Correspondence

IT’S TIME TO LEARN WHAT WORKS IN THE CLASSROOM

Who doesn’t want to believe that teachers matter? It makes intuitive sense. It’s what any good teacher knows instinctively. And now there’s mounting evidence to support the notion that the quality of teaching in the classroom impacts the performance and engagement of the students in that classroom. But as Michael Jonas describes so well (“Teacher Test,” CW, Fall ’09), there’s little evidence that our current methods of evaluating and rewarding teachers are helping us to identify, much less encourage and nurture, those skills and behaviors that make teachers matter.

For the sake of the 1 million schoolchildren in Massachusetts, and especially for the 10,000 children who drop out of school each year, we need to connect the dots. Identifying and encouraging teaching practices that will rescue more of our children from failure should be our top priority. This is a priority all of us must embrace — teachers, parents, and the community at large. But it means setting aside entrenched interests, outdated objections, and plain old fear of change.

One common objection is distrust of a single measure of teacher performance, especially one that is highly correlated with a number of other factors beyond the classroom. This is simply a red herring; no one is seriously proposing that student test scores form the sole basis for teacher evaluation. But to suggest that student performance has no place in the evaluation of teachers sounds like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Entrenched seniority rules and traditional career ladders all stand to lose from any new system of teacher evaluation. But the profession has everything to gain in the long term — encouraging young teachers, identifying and nurturing excellence in teaching, and improving student achievement.

Right now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make the connection between teacher evaluation, teacher quality, and improved student outcomes. Federal funds are available for willing states and districts. Massachusetts’s new student growth model now lets us look at test data over time and compare academic improvement between similar cohorts of students. We can now identify statistically significant variations in student performance growth from one year to the next — and that can tell us where to shine a bright light to learn what works in the classroom.

Yes, teachers matter. It’s time we started evaluating how and why they matter. Our kids are counting on us.

Leslie Nicholson
Executive director
Stand for Children
Waltham

THE HARD PART: FINDING RELIABLE MEASURES

Michael Jonas’s article turns the focus of talking about improving student achievement exactly where it needs to be, on teaching. Having worked in public schools for 40 years, I believe that there are few things that we really control in public schools. Among them are who we allow to cross the threshold of a classroom as teacher and who we select to run schools as principals. Both decisions are absolutely essential to student success.

For more 30 years we have known about teacher behaviors that have been shown to be clearly related to improving student achievement. What is mind-boggling is how little we use that information in teacher evaluation. While teacher evaluations should consider improvements in student achievement, the hard part is finding consistent, valid, and reliable measures of student achievement across content areas.

Teacher quality is much more than certification. A teacher can be certified with paper credentials yet not really be able to effectively teach in the classroom. In some cases the issue has to do with a lack of effective teaching skills or knowledge of subject matter; in others it may be a lack of desire to teach or a lack of comfort with students.

In measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools, Jonas’s article also makes important points about Eric Hanushek’s work and “value added” research on teaching. But a fundamental error that people made with studies on educational inequality is in equating a correlation with cause and effect. Put simply, your momma doesn’t have to have a master’s degree for you to do well in school. Certainly, family background can have an impact on students’ preparation for school. But we make a real error when we equate parental educational and income with a student’s capacity to do well in school.

Schools can and do make a difference. In his landmark study in 1979, Ron Edmonds identified the qualities of effective urban schools that hold true to this day. We must turn our attention to spreading effective teaching and raising expectations of students and staff so that many more students acquire the skills and knowledge to do well in school and graduate.

Nicholas A. Fischer
Superintendent
New London Public Schools
New London, Connecticut

STUDENTS SUFFER FROM TRENDY ‘REFORM’ IDEAS

Thank you, Edward Moscovitch (“Ed Reform Erosion,” Perspectives). I’ve been waiting for someone to speak the truth about the claims from this administration that school funding has been “held harmless.” In addition, I’m appalled that this administration continues to recycle education ideas that are not supported by available, up-to-date research. They consider easy/trendy ideas to be education reform (charter schools, high-stakes testing, etc.). What makes all of this so egregious is that our children continue to suffer under these political policies. I yearn for the time when educators and education are truly valued. Perhaps I should move to Finland. They understand it there.

Sondra H. Peskoe
Brookline

‘COST-EFFICIENT’ EDUCATION IS MOTIVE FOR PLAGIARISM‘

While regrettable, the plagiarism epidemic that Colman Herman’s article “Term Paper Trafficking” describes is arguably a rational response to education becoming an economic investment, and to its long and winding journey from its roots in rhetoric. We evaluate students by their papers in part because it’s cost-efficient, requiring far less face time (or none) on the part of faculty. But we pay a price in the depersonalization of education when we divorce learning from human interaction. After all, it’s pretty hard to fake it when solving a physics problem at the blackboard or debating the merits of, say, physician-assisted suicide with an audience of one’s peers. Interestingly, the work world hasn’t lost sight of the value of interpersonal interactions: A recent survey showed prospective employers caring little about one’s academic credentials and much more about personal references.

Joshua Roth
Physics teacher
Winchester High School
Winchester