Is Your Child's Teacher Any Good?
Study after study has shown that the single most important factor affecting your children’s educational success is…their teachers. So, what can you use to evaluate your local teachers?
Students of The logrea dance academy in ossining, shot on location by john rizzo; hairstyling and makeup by Michele Bell
Photo by John Rizzo
My senior English teacher, Virginia Frazier, stood less than five feet tall and wore knee-length dresses and spectacles on a beaded cord around her neck. But when she rousingly exclaimed, “A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come,” I forgot she looked like an overdressed barrel in practical shoes and lost myself in the language she recited. Her love of literature and unbending insistence on accurate writing has stayed with me for decades.
Nearly everyone can recall a teacher who made such a difference in his or her life. Now, though, sweeping reforms in our schools are demanded by everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Education to the President of the American Federation of Teachers. When even one of Westchester’s high schools is labeled “persistently lowest achieving” by State Education Commissioner David Steiner, more of us wonder if today’s embattled teachers are still inspiring kids and doing their jobs with passion and fire—or are they hanging on and hoping the hoopla all goes away. This is not unimportant. Study after study suggest that the only factor that impacts a student’s learning is...which teacher he or she gets, not the number of kids in a class or amount of money spent. But how do you know if your child’s teacher is one of the good ones?
According to the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, which has been developing models for improving teacher quality for 30 years, the best teachers share five qualities. They really know their subjects—not just ‘how to teach’; have good basic writing, math, and oral presentation skills; expect their students to achieve; are enthusiastic about teaching; can motivate even highly disadvantaged students to learn.
Factors that don’t affect the quality of teaching include having advanced degrees, a terrific personality, or high SAT scores.
Photo by John Rizzo
Marguerita Street seems to embody the Institute’s goals. The 27-year-old teaches Integrated Algebra and a Regents math exam-prep course at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, the very institution labeled as one of New York State’s worst by Commissioner Steiner. In college, Street was a NASA Life Scholar and spent each summer working at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “My senior year, I had a choice: Do I work with NASA or do I teach?” the Yonkers native says. “I chose to give back to my community through teaching.”
Street does what every expert I talked to says a good teacher should do: she engages her students with things that matter to them. “I talk about Jay-Z and how he uses math in making music, booking studio time, things like that,” she says. “I also have the music going while I talk about it, which helps bring the kids into the discussion.” Street teaches five classes daily with an average of 25 kids in each one. In addition, she’s available to students who want extra help during her lunch periods as well as before and after school. “If I have a student who is part of a family of eight people living in a one-bedroom apartment, I’m not going to press him about why he doesn’t have the homework.”
Fortunately, most of Westchester’s 3,500 high school teachers don’t have to deal with student home lives as disruptive as the one Street describes. But even teachers in Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley High School and Bedford’s Fox Lane High School are under increasing pressure to perform. For most of our high schools, the pressure comes not from trying to meet state minimum standards but stems instead from our overachievers’ obsession with landing a slot at a top college, preferably one whose buildings are swathed in ivy.
Photo by John Rizzo
High grade point averages, resumés full of extracurricular activities, and sparkling, striking essays are all deemed essential to success in the college entrance competition, if not in life itself. Never to be overlooked, of course, are test scores, notably the SATs, in which Westchester students typically score high. (See “Just the Facts,” page 64.)
Another series of tests, the New York State Regents Examinations, looms large over Westchester high schools as well, though. While most of our schools score well, there is a growing movement to use student performance on the Regents (or other standardized tests) as one criterion for evaluating teachers. Cold, hard numbers are apparently necessary to hold teachers’ feet to the fire and thereby improve our education system, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
In 2007, the State Legislature instructed the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to create what they called a “value-added growth model,” a system for tracking student test scores and using that data to find out how much learning is taking place in the classroom with individual teachers. The Board of Regents is expected to have that system in place by September. Every student is going to have an ID number—as is every teacher—and we’re going to be able to look at student growth over a one-, two-, or three-year period. The goal is to make some determinations about which teachers need improvement and which teachers are doing fine.
The prospect is daunting. While student test scores will be only one factor in teacher evaluation, not everyone believes the measures will be valid.
“Researchers from many perspectives agree that these tests are not yet sophisticated enough to be used effectively for teacher evaluation,” says Thomas Hatch, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST) and an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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“For one thing, the tests themselves, in most cases, are problematic. For another, teachers’ value-added scores—how much their students increased or decreased on tests from one year to the next—are not very stable.” The primary reason? The students being tested are different each year. “So a teacher who gets a high score one year might not get a high score the next.” Hatch says there is no one best method to use to judge a teacher’s performance. “Evaluations that rely solely on direct observation or those that focus solely on student test scores are both problematic.”
Ardsley Board of Education President Frank Hariton agrees, adding, “When I measure if a high school teacher is really performing, it’s not how much the kids have gone up in content knowledge over the year. Ideally, I like to see a teacher touch a life. To have a kid say, ‘Gee, this is what I really want to do’ more than, ‘This is what I have to do to get a higher score on the Regents.’”
“On the other hand,” says Mercy College Dean of Education Andrew Peiser, “the public demands accountability for their money. One of the only ways they see accountability is student performance on tests.”
If student test scores aren’t a good measure, how do we make sure our teachers are doing the best possible job? After all, median salaries for teachers in Westchester are the highest in the state at $88,857 (the statewide average is $62,332), according to the New York State United Teachers, and taxpayers would very much like to know what they’re getting for their money.
Until teachers in Westchester schools are granted tenure (typically after three years on the job), they are observed, mentored, and even videotaped to ensure they are meeting standards set by the state and their district. After tenure? The regular teacher evaluation process becomes much less intense. It varies from district to district, with differing degrees of formality and use of a variety of tools.
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At high-performing Edgemont High, the administration tries to conduct multiple formal observations each year, but tenured teachers can also opt for a professional development plan that they put into place themselves, according to Principal Barry Friedman. A significant number opt for the projects, although the exact number varies greatly from year to year. “They file a proposal in the fall,” he says. “Once it’s approved by the principal, there’s a mid-year progress report, then a report at the end of the year that’s also filed with the central office. The idea of the projects is to improve teaching and learning.” Does it work? That’s a matter of opinion.
Yonkers Superintendent of Schools Bernard Pierorazio says his district’s approach is more structured. “Historically, teachers were given one evaluation at the end of the year,” he says. “We now have the administrators in every classroom every month. We do eight informal observations and two formal evaluations each year. That whole paradigm shift has changed the landscapes in our schools.” In other words, putting administrators into the classroom more often not only allows them to see how teachers do what they do, but sends a not-so-subtle message that they are expected to do it better.
In addition to frequent classroom observations, Eastchester Superintendent Marilyn C. Terranova and her staff look at student output—on an informal basis. “I really like to see student work and whether it illustrates what the teacher is doing,” she says. “The teacher teaches the information, facilitates the learning, guides the child, and then there is an outcome that the child has to step up to. You look at the work and see if it matches what the teacher taught. That’s the best measure of teacher success.”
Ultimately, according to Yonkers District Teacher Mentor Theresa Angelilli, “It’s important to self-evaluate. Excellent teachers make one hundred fifty evaluations every day by looking at the students’ faces. Are they getting it? Or are they not getting it?” Once the classroom door is closed, the teacher is really the only person who knows whether learning is happening or not.
Which is why the whole concept of tenure is being challenged today. For the first three years, a teacher has absolutely no job protection. He or she can be removed for any reason whatsoever that does not violate his or her civil rights, according to the NYSUT. But “when somebody receives tenure,” says Blind Brook Superintendent William Stark, “it makes it infinitely more difficult—not impossible, but pretty darn expensive—to remove them. And it has to not only be with cause but with significant cause. Boards and superintendents have to think twice.”
Tenure exists for several solid reasons. Without it, teachers who held political views different from the administration’s would be vulnerable to firing, for example. And teachers without tenure would be less willing to teach creatively or to tackle controversial subjects. Without tenure, too, there could be pressure on teachers to pass undeserving students, particularly if they were related to someone influential in the community.
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But there are dangers in the tenure policy, too. “Where else in the world can you work only for three years and then have that kind of job security for the rest of your life?” asks Mount Pleasant School Board President Francine Aloi. “I would like to see teachers re-assessed maybe every five years. Students are held accountable every single day in the classroom and I think teachers need to be accountable, too. Good teachers would welcome that because they have nothing to be afraid of.”
Tenure is a requirement under State education law, so it’s not likely anything will happen soon to change it. However, the State has taken other steps to improve the quality of instruction our kids get. New York now requires all teachers hired after 2004 to receive a minimum of 175 hours of continuing education every five years as a condition of certification. Many districts in the County already use some form of outside in-service training like the Scarsdale Teachers Institute, which provides professional development classes often taught by other teachers. Others conduct training during faculty meetings and most give teachers tuition reimbursement or financial incentives for compiling continuing education credits.
All teachers also are required by New York law to have (or be working on) a master’s degree as a condition of permanent certification, so most Westchester districts score high in that department. But Stanford University’s Erik Hanushek, the author of 14 books on the economics of education, reports, “Perhaps most remarkable is the finding that a master’s degree has no systematic relationship to teacher quality as measured by student outcomes.”
Dr. Terranova agrees, to a point, but argues, “Instead of the old master’s degree in secondary education, we’re looking for people to get advanced degrees in their content area. That’s indicative of scholarship. I know an art teacher who got a master’s outside her field in anthropology that brought different things to the art class. We want there to be a direct relationship to what they’re studying and what they’re teaching.”
Something else that tenure encourages is length of service, which is another area of some disagreement. “There isn’t a direct correlation between years of service and success in the classroom,” says Briarcliff High School Principal Jim Kaishian. “If you have five to ten years’ experience as a teacher, you know what you need to be remarkably successful. After ten years, there is very little you’re going to learn on the job that will inform your practice. In fact, past ten years, there are fewer incentives to continue to grow professionally.”
Still, Edgemont’s Friedman says, “Length of service is almost always good. I can’t imagine a time when turnover would be a good thing.” About 12 percent of Westchester high school teachers leave each year according to State records, a figure consistent with the national average of 13.2 percent.
Most teachers are in it for the long haul, which probably is good for our kids. Teachers like Yonkers High School’s Brigid McMasters are able to excite students about less-than-enthralling subjects like the Wilmot Proviso and the Ostend Manifesto because they love their work. “Teaching is not a job; it’s an avocation,” the 23-year-veteran says. “It’s a calling. It can’t be measured by the amount of work and hours and statistics.”
That’s why Elmsford’s Alexander Hamilton Principal Marc Baiocco finds his teachers at school at all hours. “If you go to the cafeteria at 7:30 in the morning, you’ll see four or five teachers sitting at tables with groups of kids,” he says proudly. “That’s where a great deal of relationship building takes place.”
As Blind Brook’s Stark says, “Teachers see themselves as having an awesome responsibility. Parents are models, too, but teachers have taken on a greater role as models in our society. Teachers are the gatekeepers of civilization.”
Dave Donelson’s high school career may have occurred in the Paleozoic Era, but he still remembers several outstanding teachers.
[My Favorite Teacher]
We Called Him by His First Name
Alan Shapiro, New Rochelle High School
He was a small man, runner-thin, and plagued by flaky, psoriatic skin. When excited, which was often, his blink rate escalated behind his round metal-framed glasses, though he always remained coiled in his seat at the head of the chair circle. Though ostensibly an English teacher, Alan’s passion was for ancient Greek art, history, and literature. Under his guidance, his students read unexpurgated Plato and Aristophanes—and no one ever sniggered at the dirty parts, of which there were many. I do remember some teasing when studying Alan’s wife’s slides of ancient Greek architecture, in which the documentary, sun-drenched pictures invariably featured a tiny, simian Alan standing in “for scale.”
Yes, Alan, his wife, chair circles, and ancient dirty parts—all for slouchy 16-year-old students at New Rochelle High School. I was lucky to have benefitted from a 15-year experiment in which the district-funded “3-Is Program“(the letters stood for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study) offered a challenge to the educational grind house of the regular high school experience. Alan designed the 3-I concept in collaboration with NYU education professor Neil Postman, with the goal to develop a model “school without walls” that eliminated grades, required courses, and required times of attendance. We earned credit in long, two-hour classes, unhurried by shrieking bells, where we sat in loose circles that offered no shelter at the back of the room. We argued and wrote essays, essays, and more essays—all sharply critiqued by Alan in red pen—with tiny, grudgingly positive checkmarks and long, deflating final analyses. Though casual about attendance, Alan was a killer about teenage bloviation. His discipline made my transition to college almost effortless and has lasted for my entire life.
He Quoted The Simpsons
Brian Gutherman, Ardsley High School
Mr. Gutherman (no matter how many years have passed, it remains impossible to address former teachers by their first names) is a Westchester native, but I never would have guessed that as a 15-year-old in my freshmen Intensive Writing Seminar. Whenever he gave us brief glimpses into his life before teaching, it always sounded so worldly: he lived out in Los Angeles tutoring starlets, he produced TV series at Nickelodeon, he worked at a store that sold African art, he raised a Boxer puppy that he swore had a 28-word vocabulary (understanding words in English and Spanish).
Now that I’m roughly the age that Mr. Gutherman was when he was my teacher, I have no idea how he managed to cram all those life experiences in—then decide that the best way to use them was in the classroom, back near the neighborhood where he grew up. He managed to tell a crazy anecdote about his past, mix it with commentary about the previous week’s episode of The Simpsons or Seinfeld, and somehow build a lesson plan around it all that made us all better writers. Sure, he had the boundless energy, passion, intelligence, and stubborn and frustrating resistance to grade inflation that make all good teachers. But I’ve never met anyone who just enjoyed being a teacher the way Mr. Gutherman did, and, in turn, he made it a pleasure to be taught.
And, later, I went on to become a writer of sorts—so I guess whatever he did worked.