What’s the Secret to Good Schools?

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.

In the face of political pressure, many states have simply raised the bar on these criteria by requiring more degrees or higher scores. When the pool of potential teachers predictably shrank, most states enacted emergency certification, opening up a back door that still let in unqualified teachers to fill spot shortages. Meanwhile, they began to search for better ways to evaluate teachers, and some have arrived at a radical solution: You watch them teach.

Wisconsin has instituted licensing requirements that also take actual classroom performance into account. Teacher-candidates must first pass a test in reading, writing, and mathematics, and, more importantly, also demonstrate speaking and listening skills. Kansas plans to enact a comparable program, which includes mentoring for rookie teachers. Similar moves are planned or already under way in New York, California, North Carolina, Indiana, and Arizona.

Connecticut, where Mathews and Avezzie teach, has pioneered performance-based assessment since the mid-1980s, when teachers were first required to submit a portfolio for evaluation during their second year of teaching. The requirement focuses on authentic teaching tasks, not the hypothetical scenarios posed in exams: Teachers must keep daily lesson logs over a period of seven to ten days, analyze examples of student work, and videotape two lesson segments.

“The tapes are a very rich performance sample,” says Edith Hunsberger of New York’s education department, which is also requiring videotapes. They highlight the performance, delivery, and passion of teachers in the classroom, and “the good ones are exciting.”

This performance-based approach might seem superficial at first–surely academic preparation outweighs empty enthusiasm–but educators agree that passion and dedication cannot happen without preparation. “You can have academic mastery with no passion, and that is not effective,” says Patricia Graham, education professor at Harvard. But “it is extremely rare to have passion for an academic subject and not have a degree of mastery.”

To be sure, this performance-based paradigm is not without its flaws. Mentoring programs are labor intensive and expensive, so states have been reluctant to fund them; only 10 states currently provide full or partial funding. Performance assessment is similarly expensive: “It takes 10 times as long to score a videotape as it takes to score an essay,” says Hunsberger.

Ultimately, you need to be able to perform if you’re going to teach, and what actually happens in the classroom is what matters. Thinking this way offers America’s schools the greatest potential for finding–and keeping–teachers like Cynthia Avezzie and Susan Mathews.

Alexander Nguyen is a writing fellow at The American Prospect. From Washington Monthly (May 2000). Subscriptions: $39.95/yr. (12 issues) from 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009.

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