Thursday, March 10, 2011


The recent controversy over teacher salaries and bargaining rights in Wisconsin seems to be giving way to a renewed “discussion” (and yes, I use that term loosely) over teacher effectiveness and qualifications. It’s certainly not a new topic and most people seem to have quite a few opinions on it.

In a recent article in the New York Times, for example, Donna Foote puts in her 2 cents worth. Foote is a former Newsweek correspondent and author of a book called Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America. The book chronicles the experiences of four first-year teachers trained in the TFA program (that’s 5 weeks of training) who go on to work in struggling urban schools and the difficulties they encounter. In her NYT article, Foote asserts that “The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.” Foote is wrong in her assertion on a dozen different levels.

Even the most basic examination of the research into student achievement would have shown Ms. Foote that the single most important factor in student achievement is family income and parental educational level. And while socio-economic status and parental education level are the most significant issues, they are also not the only factor in student achievement. “The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.” Would it be that I, the teacher, had that amount of power. I don’t. But someone else does have that power – the parent.

So, let’s talk about parental involvement, or rather, the lack of it. No matter how well trained, how well supported, how experienced, how caring and involved a teacher is in their profession, none of that can possibly make up for what happens outside of the classroom. The teacher has no power over whether or not the student eats breakfast or the quality of that breakfast. They have no power over whether the student sleeps or how much. They have no power over the time the student spends on homework. They have no power over the amount of time the child was read to during their formative years. The parent, though, has the power over all those things.

I am not a parent, so I am not here to tout my own expertise in that arena. Instead, I’ll showcase the expertise of some of my friends who are parents – who do everything in their power to make it possible for their children to achieve academically. For example, in one friend’s house during the academic year there are rules that everyone follows. There is no television during the school week. You read that right – NO television. Of any kind. Not the news. Not Glee. No television. Not for the kids – not for the adults. It just doesn’t get turned on between 6 pm on Sunday through 6 pm on Friday. Computers are in the living room, including laptops. There is no watching TV online. There is no Facebooking or YouTubing until 2 am. At bedtime, all cell phones remain in the living room. There is no texting of friends throughout the night. If grades fall below acceptable levels, extra-curricular activities are at risk. Are my friends’ children gifted? No. Are they all performing well in academically rigorous schools? Yes. Why? Parental involvement.

Reports say the average American student spends over 9 hours per day in front of some form of media. Imagine what student achievement might look like it they spent that 9 hours reading – or even half of it. It isn’t up to the teacher – it’s up to the parent. A very unscientific survey of my own students last semester revealed that a full 85% of my students had a television in their bedroom before the age of 12. It isn’t up to the teacher – it’s up to the parent.

Foote goes on in her article to state that “we should attack the real problem: the quality of our teachers.” No one would probably argue that a good teacher is better than a bad one. I realize that not all teachers are exceptional or even good. But the message from Foote and others seems to be that anyone can teach well with only 5 weeks of training – anyone, that is, except a veteran teacher.

Lest you think I’m trying to defend myself and declare what a great teacher I am, let me assure you that I am fully aware of my own shortcomings as an educator. I shudder to think of the students I “taught” during my first year as a teacher. I was horrible. Really. I was slightly less horrible during my second year of teaching and in each subsequent year after that. (If any of my students from those first 5 years are reading this, please accept my sincere apologies.) After quite a few years, I actually began to think that someday I might even be good. Even now, though, I realize that I am a better teacher today than I was 10 years ago, than I was five years ago, than I was one year ago.

Would I have been a better teacher at the beginning had I gone through TFA’s 5 week intensive training program before I started? Maybe. I’m not here to bash TFA and I certainly don’t know enough about their training program to either praise or condemn it. But I would hazard a guess that after 25 years of honing my craft I am a better teacher than any of the TFA teachers in their first year. And, even by their own reports, the difference in impact on student success their teachers make compared to traditionally trained teachers is minimal at best. From a report posted on their website:
The average control class students scored in the 15th percentile in the fall and remained in the 15th percentile at the end of the year. In contrast, the average TFA class students increased their ranking from the 14th percentile to the 17th percentile over the same period.

For reading achievement, we found that the average student in TFA and control classrooms experienced the same growth rate. The average sample member increased by the equivalent of about one percentile point during the study year.

I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe that we should have exceptional teachers. We should. Our students deserve the very best of effort in helping them to achieve learning. But blaming teachers for things that are absolutely out of their control gets us nowhere. And it takes the conversation and attention away from dealing with the real issues that plague educational achievement in our society. For students to achieve educationally, they need a home environment that puts education in the forefront. They need parents who are willing to do everything in their power to support and create an environment that makes learning important. We all need to lose our sense of entitlement that makes us demand something for nothing. And we need well-trained, experienced teachers, giving their best.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I’ve been dreaming of summer – the green grass, the warmth of the sun, the smell of summer wafting in through the window on the slightest hint of a breeze as you’re drifting off to sleep with only a sheet to cover you. Last night in my dream it was summer and I was on a boat. I was sitting at the back of the boat, watching the wake billow out behind us. It rippled – big waves at first, which got smaller and smaller the further they got from the boat. Later in the dream I was on the shore, standing at the edge of the water as the wake of a passing boat made its way to shore and splashed up over my feet, again and again, each splash getting smaller and smaller.

Of course, I know this was a dream. There was the fact that I was sitting at the back of the boat watching the wake. In reality I would be more likely to be at the back of the boat hurling into the wake as the waves of motion sickness washed over me. There is the other reality of the sight out my window as I write -- the mountains of snow still covering the ground with more promised to come today.

But since I woke up I have been thinking about the wake.

There are people who go through life leaving a path of absolute destruction in their wake -- a series of bad choices repeated over and over, failed attempts at jobs or education, damage done, failed relationships. I wonder what they see when they look back – if they ever do – and contemplate their path. I wonder what impact their wake has on their future choices.

We are ephemeral. We pass through. We are here for a while, but ultimately we all go. We all have an impact on someone or a series of someones. I am looking at my wake. I am contemplating what I see there. What is it that splashes onto people’s feet as I pass by? What washes up on the shore and remains? And, I continue to dream of summer.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Credit, that is. It’s what people want. And, apparently, I’m supposed to give it.

I don’t remember having a lot of options for extra credit while I was in school. I’m sure that could be a case of selective remembering. I know that there were certainly times I wanted it. But my memory says it was a bit of a rarity and I even recall one of my college instructors writing it into the syllabus – “There is no
such thing as EXTRA credit!” I remember thinking him a little bit of a hard you-know-what but didn’t give it much thought beyond that.

These days, extra credit seems to be the expectation – and not just from students. We get emails from various people pushing their particular special interest on campus and wanting us to encourage our students to participate. They are helpful enough to give us a list of ways to do this including, inevitably, “offer your students extra credit to…” We want them to participate in a campus conference – offer extra credit. We want them to attend a campus speaker – offer extra credit. We want them to attend Success day – offer them extra credit. We want them to participate in the campus food drive/book drive/coat drive – offer them extra credit.

In the beginning of my teaching career, I admit I didn’t give this much thought. I occasionally offered students the option of earning extra credit by attending a campus speaking event and writing something (evaluation, response) that related the speaking event to the course theory. I quickly learned, though, that the extra work was not worth the extra credit – for me or for my students.

More significantly, I once gave students the opportunity to earn extra points by donating to a campus food drive. Many did, but many didn’t. One of the ones who didn’t, was gracious enough to come talk to me privately. Our conversation changed my approach. She told me that she would have loved to have earned the extra points and would have loved to give to the food drive, but that her family had to actually make use of the food shelf so she couldn’t give. I realized that my ‘extra credit option’ actually amounted to selling grades to the wealthier of my students. Ouch.

This experience caused me to step back and really evaluate the notion of ‘extra credit.’ Having done so, I’ve eliminated it from my teaching. I arrange my courses so that grades are earned based on a number of assignments worth smaller amounts of points. Doing poorly on or missing any one assignment won’t kill anyone, nor will it make the difference between any two grades.

I’ve determined that to be in line with my own philosophy of education, grades should not be based upon sheer volume of work. If I give enough ‘extra credit’ options, anyone should be able to get enough points to earn an ‘A’. But grades and evaluation should be about more than simply amassing points. They should be about quality as well, and they should distinguish between students operating at different levels of expertise, effort and ability. Not everyone should get an ‘A’. Not everyone is exceptional. And, for me, if that ‘A’ isn’t earned outright but given away through a process of ‘extra credit’ makes the concept of grades essentially meaningless.

I’m sure that many of my students will disagree with me. I’m sure that many of my colleagues will as well. However, I’m content with grading the work that has been assigned, and evaluating my students’ performance on that basis, and leaving the ‘extra’ to others.

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