Steve Davis dispenses band-aids, advice and standards-based English lessons to tenth and twelfth grade students at Gunderson High School in San Jose. This is his ninth year in the classroom. In his “spare time” he is the department chair. Steve has also taught beginning English learners, coordinated the school’s English language development program, and advised the yearbook. He received his bachelor’s degrees in journalism and American studies from California State University, Chico, and his credential and masters in education (crosscultural teaching) from National University in San Jose.
Larry Cuban’s distinction between “good” and “successful” teaching is especially important to understand in the current climate of school “reform,” which is hostile towards teachers and has come to be used as a euphemism for tying teacher’s compensation and evaluations to high-stakes test scores. It seems that Bill Gates thinks that “good” teaching is successful teaching. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. As Cuban points out, “good” teaching doesn’t always lead to “successful” teaching and vice-versa. Tying teacher compensation and evaluations to test scores is not the answer to problems that are not endemic to our under-performing schools; schools’ problems are society’s problems. Dubious research is beginning to filter out into the mainstream media touting the advantages of such schemes as “best practices,” while offering the brief caveat in small print that no causal relationship can be established between academic performance and tying teacher compensations and evaluations to high-stakes test scores.
I consider myself a “good” teacher but I know that my teaching isn’t always “successful.” There are many inputs that a classroom teacher has no control over. That’s not an excuse for low achievement; it’s just an acknowledgment of reality. What about the truant who I can’t force to come to school, the student who attends class diligently and refuses to participate, the boy who just lost his father, the boy who has no permanent place to live, and the girl who just found out that she’s pregnant? Exactly why is the paradigm shifting away from a model that takes student realities into account?
According to the California Standards Test (CST), in previous years I have been more “successful” with my lower performing students (far below basic, below basic) than I have been with students who were already basic or above. That’s not news to me. My lower performing students were my focus. No child left behind, right?
Well, in my efforts to leave no child behind, I failed to keep my higher performing students moving along. Many well-intentioned educators would claim that I simply didn’t differentiate instruction well enough. I assert that focusing on any one sub-group will necessarily lessen your focus on other sub-groups. Differentiating “successfully” among a huge range of skill sets is just impractical in practice. Most laypersons would be amazed at the wide range of abilities that exist in most mainstream classes.Now my instructional focus has shifted to my basic and above students. What do you think is going to happen to the performance of my far below basic and below basic students as a result of the redirection of my focus?
Teachers who understand the distinction between “good’ and “successful” teaching should be appalled by the (recently overturned) proposal to dismiss the entire staff of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. You can’t argue with the data that indicates that students are performing horribly; however, there were likely many “good” teachers and at least a few “successful” teachers in their students’ scores on the New England Common Assessments Program. Their performance was boiled down to test scores that don’t paint an accurate picture of all of the inputs. The 2005-2006 SALT survey of Central Falls High School reveals many statistics that were left out of mainstream media reports: 96% of students are eligible or free or reduced lunch, 25% of students receive ESL services, 21% receive SPED services (Central Falls High School).
Many people may assume that the school board intended to fire these “unsuccessful” teachers as a direct result of their student’s dismal test scores, although that’s not the case at all. In its bid for Race to the Top Funds, Rhode Island schools were pressured to “reform” their chronically underperforming schools. The West Falls leadership tried to force teachers to work an extended day without compensation. Superintendent Frances Gallo said, “They absolutely refused to work without pay.” No one else works for free, but when teachers refuse to work for free they’re lambasted and ousted for stifling “reform.”
For now, California has not yet legislatively tied teacher compensation and evaluation to high-stakes test scores and may have contributed to the first round loss of Race to the Top Funds. While many laypeople and policy wonks may point to California’s resistance to “reform” as the root of its educational troubles; they couldn’t be further from the truth. What happens in California’s schools is more representative of society’s ills and shortcomings than it is of teacher incompetence. California’s teachers and unions shouldn’t give into the siren song of tying teacher compensation and evaluation to high stakes tests.