School Success Criteria Vol 2: Teachers

In yesterday’s post, the first of a series outlining what makes a school successful, I started the article by stating that I was unhappy that teachers are disproportionately punished for bad performance in schools. Newsweek’s cover story this week is titled “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers” tells the other side of the story–that teachers should be blamed when blame is due,

What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher. Much of the ability to teach is innate—an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not)….It is also true and unfortunate that often the weakest teachers are relegated to teaching the neediest students, poor minority kids in inner-city schools. For these children, teachers can be make or break. “The research shows that kids who have two, three, four strong teachers in a row will eventually excel, no matter what their background, while kids who have even two weak teachers in a row will never recover,” says Kati Haycock of the Education Trust and coauthor of the 2006 study “Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality…..disturbing is the immunity enjoyed by the thousands of teachers who let down their students in more ordinary ways. Many more teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. Maybe they’d get more respect if the truly bad teachers were let go.

This article was inspired by the recent brouhaha surrounding the Rhode Island teacher firings, but it could just have much been about the Philadelphia Renaissance School program, which just hasn’t grabbed as many headlines.  Of course, the Renaissance School program, the Rhode Island teacher firings, and the Newsweek article are centered around underperforming schools in impoverished and underserved neighborhoods.  Though I care about this issue in a broader political and sociological sense, my personal focus right now and the focus of this blog is on finding a school for my kids.  How do these questions apply to me and me and my decidedly not underserved middle-class family?

A recent article on Educationweek  “Making Better Teachers” looks at this issue independently of socioeconomic factors

your school is only as good as the teacher you have that year….good teaching trumps everything when it comes to student achievement. Analyze all the data you want, throw a bunch of acronyms at people (NCLB, RtI, IEP, DIBELS, FAPE, PBIS, Yada Yada Yada), and race to the top of wherever you want. Yet, everything boils down to good teaching in the classroom.

Just because I have expressed in the past that I feel that teachers are unfairly scapegoated does not mean that teachers are off the hook in my mind.  On my school visits, I have had the chance to sit down and chat with some teachers and see others in limited action.  There was at least one school that I eliminated primarily because of some of the teachers that I met, though I must say that some friends of mine that attended the same presentation did not have the same reaction.  I found it to be particularly shocking since these were teachers that the school trotted out to show off to parents.  (I wonder which teachers were not asked to come?)  At first I took it with a grain of salt–I want teachers who can command a classroom and teach children, not necessarily teachers who are public speakers.  Still, my impression of the teachers matched somewhat with the reputation, test scores, and anecdotal evidence I have heard on school quality.  Another anecdote–I spoke with a parent with a child at a different (highly regarded) school recently that stated that she expected that over the course of elementary school that their child would get a couple of bad teachers!  She was OK with (resigned to?) that, and yet, unlike the author of the Educationweek article, feels that her child’s school is of high quality.  I guess that she felt that that was just life.  Maybe it is true that all schools have some bad teachers.  Call me an idealist, but I hope not.  I definitely recommend meeting a bunch of teachers and seeing them in action if you can before you commit to a school.  Official representatives of schools can teach you a lot about the schools of course, but I believe that it is worth it to take the time to get a better sense of who will be on the front lines with your child.

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