Now What?

The political wrangling about New York teacher evaluations (not so different than the same controversy played out all over the country) has gone on for so long and involved so many outsized high profile players: Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, the State Commissioner of Education John King, that it is hard to remember what all of this is about.

Lost in the controversy over who is up and who is down, is not just the question of how much of and what kind of data to use to measure how good a job a teacher is doing, but the question of what happens next? What are we going to do about those educators who are not judged "highly effective," the top ranking for teachers -- in other words, the rest of the teachers?

For Mayor Bloomberg, it's easy. As he said at MIT in November, "If I had the ability ... to just design a system and say 'ex cathedra, this is what we're going to do,' you would cut the number of teachers in half ... and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers."

This way of looking at teaching: there are great teachers and lousy teachers (and let's just dump the lousy ones and we'll be fine) shows he doesn't understand what a complex and demanding job teaching is ... and one that is developed over time. Outstanding teaching is not something you walk into the classroom on the first day ready to do. It is something you need time and help to develop.

Teaching is an extraordinarily complicated, intellectually challenging, creative and sometimes personally overwhelming job. In New York City, let's think about whom the kids are the schools. One out of four is not proficient in English, 41% speak one of 168 languages other than English at home, 13% of them have special needs, 40,000 of them are homeless or living in unstable situations, 67% qualify for free or reduced lunch, the dry euphemism for poverty. A good teacher (and certainly one trying to become a good teacher) has to design lessons by figuring out what needs to be taught and through what means, how to engage particular kids, how to build on what they already know, how to introduce new material, how to move forward kids' understanding of difficult material ... and get them excited about learning. And do it all again the next day. Believe it or not, classroom management is only one small part of the mix.

Teachers, except in very, very rare exceptions, are not born, but they are made. And how are they made? Yes, there need to be good teacher preparation programs but where you really learn is on the job, where through the help and support of more experienced colleagues and supervisors, through trial and error and self-analysis, maybe after 3-5 years you might be able to come into your own as a well-burnished, outstanding practitioner.

I should know. I taught high school for 12 years in the New York City school system. I ended up being the focus of a book about my teaching and my students and their lives, Small Victories by Samuel G. Freedman. The book doesn't portray me as a "master teacher" but one who is continually working on what I do, questioning how I teach and my strategies to reach students at Seward Park High School on the pre-gentrified Lower East Side of Manhattan. I never would have ended up the focus of a book at all if I hadn't been mentored by a outstanding English Department chair (a position eliminated now that large schools have been broken up into small schools) and more experienced colleagues and been able to work closely with peers.

In all this brouhaha about "quality teachers being the best predictor of student achievement" there is little discussion about how one becomes a quality teacher. It is as if you come out of a shell full grown or that education schools deliver out perfect models. Good teaching, no less great teaching, comes from hard work, support and guidance from a community of people where you work. That could include the principal, but unlike my principal who was an experienced English teacher of many years before he went on to become an administrator, most principals now have very limited experience as teachers. Who is going to help a novice, but eager and willing teacher to move on to become this outstanding teacher that we want in every classroom and especially for kids in impoverished neighborhoods?

There is no push, no discussion, no attention to bringing in master teachers to work closely with inexperienced teachers or structuring schools so that helping teachers develop over time is a central part of what happens in schools. At some schools, purely by chance, there might the right combination of more expertise and a commitment to create a supportive environment for teachers to develop their craft. But that is lost in the sturm und drang of finding the right metric to measure "ineffective," "developing," "adequate," or "highly effective" teaching. There seems to be little interest in how good or great teachers are created, only arguments conducted in the dry vocabulary of measurement ... which even in a math classroom is not what great teaching is all about.