Guest Post by John Thompson

Source: via Larry on Pinterest

Erica Green of the Baltimore Sun reports in “City School Evaluations Show Problems in Instruction” that Baltimore’s holistic reviews of instructional effectiveness found that schools have a long way to go in preparing for the much higher standards required by Common Core.  When districts use primitive test-driven accountability, it is no surprise that those numbers are manipulated until they show that schools are creating miracles.  Nobody should be surprised either, when in a couple of years scores on Common Core assessments are dramatically lower.

Neither should it be surprising that Baltimore’s high-quality evaluations determined that 40% of teachers were “not effective” in instruction. The latest evaluation is consistent with a growing body of qualitative research by Robert Pianta and others which estimates that as few as 25% of teachers provide “a level of instructional or emotional support consistent with learning gains.” Worse, only 15% of students consistently receive the most effective instruction over multiple years.  One study showed that “in 5thgrade classrooms, positive, individual interactions occurred in only 1% of observed intervals across the school day.”

Some of the previous studies were conducted in Baltimore.  For instance, the Baltimore Education Research Consortium’s (BERC) “Informing Policy and Practice to Benefit Baltimore’s Children” concluded that most elementary teachers in 23 schools provided “affective warmth,” sensitivity to students’ interests and points of view, and proper ‘behavioral expectations.”  But, “instructional support was severely lacking in most of the classrooms.”

But, how could we not find major problems in Baltimore’s classroom instruction when, as the latest evaluation showed, “more than half of the principals at schools already evaluated were found to be ‘not effective’ in cultivating an environment that encourages effective instruction?”  Regarding the city’s secondary schools, it is not surprising in an age of numbers-driven accountability that teachers were pressured to “increase the graduation rate and that if seniors did not complete the projects assigned, teachers should change the assignments so students can pass.”

As the tougher Common Core assessments approach, we can anticipate more findings such as, in 100% of the classrooms that were studied, “basic recall or comprehension questions, such as ‘What did we just do?’ or ‘What are our multiplication facts?’ were frequent. Questioning requiring higher-order thinking … was far less frequent.”  We should take those criticisms to heart and vow to do better. (We should thus commit to using more of the learning tools found at Websites of the Day …)

At the same time, we must put this data into a historical context.  I taught in the lowest performing high school in Oklahoma.  In my opinion, our dysfunctional school had more good teachers than the suburban school I attended forty years ago.  The difference is that the job of teachers has changed, while the rest of the system has not.  When I was a student, the goal was for teachers to be “good” at their jobs.  Now, the goal is being “effective” at our jobs.  I suspect that Baltimore also has more good teachers than it did in the 1960s, even though it has relatively few teachers who are effective enough to overcome the effects of generational poverty.

Secondly, policy analysts who criticize teachers for not teaching in an engaging and holistic manner, are like the guy who killed his parents and asked for the court’s mercy because he was an orphan.  Since NCLB, teachers have been coerced into teaching to the primitive bubble-in test, and now we are criticized for the inevitable results of that pressure.   In fact, an illustration of this cycle of blame and shame can be found in the BERC’s policy brief which noted, “Deficiencies in the dimensions of instructional and emotional support were especially pronounced during the winter in third grade classrooms, likely linked to observed preparation for the Maryland Schools Assessment (MSA).”  It then recommended, apparently without self-conscious irony, that “Teachers and principals need to be persuaded that students critical thinking skills are crucial for their performance on the MSA.”    It said that test prep should be offered in a “conceptually rich, emotionally warm and interactive manner.”

Baltimore’s qualitative evaluations could be a step towards honestly acknowledging problems.  The next step should be a stipulation that there is plenty of blame to go around.  Then, we could reject the blame and shame game known as data-driven “accountability,” and accept the truism, “you are not the problem, I’m not the problem, the problem is the problem.”

The teacher quality moment gambled everything on the hypothesis that superstar teachers can do it all. If the supply of highly effective teachers were quadrupled (from 25%), the legacy of generational poverty would supposedly be overcome.  Teacher quality advocates are justified in protesting that too few students have the personalized emotional support that they need, but their own figures demonstrate that teachers alone will not be able to satisfy those needs.  Their data provides a powerful case for following the advice of John Merrow and others, and making teaching into a “team sport.”

I would even make an additional suggestion. Our goal should be schools that are effective enough that being a good teacher is enough to be an effective one.  I would seek schools where being a principal who was good at assessing discipline was enough to give the teachers and the support professionals a fighting chance to create an orderly school.  It would be hard to create such schools, however, without recreating central offices so that the job of administrators is being good at administration, and changing the job of policy-makers into being good at supporting practitioners, as opposed to imposing utopian theories on schools.

John Thompson taught for 18 years in the inner city.  He blogs regularly at This Week in Education, Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue, the Huffington Post and Schools Matter.  He is completing a book, Getting Schooled, on his experiences in the Oklahoma City Public School System.