Today’s Washington Post article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/13/AR2010111303552.html?nav=mbot) about the uneven distribution of “highly effective” teachers across the District’s eight wards comes as no surprise to anyone, for two main reasons.
First, “good schools” attract good teachers. It’s important not to forget that teachers are people who, despite being more than usually selfless, still prefer to work in environments that are as free of chaos and unnecessary challenges as possible, and good schools usually fit that description. Unfortunately, the clumping of good teachers into one school will inevitably result in high test scores that further reinforce the image of the school as good. In wards 7 and 8, where the majority of schools carry reputations of failing students and consequently being harder teaching environments, this cycle just makes things worse.
The second reason this uneven distribution of teacher quality surprises no one is that most people just assume that it is too hard to demonstrate your talent as a teacher if you teach in a struggling school; if you have to deal with the stereotypical problems like rampant misbehavior or frequent absences, you can’t be expected to teach a lesson as strong or as seamless as a teacher at a higher performing school. This is FALSE. Do I think that I would have had higher test scores and higher performance ratings if I’d taught in ward 3 instead of wards 7 or 8? Yes, but only because I was a new teacher. If you’ve been teaching for a while, you have no excuse for not performing just as well (and I don’t have an excuse either). Kids deserve great teachers regardless of circumstances. If you teach in a struggling school, your job description is the same as the teacher in a good school: make your students learn as much as possible so that they, at a minimum, pass their state exams. Good teachers are creative, analytical, dedicated, and persistent. Teaching in a struggling school is a prime opportunity to exhibit those skills because you have to use them even more than teachers in good schools!
I could write pages and pages about what to do to raise teacher quality. For now, I’ll say just one thing: teachers need more support. For some, that means they need instruction in how to be better teachers; for others, that means that their administration takes away some of the external factors that make their job harder (like calling parents about absences rather than leaving that to the teachers). Teachers in low-performing schools often have to wear multiple hats – teacher, parent, guidance counselor, nurse, and social worker – when teaching alone is an enormous undertaking. Teachers are trained to teach, and others who are trained to counsel or to work with families should be there to make sure that teachers only have to do what they do best – teach.