In earlier posts, I have described and interpreted how a high school history teacher taught history in a failing school (see here and here). In Part 3, I described a veteran history teacher in the same school and the four lessons he taught when I observed him in November 2013. Gary Hart (a pseudonym) taught world and U.S. history. In all of the lessons I watched, the sequence of activities unfolded in the same order: students signing in when they entered, sitting and talking until Hart caught their attention directing them to answer questions on the white board, the teacher supervising their answering questions with scattered students chatting and having to be admonished repeatedly before settling into the task. In each class, Hart used worksheets drawn from the textbook covering particular pages and then supervised students by walking around as most (but not all) students completed the task. At the end of the period, Hart collected both students’ answers to questions on the whiteboard and the worksheet. Occasional interruptions for dealing with cell phones and PA announcements jiggled the routines during the four lessons. Nonetheless, the activities occurred in this sequence.
Overall, what I saw in the four lessons I can sum up briefly. Most students were disengaged from the content of the world history unit on late-19th century imperialism in Africa. A climate for learning content and skills of thinking was absent in each and every class I observed. A few students would answer questions asked by the teacher but the Q & A was, at best, dispirited. Surely, except for occasional disruptions, there was compliance; most of the students did as he directed. There is no question in my mind that the teacher had prepared lessons drawn from the textbook and knew that content thoroughly. His skills in managing the class were evident although there were moments, especially over cell phone use and persistent chatting, that became dicey.
If Mark Allison, his veteran colleague, (see here) went beyond the textbook and engaged his classes in African American history and they responded to questions on the photos he presented even asking questions from time to time, I saw no such engagement in these four world history and U.S. history lessons. Clearly, these two teachers got compliance from their students, at least the ones that attended, and one of them went beyond compliance by creating a reasonable facsimile of a learning climate and interest in the Civil Rights movement.
So what sense do I make of what I observed? As in an earlier post, I return to contextual factors that I believe influenced Hart’s teaching.
First, the contextual factors. In Part 2 of these four posts,, I laid out how student backgrounds come to influence in positive and negative ways how students respond to history lessons. Nearly all students in the school, for example, are eligible for free and reduced price meals–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement. Ill health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences take their toll. Poverty is not an excuse for either behavior or achievement; it is, however, an abiding factor that cannot be ignored.
Also the organization of Greenwich as an age-graded high school with departments and its place in the district affected what happened in classrooms.
For example, classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance, Hart did reasonably well given the organizational factors within which he labored. School and district policies made low attendance and high tardiness a school norm. Moreover, Greenwich has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal had been notified that the school would be restructured which meant teachers that teachers would have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” often erodes teacher motivation to teach at the top of his or her game.
There is another contextual factor that matters for Hart and his colleagues. The state has adopted the federally funded Race To The Top program of teacher evaluations in order to secure additional monies. And that means 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation depends on the student standardized test scores.
That bothered Hart a great deal. He complained about the unfairness of a system that based half of his evaluation on student test scores. Because Greenwich students did poorly on these tests year after year there was no way that he could reach the highest category (“Accomplished”) when the principal evaluated him even if he taught stellar lessons. For Hart, the evaluation system was skewed against him and his fellow teachers.
While these contextual factors surely played a part in what and how Hart taught, there were individual factors that mattered also. Hart claimed that he rewarded students with pizza parties and displayed work of successful students. That he did all of that, I have little doubt. However, in the four lessons I observed, he lacked passion for the lesson content and the activities that he designed. In every lesson, he marched the group mechanically through routines in which students were clearly disengaged. The 40 minute lesson was something both students and teacher endured.
For 2014-2015, the “reconstitution” year, the principal chose Mark Allison and not Gary Hart to teach at Greenwich.