessed them and their work firsthand. My guess is that most teachers, like most employees anywhere, are pretty average.

What we require of our teachers in NYS can amount to a minimal education. We especially desire teachers who have passed through an approved NYS teaching program—that's the only way they can achieve the license to teach. Although they may specialize in a major of their choice, far too many teachers, especially at the elementary level, get their degree in Education. This, to me, is like a lawyer getting a bachelor's degree in Law (if that were even possible). Then, to continue toward professional certification, they must complete a Master's program, again in any area, although locally the Master's in Reading is preferred, because it's commonly thought to be easiest. The debate over whether teachers need education degrees at all continues to rage; here is a good back-and-forth from several years ago.

Teacher education programs lag behind trends in education; in our area we've had collaborations between experts at TST BOCES and local teacher ed programs just to bring them up to speed on Common Core. This is a problem. New teachers turn over at a remarkable clip, many because they are simply overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do that is NOT teaching. Nationwide, the attrition statistic is 40-50 percent after five years. It's a costly fact.

The toughest things about teaching in NYS, and probably anywhere, are not anything you can learn in a teacher certification program. When I volunteered in Caroline Elementary School many years ago, I learned about the effects of rural poverty. I met teachers who washed their students' hair before school because the students had no running water in their homes and who drove to meet parents because the parents had no form of transportation. I met students whose parents would never set foot in the school because of their own hatred of school as children, parents who passed down that hatred and distrust of authority to children age 5 and up. Now, I had worked as a volunteer tutoring gunshot children in Harlem Hospital. I thought I knew all about the effects of poverty on children. But rural poverty is deeper in the shadows, far less visible than urban poverty is. We hear all the time about the needs of NYC schools, but our own local schools have a much lower wealth ratio than schools in the city do.

It's clear that when you start with students who come from poverty, you face all kinds of detriments that affect achievement. In a school like Caroline, you may have third graders with middle school vocabularies and sixth-grade reading ability in the same room with third graders with post-toddler vocabularies and a rudimentary grasp of phonics.

If you give all those third graders the same pretest and posttest, you will find some with enormous growth and some with minimal growth. The third graders with enormous growth may attain that growth no matter who their teacher is, simply because their home life offers vocabulary growth, homework help, outside lessons, books in the home, and so on.

The third graders with minimal growth may show little achievement no matter who their teacher is, simply because they don't eat before school, receive little guidance, lag in attendance, have chores that supersede schoolwork, and so on.

I won't say that a great teacher can't overcome some of the gaps. It's clear that some children achieve despite their rough starts, and that's usually due to teacher intervention. But to expect it every year for every child in every classroom is unrealistic.

Most schools around here have tried desperately to deal with the American promise to educate ALL children—they've implemented AIS programs, mentoring for teachers, even backpack weekend meals for children in poverty. All of those things cost money and take away from regular classroom teaching and learning.

But NYS wants to evaluate teachers, come hell or high water, and the governor wants to do it using a scale of 50% tests and 50% classroom observations. If I were a teacher being evaluated that way, I'd work hard at the start of the year to get all of my poor or low-achieving students classified and moved into 12-1-1 classrooms. I would teach to the test whenever possible, and I would ramp down on lesson plans that involved a lot of interaction and activity, lest my classroom look unmanageable when an administrator dropped in for an unannounced visit (by contract, usually at least half of the visits are announced ahead of time, allowing teachers to prepare themselves and their students, in a playacting version of the usual classroom atmosphere).

Be careful what you wish for, NYS. Yes, there are ineffective teachers, and effective administrators know who they are. Improve 3020a procedures and timelines to make it easier to get rid of them, or implement a tenure system that allows for regular review. The current plan has no chance of succeeding, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with improving teaching and learning.

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