What's the Secret to Good Schools?

Education experts point to good teachers

| September-October 2000

It’s fourth period at Hartford Public High in Connecticut, and the decades-long debate about what can be done to improve schools is being answered in Room 338. It doesn’t matter what the socio-economic makeup of the class is, it doesn’t matter how these kids scored on standardized tests. What matters is what Susan Mathews says matters.

"We’re going to talk about eyes today; we all have two," she says—no, decrees—to 22 students watching her from behind laboratory benches. She launches into her introduction, pacing and gesturing, delivering lab instructions in a short, clear, urgent, almost theatrical fashion. "At the end of the period," she commands, "this is what you should be able to answer."

Upstairs, Cynthia Avezzie’s English class has a decidedly mellow tone. "So what is good literature?" Avezzie muses, as much to herself as to her students. A girl offers that literature is good when it gives life to a universal feeling, such as loneliness. "That’s very good," says Avezzie, picking up a pink ball and throwing it to her. "When have you felt lonely?" The student catches and cradles the ball as if it were made of crystal. "When someone forgets to pick me up," she says finally, tossing the ball to a classmate to give another example.

Principal Joseph Wall considers Mathews and Avezzie two of the school’s best teachers. Yet where Mathews is fierce and almost dictatorial, Avezzie is mild and almost maternal. "They teach from the heart," says Wall—a fact that makes the newly important question of what constitutes a good teacher fiendishly frustrating for school administrators around the country.

Consensus about what makes a good school is hard to achieve. For many years Americans of all political stripes have been searching and arguing about what it will take to offer a good education for all American kids: less structure, more discipline, racial integration, ethnic academies, increased funding, higher standards, multicultural curriculum, computers, school vouchers, and on and on. But now the education experts seem to be coalescing around the issue of teacher performance. Education Week noted recently that "pressure to improve the quality of the teaching force has never been greater."

The trouble with this consensus is defining what constitutes good teaching. Most evaluation efforts have focused on teacher preparation and qualifications for licensing. It’s easy to measure based on college grade point averages, a passing score on a standardized teacher exam that tests for basic literacy and math skills, and "seat time"—the number of curriculum development or child psychology courses taken in teacher-training programs. All these licensing criteria, however, are designed only to weed out bad teachers, not identify the good ones. They do not reward creativity, enthusiasm, flexibility, or passion.

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