Question: In your opinion, are teachers in the US given enough latitude to teach effectively?
IDEA (a law for programs for students with disabilities), Title I (a part of a law for programs for economically disadvantaged students), our equal opportunity laws and even, to a certain extent, the No Child Left Behind law, as well as many other laws and influences have created a system that does a good job at providing the basics (except computer basics ) to almost all students. In doing that, we’ve made teachers’ jobs much harder (though it’s worth it). High-stakes testing to meet state standards for education (and also No Child Left Behind requirements) have routinized learning and limited teachers’ flexibility. I’ve observed many classes in which teachers drilled students for the test instead of going on to new learning. However, I’ve also observed classes in which excellent teachers made preparation for the test a meaningful learning experience. Teachers enjoy their jobs less now, or say they do, than in the past when they had more latitude. If I were betting, I’d bet that students enjoy classes less now, too, because of the emphasis on drill and practice. I’m torn on this question. There are some teachers who would do less well in preparing students if they didn’t have tests to make them accountable for their students’ performance. Many teachers would do better if they taught what and how their best thinking suggests, rather than trying to focus on the state tests. (That was kind of a weaseling, nonanswer, wasn’t it!)
Question: In your view, where should one draw the line in terms of responsibility between teachers and parents?
Dr. Pendarvis: Generally, parents recognize that they are the only ones to hold their child’s best interests uppermost in their minds. Teachers must keep the entire class’s interests uppermost in their minds. Principals, the entire school’s interests, etc. Some parents think they should leave their children’s education entirely to the professionals. Probably, most of middle-class children will do all right (but not great) under that kind of approach. The children who do best, however, are those whose parents are actively involved in their child’s education and who demonstrate that interest to the teachers. One parent I was talking to recently demanded that her child be taken out of the low-achieving reading group. Her child had a 94%ile score on the standardized reading test, but was still placed in the lowest reading class. Some parents wouldn’t have understood the discrepancy between the test score and the child’s placement in a reading group. This woman knew enough to know something was wrong and to act on that knowledge. The school refused to change the placement until she threatened to call the news media (she and her daughter are African Americans). The child was moved to a higher reading class. This is an extreme example, of course. But it is fairly common for students who are poor or different in some way to be placed in a low group for math or reading. That is a sure road to low-achievement for students that may be average or gifted in their abilities. Usually, I’ve worked with parents of gifted childern whose children were kept out of advanced classes or not allowed to accelerate beyond their age level to higher grade levels. These parents sometimes met little resistance and sometimes a lot. When they were able to succeed, their success often helped other bright children because what the school does for one child, they often have to do for another if that child is in similar circumstances. Teachers’ training seldom provides adequate instruction in the needs of high-achieving students, so parents who understand their children’s abilities often, in my opinion, need to step in to advocate for their child. As I mentioned, doing so often helps not only their child but others as well.
Question: How should parents and students themselves be made accountable?
Dr. Pendarvis: Again, how parents and students behave is so much an expression of our culture that I don’t expect that they’ll behave very differently from those around them. However, ideally, parents will model for their children the importance of learning in order to have a full, productive, and happy life. They’ll not only read to them, but show an interest in the children’s opinions and ideas. They’ll provide as much enrichment as possible, through books, art, music, games, and trips. They’ll demonstrate the importance of school by visiting the school, supporting school projects, taking interest in the child’s schoolwork, and helping the child to learn how to learn. Of course by helping the child develop good study habits, no matter how bright they are. Parents should show respect for learning, for ideas, and for people charged with their child’s education. When they disagree with the schools’ decisions, they should not be afraid to say so, to the school or to their child but should always speak respectfully of the school and acknowledge that there are several perspectives in any case. With gifted children, parents may be the only ones who recognize that all children should be given the opportunity to fail. We learn more from mistakes than from things we do right. If children make A’s without having to work, they are being done a disservice and will suffer for it by learning poor study habits and by becoming vain (and thus ill-suited to trying difficult things). I don’t think I can give a very good answer about holding students accountable. Students’ accountability opens up a big topic. I think I can only say that with children we are the ones who are most accountable. How we structure home and school is the biggest determinant in how they will perform. Of course we have to keep children from hurting each other and from distracting others from learning. A harder thing is to keep them from hurting themselves through underachievement.
Question: What is the best way to measure a teachers’ actual performance, where everyone (parents, teachers) can be happy with?
Dr. Pendarvis: These questions are all hard ones! Probably the best way to assess a teacher’s actual performance overall is through “triangulation.” By observing them and comparing their practices to those that research demonstrates as effective (such as time on task, which was mentioned recently on a Fool’s Mountain blog), by looking at their students’ performance on tests relative to the performance of similar students (and/or relative to that group of students’ performance in previous grades), and by surveying students. The last part is seldom done in K-12 education. It might even sound silly, but we take children’s opinions too lightly (in my opinion). One thing I’ve found often is that the teacher is, in a sense, a different teacher to every child in his/her class. A teacher may be bad for two or three students and good for everyone else, or vice versa. This isn’t a conscious choice on the teacher’s part, but just results from the interactions between the qualities of the teacher and the qualities of the children.
This concludes the survey. Many thanks to Dr. Pendarvis for her insights, and the time she spent in answering these questions.