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Is Your Teacher Any Good?

Is Your Child’s Teacher Any Good?
Westchester Magazine, April, 2010

By Dave Donelson

During my senior year in high school, my English teacher stood less than five feet tall, wore knee-length dresses and low-heeled shoes, and her spectacles dangled on a beaded cord around her neck. She looked a lot like an over-dressed barrel in practical shoes. But when she bounced around the room exclaiming, “A drum! a drum! Macbeth doth come!” I lost myself in her recitation. Her passion for literature and unbending insistence on accurate writing has stayed with me for decades. Virginia Frazier, I owe you a bundle for starting me on a life-long love affair with language.

Nearly everyone can recall a teacher who made such a difference in their life. Now though, as sweeping reforms in our schools are demanded by everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Education to the President of the American Federation of Teachers and even one of Westchester’s high schools is labeled “persistently lowest achieving” by State Education Commissioner David Steiner, more and more of us wonder if today’s embattled teachers are still inspiring kids and doing their jobs with passion and fire—or are they mostly just hanging on and hoping the hoopla all goes away.

If enthusiastic Marguerita Street is any indication, our teachers have plenty of passion. The 27-year-old teaches Integrated Algebra and a Regents’ math exam prep course at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, the very institution labeled as one of the state’s worst by Commissioner Steiner. In college, Street was a NASA Life Scholar and spent each summer working at the Marshall Space Flight center in Huntsville, Alabama. There was dazzling excitement in her career path should she decide to pursue it.

“My senior year, I had a choice. Do I work with NASA or do I teach?” the Yonkers native says. “I chose to give back to my community through teaching.”  She’s never regretted taking that particular fork in life’s road.

Street does what every expert I talked to says a good teacher should do: she engages her students with things that matter to them. “I talk about Jay-Z and how he uses math in making music, booking studio time, things like that,” she says. “I also have the music going while I talk about it, which helps bring the kids into the discussion.” She teaches five classes daily with an average of 25 kids in each one. In addition, she’s available to students who want extra help during her lunch periods as well as before and after school. Street says it’s imperative that she connect with each kid. “If I have a student who is part of a family of eight people living in a one-bedroom apartment, I’m not going to press him about why he doesn’t have the homework.”

Fortunately, most of Westchester’s 3,500 high school teachers don’t have to deal with student home lives as disruptive as the one Street describes. But even teachers in Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley High and Bedford’s Fox Lane School are under increasing pressure to perform. For most of our high school teachers, the pressure comes not from trying to meet state minimum standards, but stems instead from our over-achievers’ obsession with landing a slot at a top college, preferably one whose buildings are swathed in ivy.

High grade point averages, resumes full of extracurricular activities, and sparkling, striking essays are all deemed essential to success in the college entrance competition, if not in life itself. Never to be overlooked, of course, are test scores, notably the SATs, where Westchester students typically score about 30 points (six percent) higher than the national average.

Another series of tests, the NY State Regents Examinations, looms large over Westchester high schools as well, though. While most of our schools score high, there is a growing movement to use student performance on the Regents (or other standardized tests) as one criterion for evaluating teachers. Cold, hard numbers are apparently necessary to hold teacher’s feet to the fire and thereby improve our education system, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In 2007, the state legislature instructed the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to create what they called a “value-added growth model,” a system for tracking student test scores and using that data to find out how much learning is taking place in the classroom with individual teachers. The Board of Regents is expected to have that system in place by September 2010. Every student is going to have an ID number—as is every teacher—and we’re going to be able to look at student growth over a one, two, or three-year period. The goal is to make some determinations about which teachers need improvement and which ones are doing fine.

The prospect is daunting. While student test scores will be only one factor in teacher evaluation, not everyone believes the measures will be valid.

“Researchers from many perspectives agree that these tests are not yet sophisticated enough to be used effectively for teacher evaluation,” says Thomas Hatch, Co-Director, National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, & Teaching (NCREST) and Associate Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University. “For one thing, the tests themselves in most cases are problematic. For another, teachers’ value-added scores—how much their students increased or decreased on tests from one year to the next—are not very stable. So a teacher who gets a high score one year might not get a high score the next year.”

Hatch says there is no one best method to use to judge a teacher’s performance. “Evaluations that rely solely on direct observation or those that focus solely on student test scores are both problematic.”

Ardsley Board of Education President Frank Hariton agrees, adding, “When I measure if a high school teacher is really performing, it’s not how much the kids have gone up in content knowledge over the year. Ideally, I like to see a teacher touch a life. To have a kid say, ‘Gee, this is what I really want to do’ more than ‘This is what I have to do to get a higher score on the Regents.’”

“On the other hand,” says Mercy College Dean of Education Andrew Peiser, “the public demands accountability for their money. The only way they see accountability is student performance on tests.”

If student test scores aren’t a good measure, how do we make sure our teachers are giving taxpayers full value by doing the best possible job? After all, median salaries for teachers in Westchester are not only the highest in the state at $88,857, but more than double the national average of $42,941, according to their union, NYS United Teachers. Taxpayers would very much like to know what they’re getting for their money.

Until teachers in Westchester schools are granted tenure (typically after three years on the job), they are observed, mentored, and even videotaped to ensure they are meeting standards set by the state and their district. After tenure? The regular teacher evaluation process becomes much less intense. It varies from district to district, with differing degrees of formality and use of a variety of tools.

At high-performing Edgemont High, the administration tries to conduct one formal observation each year, but tenured teachers can also opt for a professional development plan that they put into place themselves, according to Principal Barry Friedman. A significant number of them opt for such projects, although the exact number varies greatly from year to year. “They file a proposal in the fall,” he says. “Once it’s approved by the principal, there’s a mid-year progress report, then a report at the end of the year that’s also filed with the central office. The idea of the projects is to improve teaching and learning.”

Yonkers Superintendent of Schools Bernard Peirorazio says their approach is more structured. “Historically, teachers were given one evaluation at the end of the year,” he says. “Our goal now is to get the administrators into every classroom every month. We do eight informal observations and two formal evaluations each year. That whole paradigm shift has changed the landscapes in our schools.”  Putting administrators into the classroom more often not only allows them to see how teachers do what they do, but sends a not-so-subtle message that they are expected to do it better.

In addition to frequent classroom observations, Eastchester Superintendent Marilyn Terranova and her staff look at student output. “I really like to see student work and whether it illustrates what the teacher is doing,” she says. “The teacher teaches the information, facilitates the learning, guides the child, and then there is an outcome that the child has to step up to. You look at the work and see if it matches what the teacher taught. That’s the best measure of teacher success.” A parent who looks at their kid’s homework and compares it with what they were told it should look like by the teacher in conferences will have another way to monitor progress.

Ultimately, according to Yonkers District Teacher Mentor Theresa Angelilli, “It’s important to self-evaluate. Excellent teachers make 150 evaluations every day by looking at the students’ faces. Are they getting it? Or are they not getting it?” Once the classroom door is closed, the teacher is really the only person who knows whether learning is happening or not.

Which is why the whole concept of tenure is being challenged today. For the first three years a teacher has absolutely no job protection. They can be removed for any reason whatsoever short of a violating their civil rights, according to the NYSUT. But “when somebody receives tenure,” says Blind Brook Superintendent William Stark, “it makes it infinitely more difficult—not impossible, but pretty darn expensive—to remove them. And it has to not only be with cause but with significant cause. Boards and superintendents have to think twice.”

Tenure exists in the first place for several solid reasons. Without it, teachers who held political views different from the administration’s would be vulnerable to firing, for example. And teachers without tenure would be less willing to teach creatively or to tackle controversial subjects. Without tenure, too, there could be pressure on teachers to pass undeserving students, particularly if they were related to someone influential in the community.

There are dangers in the tenure policy too, though. “Where else in the world can you work only for three years and then have a job for the rest of your life?” says Mount Pleasant School Board President Francine Aloi. “I would like to see teachers re-assessed maybe every five years. Students are held accountable every single day in the classroom and I think teachers need to be accountable, too. Good teachers would welcome that because they have nothing to be afraid of.”

Tenure is a requirement under state education law, so it’s not likely anything will happen soon to change it. However, the state has taken other steps to improve the quality of instruction our kids get. New York now requires all teachers hired after 2007 to receive a minimum of 175 hours of continuing education every five years as a condition of certification. Many districts in the county already use some form of outside in-service training like the Scarsdale Teachers Institute, which provides professional development classes often taught by other teachers. Others conduct training during faculty meetings and most give teachers tuition reimbursement or financial incentives to compile continuing education credits.

All teachers are also required by NY law to have (or be working on) a master’s degree as a condition of permanent certification, so most Westchester districts score high in that department. But Stanford University’s Erik Hanushek, the author of 14 books on the economics of education, reports, “Perhaps most remarkable is the finding that a master’s degree has no systematic relationship to teacher quality as measured by student outcomes.”

Dr. Terranova agrees to a point, but argues, “Instead of the old master’s degree in secondary education, we’re looking for people to get advanced degrees in their content area. That’s indicative of scholarship. I know an art teacher who got a master’s outside her field—in anthropology—that brought different things to the art class. But just going to school for the sake of getting a bigger paycheck is probably more of a crime than anything.”

Something else that tenure encourages is length of service, which is another area of some disagreement. “There isn’t a direct correlation between years of service and success in the classroom,” says Briarcliff High School Principal Jim Kaishian. “If you have five to ten years experience as a teacher, you know what you need to be remarkably successful. After ten years, there is very little you’re going to learn on the job that will inform your practice. In fact, past ten years, there are fewer incentives to continue to grow professionally.”

Still, Edgemont’s Friedman says, “Length of service is almost always good. I can’t imagine a time when turnover would be a good thing.” About 12 percent of Westchester high school teachers leave each year according to state records, a figure consistent with the national average of 13.2 percent.

Most teachers are in it for the long haul, which probably is good for our kids. Teachers like Yonkers High School’s Bridget MacMasters are able to excite students about less-than-enthralling subjects like the Wilmot Proviso and the Ostend Manifesto because they love their work. “Teaching is not a job, it’s an avocation,” the 23-year-veteran says. “It’s a calling. It can’t be measured by the amount of work and hours and statistics.”

That’s why Alexander Hamilton Principal Mark Baicco find his teachers at school at all hours. “If you go to the cafeteria at 7:30 in the morning, you’ll see four or five teachers sitting at tables with groups of kids,” he says proudly. “That’s where a great deal of relationship building takes place.”

As Blind Brook’s Stark says, “Teachers see themselves as having an awesome responsibility. Parents are models, too, but teachers have taken on a greater role as models in our society. Teachers are the gatekeepers of civilization.”