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Great Teaching: Not Just a Good Idea, It’s the Law (Almost)

January 10th, 2011 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

In the hothouse terrarium that is Chicago politics, a stormy debate over teacher accountability is looming large.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that a quality classroom teacher is the single most important school based input-factor in student performance and lifetime achievement. The evidence has been mounting for years, but a recent groundbreaking study by superstar Northwestern economist and fellow Nettelhorst mom Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach actually quantifies it. Diane’s team found that when a student moves from a below-average teacher to an above-average teacher, the child’s adult earnings rise by about 3.5 percent per year, amounting to more than $10K in additional lifetime income. When you multiply a teacher’s impact by the number of students in each class, a great teacher adds a whopping $320K in extra lifetime earnings to her entire class!

So, if a great teacher produces great results, what does an ineffective teacher produce? Turns out, it’s a pretty shoddy product. A recent study by Eric Hanushek, the Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute featured in Waiting for ‘Superman,’ proves that an above-average teacher produces a year and a half’s worth of normal test score gains in a single academic year, while a below-average teacher raises their students’ scores by only a half a year. Consequently, unlucky children saddled with poor teachers fall further and further behind.

In a city like Chicago, which suffers from a colossal achievement gap (only 6 percent of CPS high school freshmen will graduate from college), the disparity might seem insurmountable. Not so, says Hanushek. A great teacher can bring even the lowest performing students up to grade level in just three years. If great teachers, or even merely average teachers, replaced their lowest performing counterparts, Hanushek predicts the nationwide economic impact due to increased test scores and higher future earnings would amount to $100 trillion, roughly the same number of clams required to wipe out the entire national debt.

Knowing all this, it is maddeningly unclear why principals cannot easily remove the poorest-performing teachers from their schools, a fact I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Eight years ago, when our group of mommy reformers first set foot in Nettelhorst, our neighborhood’s underperforming and underutilized public elementary school, some teachers walked the hallways muttering obscenities, and one even had a restraining order against her for hitting students. I’m not saying these folks didn’t love their craft, or that maybe, once upon a time, they were even decent educators, but by any reasonable standard, they didn’t belong in any classroom, my kid’s or anybody else’s. We knew who shouldn’t be there, the principal knew it, the students sure knew it, and so did all the other teachers. The stoic union investigators dispatched from central office even seemed to know it, too.

We didn’t have time to sit around waiting for a Kafkaesque lumbering bureaucracy to self-correct. Our principal gave the curriculum team carte blanche to review curriculum and financial plans, weigh-in on hiring decisions, and most importantly, access to document teaching styles. Funny thing happened: with all those pesky parents roaming the halls and peeking into classrooms, within two years of our reform movement, almost every single ineffective teacher left Nettelhorst, voluntarily.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take too many disgruntled teachers to contaminate a staff. When the most negative forces left, the school’s extremely toxic teaching climate improved dramatically. Test scores tripled across every demographic. My kids, who started at Nettelhorst in preschool, are now in fourth and sixth grade, and I’d put their education–one without any gifted program, selective enrollment or tracking system–on par with any private school in the country. Our teachers are that good.

While we can all cheer the parental pressures that helped to transform my little neighborhood school, and celebrate the extraordinary, award-winning teaching that’s happening on the corner of Melrose and Broadway, the question still remains: In what backwards universe could adults allow this deplorable situation to fester? What about all those public school kids who don’t have hyper-involved parents advocating for them, day in and day out?

In nearly every profession, job performance is reviewed annually, and individual excellence is recognized and rewarded. In Chicago, however, most teachers receive lifetime tenure after working just four years with “satisfactory” performance, a rubber-stamp rating that’s given out like PEZ. Imagine running a business with tenured employees who only need to demonstrate “competence.” Imagine a system that makes it nearly impossible to remove individuals who fall short of expectations. What would your workplace climate feel like? And, what kind of product would you produce?

In Springfield, home of Lincoln and all things straight and true, our representatives are debating a sweeping reform initiative called Performance Counts which links tenure to student academic growth, streamlines the dismissal process of ineffective teachers, and also makes the contract negotiation process more transparent and focused on what’s best for children. The proposed legislation has some pretty sharp teeth:

  • Teachers would earn and keep tenure based on effectiveness as determined through multiple measures (not just test scores).
  • Teacher performance would become the primary factor in teacher layoff decisions, effectively ending “last in, first out.”
  • Both principals and teachers would need to agree for a teacher to serve in a public school, effectively ending “forced placement.”
  • Curbing strikes by requiring transparency and an independent fact-finding process (37 states already prohibit teachers from striking).

While the usual suspects have lined up against the bill, some critics agree with its substance, but object to what they say is a rushed approval process in a lame-duck session. Gosh, we’ve been at this for years now, including last year, when all the stakeholders sat around the table hoping to grab a piece of Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top pie (FYI: still hungry). Here, at last, is legislation born from last year’s hard-earned consensus. Like so many problems that seem intractable, I wonder how much money and clout is at play when various stakeholders drag their feet.

Let’s be clear: I love, love, l-o-v-e teachers. You couldn’t pay me enough money to spend all day in an elementary school classroom. I was also weaned on unions; during the teacher strikes in the seventies, my professor mom, who once taught seventh grade at Brooklyn’s Ditmas Junior High School, kept us home for weeks in solidarity rather than cross a picket line (backgammon anyone?). That said, our current system’s so out of whack that a step in any direction would be a net positive.

At the start of this shiny New Year, all full of hope and possibility, will our state legislators be bold enough to put kids first? And if they do, will the rest of country follow suit?

For the sake of my two little kids, and all their pals, fingers and toes crossed.

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