2010-04-23 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

What Makes A Good Teacher?
Commentary By Howard Schwach

What makes a good teacher?

That question has been asked ever since the first public schools started shortly after our nation was founded.

In those good old days, a teacher was considered to be “good” if she (there were few males in the profession) worked 90 hours a week, did not smoke cigarettes, stayed out of bars and wore very modest clothes. That she could read or write did not matter very much, as long as she showed up and worked cheap.

A teacher who showed up in the local bar on a Saturday night for a quick drink with her beau was often summarily fired for “low morals.” Teachers were supposed to be above the fray, chaster than Caesar’s wife. Since then, the profession has moved forward to the point where a teacher’s lifestyle (or dress) does not matter much unless he or she commits a public crime. The question, however, still persists. What makes a good teacher?

As one who often hired teachers and then had to program them into classes and follow their progress (although I never formally observed them or wrote up their yearly reviews), I have seen literally thousands of teachers do their daily job. First, let me say that rating teachers is not like rating factory workers. When I taught for several years in a special high school program in Portland, Connecticut, the question came up because Portland was a bedroom community for East Hartford and many of our school board members were engineers and managers at Pratt and Whitney Aviation, the world’s largest manufacturer of jet engines for both the military and the civilian aviation communities.

The school board members decided that teachers should be rated and paid on the basis of their ability as teachers, not on some union contract. They announced in May that they would develop a merit pay system that would be up and running in September of the same year. Three years later, they were still trying to get it right.

The P & W system was based mainly on how many units (engines or engine parts) a team put out each month minus time off for accidents or unusable parts. They thought teachers could be rated the same way: number of good lessons taught as recommended by the principal plus good results on standardized tests (the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) minus days sick and poor student scores. It was a joke, but the teachers were not laughing.

Even though Portland (population 6,000) was fairly homogeneous, the classes were not. The three elementary schools, one junior high and one high school were all tracked schools, which meant that students were placed in classes according to their ability. When the school board tried to change that to level the playing field, the parents rebelled and threatened to vote to close down all of the schools and give the money to the road crew.

I kid you not! Under the plan developed by the school board, teachers with the low-exponent classes or, god forbid, special education, could never hope to get a raise. In fact, the first year of the plan, all of the special ed teachers were fired because they all came out in the bottom of the curve despite the fact that they were some of the best, most hardworking teachers in the school. When the parents of those kids went ballistic and threatened to hunt down the board members and skin them alive, the teachers were rehired. Eventually, the entire plan died of its own weight.

The problem is, everybody knows what a bad teacher is, but nobody can sufficiently describe the attributes of a good teacher with enough specificity to allow the definition and its measurement to be used for paying people and for firing them as well.

Bloomberg and Klein think that they know, however. Of course, it’s all about standardized test scores. Those teachers whose students “do well” will receive tenure and raises and hallelujah. Those who don’t will be gone.

Sounds fair to Bloomberg and Klein and their minions who have never been in a classroom, but it actually makes no sense in the real world.

Recently, when discussing laying off teachers, Klein said, “Experience matters, but it cannot be the sole or even the principal factor considered in layoff decisions. We must be able to take into account each individual’s track record of success.” He’s talking solely of standardized tests, because that is the sole measure of success in the Bloomberg administration.

Good student test scores, however, or even growth on tests from one year to another is not a fair measure of the success of an individual teacher.

For ten years, I taught MIS II Special Education classes at IS 53 in Far Rockaway.

MIS II classes were made up of students, almost exclusively boys, who had been diagnosed as emotionally handicapped. They were bright but they were ‘mishuga.’ At any point in the day they could get out of their seat and punch their neighbor in the face or stab him in the arm with a pencil. Many of them were “Five-percenter’s,” which meant that they were not allowed to listen to Yakoos (white people) and had to beat up or rob a few people a week to maintain their status.

One of my students once took the DRP test that was placed face down on his desk and ate it whole, bite by bite, while the rest of the class watched and cheered. Most of the others simply wrote, “I ain’t doing this f______k test,” and left it at that. Yet, I was a great teacher with that bunch, and some of them still come up to me on the street and tell me how I changed their life.

Take this one step further. Who is a good cop? The mayor would have you believe that the cops who give the most tickets are the best cops, but we all know that is not true.

How about firefighters? Is the best firefighter the one who fights the most fires? Or, the one who rescues the most people from fires. How can we make those determinations? We can’t, any more that we can really rate teachers in a rank order. Would I have received a raise under the Bloomberg administration? No, but I would have quickly been out of a job, even though I was really helping students.

And, isn’t helping students to learn and grow, to be ready for adult life, the name of the game, rather than simply insuring that they get passing scores on standardized tests?

Not if you ask the mayor and his minions. Everything needs to be quantified, and everybody needs to be punished or rewarded based on the statistics that come from quantifying those things that are not quantifiable.

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Not to grouse with this

Not to grouse with this article much, but Bloomberg and Klein had to be in a classroom at one point in their lives, if only as students. To define just what makes a good teacher is difficult these days. What does the teacher's union define as a good teacher? What do international test scores define as good teaching?

Bloomy and Klein both fall under the fire of teachers and their union as being insensitive to education and perhaps this is so, but it is also their job to keep the budget from collapsing under the weight of public education's burgeoning expense. The remuneration and benefits for a NYC teacher is pretty darned good. After retirement, depending on years served, the pension can and has exceeded the amount some teachers earned while on the job. To strike a balance where all needs are met is rare in today's political environment. One thing is certain, objectivity on the subject will not come from a teacher.

I have little fondness for the public education system. In my direct experience with it, I found too many teachers instructing ideology and political correctness, the very definition of "sophists," when they should have been focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic. The simple fact that the majority of high school teachers cannot even get an acceptable grade on an SAT is damning. Like yourself, and your experience at IS 53, many NYC teachers are relegated to the role of a warehouse manager, keeping kids off the streets and attempting to keep them from hurting themselves, but little more. A observation and complaint by more than one active PS teacher I've known. In fact, we found our district and local schools so poorly performing, that we elected to go the private route with our child. It was the only choice a responsible parent with the means could make. Yet, had the public system in NYC been up to snuff, we most certainly would have made use of it.

This month past, Jaime Escalante, one of the most gifted teachers to ever enter a public class room passed away. In 1988, a movie was made of his achievements at Garfield High School in the film, "Stand & Deliver". What that movie didn't show was that Escalante was the victim of petty attacks by lesser teachers and was ultimately removed from the classroom by--you guessed it--the teacher's union. Their complaint was that Jamie was working too many hours, teaching to too many students. This, despite the fact, that the results he had, in an underprivileged community, where spectacular and unrivaled before or since. Food for thought when it comes to defining just what a good teacher is in my humble opinion.

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