Remember the third-grade teacher who sparked your interest in reading? Or the eighth-grade teacher who made American History come alive?
If you’re my age (almost 50) or older, your teachers probably weren’t gearing their whole curriculum around making sure you scored well on some high-stakes exam. They were able to focus on trying to inspire you with a true love of learning rather than worry about “teaching to the test” to make themselves and their school look good.
This is one of the fundamental problems with education reform today. So much energy is being wasted on debating the pros and cons of different metrics for evaluating “good” and “bad” teachers that we’re forgetting that the abilities to inspire students and instill an enduring love of learning are among the most valuable and difficult-to-measure traits teachers can possess.
Don’t just take my word for it. Read education historian Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education” (Basic Books, November 2011). Ravitch has a lot to say about what’s wrong with our current education system. One of the stories she tells that has most stayed with me is a poignant anecdote about an unconventional third-grade teacher who greatly inspired her but probably did not get a great evaluation from the school’s principal or greatly move the needle on student test scores. This teacher’s type of teaching was not easily quantifiable—and that is precisely the problem with the single-minded focus on finding some set of metrics with which to “grade” teachers.
As many individuals and organizations concerned with the quality of public education in New York City, including the teachers union, have suggested, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on trying to attract and retain good teachers by doing more to support practitioners of this noble profession and paying great teachers more? We should be putting more energy and funding into developing programs for teacher-training and master-mentoring to try to staunch the flow of half of all new teachers in the city out
of the profession within their first five years on the job. We should be focusing on improving school environments, upgrading facilities and swapping outmoded teaching tools for more high-tech equivalents so we can increase the odds of “catching” teachers being successful rather than always trying to figure out how to “weed out the bad ones.”
Every profession has its share of bad apples, of course, teaching included—and we must also empower principals and assistant principals to deal constructively with those whose performances lag and be able to terminate those who can’t improve enough to be good teachers. In all this Sturm und Drang over “teacher accountability,” we are also leaving out the opinions of perhaps the two most important evaluators of teacher performance: students and their parents. I suggest we set up an evaluation system that also allows kids and parents to grade teachers and that these critiques be factored into any assessment of teacher-performance.
I applaud Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo for making quality of education and teacher accountability front-and-center topics in their administrations. But the best way to improve both is to truly help teachers succeed and make the profession one that attracts the best and the brightest, as it already is in countries such as Japan and Finland that provide teachers with these crucial supports and incentives. We need to follow their lead, and we need to do it now.
Our city can’t wait.
Our kids can’t wait.
Tom Allon, the President of Manhattan Media and a Democratic and Liberal candidate for Mayor in 2013, was a teacher at Stuyvesant High School in the 1980s.