Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Excellent Teaching

Rafe Esquith might be the best teacher in Los Angeles. In any case, he is very likely the only one to have been awarded an honorary membership in the British Empire! So it's important for Angelenos, and for those who seek to honour teachers, that his fate not end up like that of Jaime Escalante.

Escalante, you may recall, was the amazing math teacher at Garfield High School in east Los Angeles who got so many students to pass AP Calculus that the College Board couldn't believe it and forced them all to resit the test, which they did under external scrutiny and performed even better than they had the first time. His success was detailed in a biography by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post that led to Stand and Deliver, a major Hollywood feature. But colleagues grew jealous, and new administrators put pressure on Escalante to conform to their demands, so the non-conformist Escalante left Los Angeles, and Garfield's math program sank back into mediocrity.

Now an energetic new superintendent in Los Angeles is seeking and finding support for a series of well intended reforms, including concerning teacher appraisal. In the name of equity, most such appraisal systems introduce a single set of measures, sometimes quite complex, to appraise all teachers, even throughout a huge and complex system like that of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But there are pitfalls to be avoided.

One might "measure" (the meaning of this word has been metaphorically extended, let's remember) teaching by outputs such as results on external examinations, for example. But this can lead to ridiculous results. My son Ryan, for example, might be given a math test and achieve an advanced rating, and his teacher, whose class he just entered last Thursday, might be given some kind of award. But what the principal or those higher up might not know is that my wife, a math teacher, taught him the whole of sixth grade math during the summer, and is now starting him on algebra (Ryan's still ten), because we would never allow the California (or any other American) math curriculum to control our children's mathematical education. Would you say that his sixth grade teacher at school deserves the credit for his mathematical success? And if I were a teacher being appraised in this manner, my first move would be to connect my students' parents with a good tutoring service; this would likely be a much more profitable use of my time than changing anything I was already doing in class, assuming I was already doing the best I knew.

Okay, so let's not measure teachers by their students' results (which at one level feels unjust anyway: we don't normally judge x on the basis of y's actions). Let's go into the classrooms and judge our teachers by their own, rather than their students', actions. After all, certain behaviors by teachers have been linked with better student performances (usually on tests--and when those tests are quite narrow in subject matter and question type, the advisability of this procedure is greatly diminished), so we might score them highly for demonstrating such behaviors during their teaching.

But hold on, what about Esquith and Escalante, two Es of excellence, both brilliant teachers with long records of outstanding results produced, as nearly as we can tell, through their own rather than someone else's efforts--won't we be in danger of punishing unorthodox, brilliant teaching? Both of these men have been known to be scornful of the standard pedagogical dicta that were attempted forced on them by L.A. Unified administrators; are we sure that we're not about to fall into the same trap here? Can the newly empowered administrators be so confident that they have found the perfect formula to assess all teaching in all grade levels and subjects, even as different as fifth grade classroom teaching and Advanced Placement Calculus, with fairness and accuracy? If they have found such a magic formula, let them produce the evidence they have it; and if they do, why haven't they been applying this special virtue to better students' lives in all venues where they've been before? Perhaps the discovery is new, and has had only limited trials; fair enough, but then let's dial down the confidence factor, and be more humble and honest about the risks involved. And if they don't, we're all at risk.

Of course, doing nothing in such a desperate district as L.A. Unified would be even riskier for hundreds of thousands of students; but I wouldn't want to see a brilliant teacher like Rafe Esquith, or others like him, depart like Jaime Escalante.

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