Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wake The Sleeping Bear

Don’t look now, but the Los Angeles Times may have found its way back to relevance.

This past weekend, writers Jason Felch, Jason Song, and Doug Smith woke the sleeping bear by going after teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In an article entitled, “Who’s Teaching L.A.’s Kids?” the reporters “obtained seven years of math and English test scores” from the district and using a system called “value-added analysis,” compiled a startling picture of who is effective in the classroom and who falls miserably short.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers’ union, was quick to condemn the article and ask his members to boycott the paper. (I don’t think this should worry the management at the paper; most subscribers have already left.)

First, let’s talk about the article and the information contained therein. Value-added analysis “rates teachers based on their students’ progress on standardized tests from year to year,” according to the writers. “The method has been increasingly embraced by education leaders and policymakers across the country, including the Obama administration.” Obama has supported and renewed many of the failed policies of the Bush administration, even when the architects of “No Child Left Behind” called it a mistake last year. Obama swept into office promising change, but in education, he has been a weak imitation of a failed predecessor.

The Times writers did come up with some interesting discoveries. Many LAUSD students find themselves with the same failing teachers year after year. And “although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training,” they write, “none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students’ performance.” No matter how many degrees or credentials a teacher has, certificates and diplomas do not make teachers. Teaching is an art and craft, and if a candidate has no affinity for it, the students will suffer. Many people have credentials and degrees, but few can do the job because it is a calling, a vocation. Do a Google search of how many online degree programs there are for teaching credentials and masters-in-education programs. If you have the money, you can get a teaching degree very quickly in cyber-class. But unless you have talent and passion for the art, you will fail in the practice.

When the standardized test scores are used this way, it is amazing how quickly teachers and union leaders put them down as “flawed,” saying they “do not capture the more intangible benefits of good instruction.” When test scores earn them raises, salary points, and tenure, they shout hosannas in a come-to-Jesus fervor. As the article states, test scores are only one measure of an effective classroom, and by no means should they be used as the only measure.

So how do we rate teacher effectiveness? Our intrepid reporters at the Times observed that the best teachers “shared a tendency to be strict, maintain high standards and encouraged critical thinking.” They also engaged students, often in Socratic dialogue of question and answer. If some of this seems familiar, you must have gone to Catholic school.

Four of the teachers profiled in the article demonstrated the reporters’ observations. One, John Smith, struggles to control a class and is flippant with his students. He sent three to the principal’s office as unteachable. The second, Miguel Aguilar, is “soft-spoken and often stern,” giving praise only occasionally, which, according to the writers, makes his students try harder. He runs a tight ship with high expectations. Is it any wonder his students do better?

A third teacher, Karen Caruso, appears on the surface to be a model teacher. She was “first in the district to be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In her spare time, she attends professional development workshops and teaches future teachers at UCLA.”

She ranks “among the bottom 10% of elementary school teachers in boosting students’ test scores.” Yes, the bottom.

According to the article, “Caruso set clear expectations for her students but seemed reluctant to challenge them…She dismissed the weekly vocabulary quizzes that other teachers give as ‘old school.’”

Nancy Polacheck, a veteran teacher of 38 years, takes a more traditional approach without the “old school” prejudices. In the top five percent, “her teaching style is a rat-a-tat-tat of questions, the most common of which is ‘why?’” She does not spend a lot of time socializing in the faculty room, eating her lunch alone in her classroom. Her colleagues “think her expectations are too high.”

What is the conclusion here, the logical through-line? Miguel Aguilar is a younger teacher, only 33 years old. John Smith is 63 and started teaching in 1996. Karen Caruso has been in a classroom since 1984, and obviously, Nancy Polacheck is an old hand at wrangling students. Young, old, veteran, newcomer, highly trained, naturally gifted?

Here is the plan. Cut the bureaucracy at the top. Why are we not laying off administrators and the dead weight at the top of most school districts? Why are we not dumping ineffective principals and administrators at the school who know little or nothing about the classroom? Many were failed teachers; that is why they went into administration. We need to stop cutting veteran teachers because we do not want to pay their salaries. Younger, lower paid teachers fresh out of education school may fit the fiscal model, but they lack experience. There is no way to cut the budget to success. Education costs, but it is central to the future of a first world nation.

But here is the most important thing. Promote teachers, real teachers, into administrative positions, and allow them the time to be in the classroom with their colleagues observing them teaching. Stand in a classroom for five minutes, or longer, as the Times reporters did, and the effectiveness of the teaching will be clear. You will not need to rely solely on standardized tests, a task force, or anything else. Veteran teachers who have a talent and passion for the craft, dropping in unannounced every day to watch fellow teachers working. Everything will be crystal clear. Those who can’t teach are out. Those who can, keep the job and are paid their worth in a culture that puts the education of children as its highest priority.

If we are to regain our footing as a world leader, it will take more than pretty commercials about the need for better math and science instruction. We need solid gold teaching in all subjects from professionals with the gift to teach. We are becoming a stupid country led by stupid people. And that is a far greater threat than any act of terrorism.


  1. we read this article in my educational psychology class! (i had also gone through it the weekend before class since it came up so often on all my online news feeds) we discussed how the teacher is truly the driving force in the goal reaching product of the education being delivered - it was an intense day of discussion in class, that's for sure.

  2. There are three things Americans should be deeply concerned about right now: economy, job market, and education. A real time example of a failure to understand and solve a life-threatening problem is the BP oil spill. We lacked the brain power and engineering skill to fix that disaster. If we do not do something about education in this country, we will face similar disasters in the future woefully underprepared.

    Thanks for your comment, Christina. It would be interesting to hear what your class had to say about the article.


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