Friday, June 23, 2006

PESPD'S Myth #5: The Key Factor in Any Classroom Is the Quality of the Teacher

First of all, let me make it perfectly clear that this is not a cop-out. I do think teachers are very important, and I also think we should be more accountable than we are. But I have had classes where good things consistently happened throughout the entire school year, and I've had other classes where I've felt like we've accomplished very little. Since I am the same teacher in these different classes, how can the results be so different?

My reason for writing this post is not to say that teachers don't matter, but to say that there is another factor that is also extremely important in determining the amount of learning in a classroom. At least at the high school level, I believe this factor is even more important than the teacher. This factor is consistently ignored by critics of public education, and worse yet, by those who make policy. In fact, I can't recall ever having heard this factor discussed in any articles or books I've read or TV programs I've watched on the subject of education. The factor I am talking about is the make up of the students in a classroom and the effect they have on each other.

A typical classroom would consist of some highly motivated students, some apathetic students and possibly a disruptive one or two, and a bunch of kids who are somewhere in between. Show me a classroom with a higher than average number of motivated students, and I will show you a classroom where a lot of learning is taking place. And I am not just talking about the learning by the motivated students; I'm also talking about the learning by the other kids who are fortunate enough to be in that particular classroom. On the other hand, show me a class with a higher than average number of apathetic students, or maybe just a couple of really disruptive ones, and I'll show you a classroom where we're lucky if any learning is taking place at all.

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a biology teacher from a neighboring school district, and he told me an interesting story. He had four biology classes, and at the beginning of the year. He told me his third hour class was his best, and his sixth hour class was unquestionably his worst. At the semester break, three kids from his sixth hour class transferred into his third hour, and the two classes completely reversed themselves. The third hour class became his worst, and his sixth hour class became his best. Here is a situation where we have the same teacher teaching the same content in the same school, but all it took was three kids out of one class an into another to completely change the dynamics of those two classes. And please don't assume that this happened because this guy was a poor teacher. He is excellent, and is one of the most charismatic teachers that I know.

This happens because most students are like I was--not overly motivated, but not really what you would call apathetic, either. They're somewhere in the middle, and they are willing to go along with the pack. Put that middle-of-the-roader into a good class, and that student will become a pretty good student, too. He wants to fit in and be like the rest of the kids, so he doesn't want to be the only one who hasn't done his homework, and he doesn't want to have the lowest score on a test. But put that student into a classroom where there are enough kids who simply want to screw around, and he can become a real pain in the class himself. And believe me, I am speaking from first hand experience!

Some would probably still argue that the quality of the teacher is the most important factor in a classroom, but I think anyone would agree that the make up of the students is very important. But look at what public policy has done and is doing regarding that. Through court decisions and legislation, we've made it nearly impossible for teachers to remove apathetic and disruptive students from their classrooms. Now, legislation is encouraging homeschooling and there are more and more public officials pushing for vouchers. In other words, now we are encouraging some of our most motivated students to leave. I can't imagine a better course if we want to destroy public education. And I'm afraid that's exactly what some people would like to do.


Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6/23/2006 12:02 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

As I read your myths series, I am seeing a recurring theme - the prevalence of unmotivated and disruptive students in public schools.

I'd be the last person to disagree with you on the impact that disruptive students have on the classroom. However, ineffective teachers can impede learning, at the very least, and disengage students altogether at its worst. Most teachers are absolutely wonderful. Still, in my humble opinion, districts could do a better job of ridding the profession of teachers who are lacking in skills and don't care - and those lacking in enthusiasm. Studies show a direct correlation to student achievement and teacher quality.

I've seen teachers walk into a classroom and disengage students on the first day because they had their minds made up about the students before they even got to know them. These same teachers then wonder why student outcomes are low in their classes and the kids become disenchanted or disruptive. Of course, these teachers blame the students.

Research shows that children in large urban and/or low-income districts have a disproportionate of teachers who lack experience. Many of these teachers also are not certified in the areas in which they are teaching. There are many articles and research stories on the subject of teacher quality.

I highly recommend reading a fact sheet on the topic. The publication, a PDF document covering No Child Left Behind, is produced by The Education Trust. Page eight specifically talks about NCLB's concept behind the need for "highly qualified" teachers.

Education Week also has a report online. To read it, click here or here.

6/23/2006 12:41 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

DCS, thank you for commenting on my posts. Our philosophies are anything but identical, but I really find the diagogue we've been having enjoyable and challenging.

Actually the recurring theme that I have is the main subject of this post: the importance of the make-up of the students in a classroom and a school. You are right, though. One side of that is that I believe teachers and schools must be given the power to deal effectively with disruptive and apathetic students. As I've said before, however, I really believe that if we had that power, we wouldn't have to use it very often, and the tactics that you favor for dealing with those kids would be more effective. But I believe just as strongly that it's critical that public schools hang on to our motivated kids, and I'll be writing more about that in the next week or so.

The other major reform I believe public schools need is to give principals the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of their seniority, and to get rid of their worst ones. I don't hammer on this one nearly as much as I do the other, because I don't have to. There are enough other people hammering on it. As I said in my post, I don't think there are as many incompetent teachers as our critics do, but I want to get rid of them, too. I also think that there are too many teachers who never get as good as they could because they feel safe.

Finally, I want to address your point about low income schools having less experienced and less qualified teachers. Part of the problem is probably that they don't pay as much. I'm not going to deny that. But I also believe another part of that problem is the make-up of the students. Part of that might be racial; I can't deny that either. But I think even more of it is that the typical teacher, rightly or wrongly, sees these schools as having a lot of kids who are very hard to control. Most teachers want to have a good chance at succeeding in their job, and they don't want to go into a situation where the chances are high that they'll fail. You might think that a good teacher would want to teach in a tough school because that's where they could really make a difference. Some actually do take this approach, but they are definitely in the minority. So unfortunately, I'm afraid that inner-city schools often end up with some teachers who are there only because they couldn't get jobs anywhere else.

I hope I haven't offended you with this response; I'm trying to be as honest as I can.

6/23/2006 4:11 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

Two years ago, I would have argued to the death with you about your assertion that excellent teachers can have "bad" classes. Then I had that class. At the beginning of the year I did everything short of standing on my head for those kids and nothing worked. By the end of the year, I fear I was part of the problem. It was Dysfunction Junction. And then there were the days that the two worst offenders were absent, or more likely, suspended. It was like a completely different class. I think that actually made my year worse, knowing that two kids were doing that much damage to the education of other kids. Unfortunately, in the sixth grade, alternative school is not going to be offered unless something big, horrid and drastic occurs.

My first year was hard, really hard, but last year was by far the worst. I spent a lot of time crying and worrying about the kids that year. It didn't help that the parents, in the worst cases, without fail sided with their children, no matter the offense and let the kids know how stupid, irresponsible, racist, and out-to-get-them the teachers were. Good times.

There is something else to think about when comparing teachers at high-poverty schools to those that have more resources. My school is about 50-55% free and reduced lunch. For the most part we have some great teachers, which means that they know their content, they understand the kids and like where they are.

This year we had a teacher who was a wonderful man. He knew his content better than any other person at the school - including the curriculum head of the subject. His classroom was set up to encourage inquiry and made me want to sit down and listen to him teach.

He was a disaster at our school.

Our kids are, let's say...a challenge. I love them to teeny, tiny little pieces. You have to learn how to do a dance with these kids - there are boundaries and they have to learn them - but there are different ways of going about teaching those boundaries. It took a long time for me to learn not to get into a power struggle with these kids, I always lost, even when I won.

This teacher, who was not asked back, will be a wonderful teacher for a different group of kids. If I were to go into an environment where the school was different than mine, I'm not sure how I'd do.

Part of being a teacher is finding a school that matches your strengths and complements (or mitigates) your weaknesses. Not every teacher will do well at every school.

Without a doubt, the ability to move disruptive students would improve the education of many students.

6/23/2006 7:31 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

I've already made my opinion known about disruptive students, mean and violent ones...not simply hyperactive ones, so I won't bore you again with that. While one or two disrupters can change the entire dynamic of a classroom a teacher who has poor people skills, poor management skills, and poor content knowledge can be just as disasterous, and just as defeating when you are on the same team.

6/23/2006 8:45 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Dennis, first of all, thanks for posting the comment on my blog. I appreciate it and will comment.

But let me respond to you here first. You are right on many counts, especially about the makeup of the classroom. I think it's unfair to subject any teacher to a group of disruptive students. But, then, as we know, life is not fair. Nevertheless, your idea - studying best practices in classroom makeup -would make for a great research project. Have you considered it?

I liked the story you told about the teacher who switched disruptive students from 6th hour to 3rd hour. That was an excellent, timely experiment.

I agree 100% in empowering principals. In fact, I believe that principals should be freed up from minutia so that they can concentrate on being instructional leaders.

I also agree about hanging onto motivated students. Public schools have lost so many students to private and religious schools, as well as to other educational alternatives.

By the way, I have said many times that I think most teachers are wonderful. The incompetent ones are a minority, but I think the minority is significant enough for districts to demonstrate leadership and provide additional training to teachers open to it. Those who resist professional development and continue to perform poorly should be let go - period.

When it comes to districts who serve majority populations of low-income students, I can only speak to districts in the St. Louis area, where I live. These districts tend to pay teachers higher salaries than the norm because it's difficult for these districts to attract quality teachers and administrators.

I could say a lot more about school districts serving low-income populations, but there is not enough space here.

I am not the least bit offended by your comments. There is much truth in what you say. And you've certainly generated some great responses by others.

Think about that research project and let us know when you begin. :-)

6/23/2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Portable Princess, I was really struck by your comment. I think you're right about different teachers being able to fit into different schools, but I also think you might be selling yourself short. I have a very good reputation in my school, but if I came to your school, I might just end up like the gentleman you described. On the other hand, I think you'd do just fine in mine. From what you describe, I think it takes a very special teacher to be able to make a difference in a school like yours. Some people think that teachers are overpaid, but I think I'm worth what I'm making. You, however, like Anonymous Teacher, are probably worth your weight in gold.

EHT, you never bore me! In fact, I think I identify more with you than any other blogger. I agree completely with what you say about poor teachers. My point in this post was to point out the importance of the make up of the students in a classroom because I think it has been almost completely ignored in most discussions on education.

DCS, your very impressive knowledge base from the research studies and articles you've read always makes me feel a little guilty about how unimpressive mine is. Now you want me to conduct research myself! Yikes!!!

6/24/2006 4:39 AM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Yep, Dennis, I want you to conduct your own research. I think you're up to the task.

Let's make a deal. When your study is complete, I'll help you promote the findings and set up your media interviews. I'll also help you market the follow-up book. Of course, you'll have to set aside some time for the book tour, too. ;-)

6/24/2006 12:34 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

Dennis, thanks again for the kind words, but I must set the record straight. :) I think one of my strengths is that I know what my weaknesses are.

My strength is finding the student who has the capabilities, but has never had the passion for school (really, history, but that's because I'm a big ole dork) and building the confidence needed to showcase their capabilities.

My weaknesses are many, but there's one that stands above all the rest. I desperately need to improve when it comes to kids who struggle in school, those who are prone to giving up.

There comes a point where I just can't be the only one caring any more. I don't know how to motivate a truly struggling student - the one for whom school has been a struggle since the first day he/she walked through the door. Give me a kid who has checked out of school because he's bored and that's my schtick.

So many things go in to being a successful teacher. When I sit down to think about all of the things that go in to being a successful teacher I often marvel that I see successful teachers more than dismal ones.

Having a positive relationship with your students is key. I think about the teacher I mentioned earlier. So smart, but with plenty of disdain for the students. Kids know if you care. They knew he didn't because he showed them in a million little ways that he didn't.

Lastly...I don't think I'd do well in an affluent school. I'm not willing to negotiate every last half point, which is what goes on in the affluent districts around me. I wish I had more parental support and participation, but I'm glad the bickering over half points is just not an issue.

6/24/2006 7:28 PM  

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