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Defining the good teacher

We've all had good teachers. We've all bad teachers. But trying to sort good from bad in any kind of objective way is as prickly as it gets.

In recent months, the St. Petersburg Times has published a series of stories on teacher quality. And judging by the passionate responses of hundreds of readers, the issue has touched a chord.

There is no single way to define teacher quality. There certainly isn't an easy way to do it. And there are plenty of questions about who should do it.

Even if we answer those questions, tougher ones await: What do we do with the results? Pay more to those who measure up? Fire those who don't? Keep the best teachers in the best schools? Assign them to the worst?

There is no consensus on these things. But at the same time, it's clear why education researchers are having raging debates about them, and why policymakers are tinkering with merit pay.

We know some teachers are better than others. We know bad teachers are hard to fire. And we know the overwhelming evidence suggests poor schools have fewer good teachers than wealthier ones.

Above all else, we know this: Teachers matter.

Excellence in the spray zone

To get through to her fifth-graders, Margo Evancho will do just about anything. Rap. Dance. Even scream. On a recent morning, the 12-year veteran at Melrose Elementary, a predominantly black school in the heart of St. Petersburg's Midtown area, called 18 of them to the front, where they gathered at her feet like ducklings to mama.

"Thank you for backing up out of the spray zone," she said, waving them back a foot or two. They giggled. And then Evancho cranked her lesson full blast and screamed:

"AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!"

The kids squealed. "Oh, Jesus!" one said.

Evancho, 39, let the adrenalin ebb for a second, but stayed on beat: "You guys just did what I wanted. You demonstrated . . ." She paused to point to two words on the marker board: Cause. Effect. Then she wrote, "When Mrs. Evancho screamed, Daiquana shouted, 'Oh, Jesus.' " The kids giggled some more.

Cause. Effect. Lesson learned.

You can see it in the kids' eyes: They're into this. And maybe there's no better way than that to judge whether Evancho is a good teacher.

But in the world of education, that's no longer enough.

The big difference

All kinds of factors play into whether a child succeeds. What happens to him at home is profound. I have yet to talk to anybody who cares about teacher quality who dismisses that.

But it's also undeniable that teachers make a big difference.

Reputable research has found all of the following: Students with not-so-good teachers can lose a year's worth of knowledge in a single year. Students who have the best teachers three years in a row make twice the progress of students who have the worst teachers. High-poverty students who begin elementary school behind their more affluent peers catch up by middle school if they get top teachers throughout.

(Granted, those gains and losses are based on standardized test scores. So if you think standardized tests are imperfect but useful, read on. If you think they're utterly bogus, resume griping.)

Reputable researchers also say this: When it comes to in-school variables for student achievement, nothing matters more than teachers. In fact, teachers are far more important to a student's success than, say, the modest reductions in class size we're spending billions on in Florida.

But . . . we already knew this, didn't we? Most of us had rocking teachers who made learning fun. Most of us had duds who bored us to tears. We didn't need "metrics" to tell us the difference.

Yet, in education, we talk about everything except teachers.

Since 2002, the year the class-size amendment was on the ballot, Florida newspapers have collectively run more than 4,000 stories about it. In the past decade, they've published a dozen stories about teacher transfers.

Not one of those stories analyzed the extent to which teachers were fleeing high-poverty schools until the Times did two months ago. We found more than 60 percent of them were doing so. And in Pinellas, far more said in their transfer requests that they wanted to. Think about the repercussions of that as they accumulate, year after year.

We know those veteran teachers are being replaced with rookies. We know those rookies are typically not as good. We know, then, that the students in those schools are being shortchanged. In Pinellas, all this takes on even more urgency as schools rapidly resegregate.

So, why do we just pretend it's not happening? Or worse, continue to feed the King Kong of story lines in the debate over schools — that it's all the parents' fault?

That's not to say absent parents aren't a big part of the problem. Or that there aren't good reasons why teachers leave high-poverty schools. Or that those schools don't still have top-notch, don't-stop-til-they-find-a-way teachers.

But the tangled reality is that in many high-poverty schools, AWOL parents and subpar teachers — or, more accurately, a system that puts them there — have become partners in a vicious cycle. And we're all swirling down the tubes with it.

Another good teacher

Another classroom, another gaggle of kids at a teacher's feet.

Karen Ramlackhan, tall and trim, reads A Tour of the Planets to 17 third-graders with a United Nations range of skin tones. She's soft-spoken but her kids still sit rapt. After every few sentences, she pauses for questions.

"Why is it so hot on Mercury?"

"Why is Saturn beautiful?"

Every time, arms shoot up.

On the surface, Ramlackhan (pronounced rom-LOCK-in) couldn't be more different than Evancho at Melrose. She doesn't rap or dance, at least not at Clark Elementary in immaculately mowed New Tampa. And rather than a premeditated scream, she's more likely to hold her kids' attention with a raised eyebrow (for emphasis), a slightly curled-up mouth (for that's weird) or a simple, sincere "sweetheart."

Their schools couldn't be more different either. Clark is half white, with nearly equal parts black, Hispanic and Asian, while Melrose is increasingly black. At Clark, 19 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch; at Melrose, 81 percent are. Clark earned an A from the state this year (its seventh in a row). Melrose got a C.

Still, the two teachers have this in common: Their kids are engaged.

Ramlackhan, 28, credits her focus on the whole child, on caring as much about whether a kid is raising his hand enough as whether his test scores are up. She specializes in students with disabilities, so lessons like following directions, not disrupting others — they're fundamental when it comes to preparing them for success. "It isn't just about academics," she said.

Evancho, on the other hand, calls herself a chameleon. Her outsized personality allows her to say things like "don't hate the player, hate the game" to black kids without sounding cornball. But it's not just charisma and blending. As part of the cause-and-effect lesson, she directed her students to show subject mastery with a project. Some put together power points. Some came up with musical raps. Some did skits.

Of course, lots of teachers do these things. So who's better?

By one measure, Ramlackhan is. Her students made some of the biggest gains in the state last year on the FCAT in reading. And for that, she was one of 85 teachers honored in Orlando last month by a Jeb Bush education foundation.

Foundation officials say student test scores are the most objective way to figure out which teachers are tops, and they're not alone. (Evancho, by the way, earned a merit bonus in Pinellas two years ago, in part, because her kids made big FCAT gains.)

But even researchers who believe teacher quality is critical say we're not there yet. We just haven't developed statistical techniques that are exact enough to tell us how much one teacher contributed to one kid's test score, separate from all the other variables in the mix.

So, test scores aren't perfect. But what is?

Experience and degree level? For decades, teachers have been paid more money based on how long they've been teaching, and what level of academic degree they hold. The implication: The more experience, the more education, the better. And yet, research shows no correlation between degree level and student achievement, and not much correlation between experience and achievement beyond a teacher's first few years.

National board certification? Since 1998, Florida has spent a half-billion dollars on big bonuses for a tiny minority of teachers who go through a rigorous process for national certification. Those teachers are widely considered the best, yet there is a lively debate about them, too. Down-and-dirty state rankings compiled for the Jeb foundation awards showed most board-certified teachers are above average. But a third were below average.

Principal evaluations? Plenty of researchers say the formal ones are useless. The evaluation forms tend to be quickie checklists that include things like effective planning and classroom management, but not measurable student progress. And they almost always result in high marks. One theory why: Telling the truth about a bad teacher makes it harder to get them transferred to another school.

On my desk there's a stack of personnel files, including one for a retired Pinellas teacher who reportedly got angry and slammed a door on the hand of a kindergarten student, severing a tendon. In the previous six years, principals had written up this teacher 10 times for problems on the job, including excessive force with students. And yet, two weeks after the door-slam, the principal wrote in the evaluation that the teacher "meets expectations" and "strives to show professional growth."

"Improvement over last year!" the principal wrote.

Teacher quality

In the past three months, the Times has found national board-certified teachers clumped in wealthy schools, highlighted how many rookies are in poor ones and even did something no researcher had done before: Look at the location of teachers sanctioned by the state for misconduct. More of them were in high-poverty schools.

The needles on just about every other gauge of teacher quality point the same way. Poor schools are more likely to have more substitute teachers, more teachers who aren't certified in the subjects they're teaching and more teachers who flunked easy-as-pie certification exams.

Maybe, because we don't have absolute proof, those teachers are as good as all the rest. But a rational person can't be blamed for having doubts.

Consider this, too: Education experts say poor schools are more likely to have incompetent teachers who won't or can't be fired, and who filter down through transfers from wealthier schools. It's impossible to put a number on them. But the phenomenon happens often enough that researchers have a name for it: The Dance of the Lemons.

Two months ago, I interviewed Cooper Dawson, the principal at 74th Street Elementary, another high-poverty school in St. Petersburg. She has nine rookie teachers — a quarter of her staff — but she's thrilled. Because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, she was allowed to reinterview every one of her teachers and "let go" the ones who were "not a good fit." In other words, the ones she didn't want teaching at her school.

Dawson called it "the opportunity of a lifetime."

Why? Because principals can't just fire ineffective teachers. They may know who's good and who's not. But they're hamstrung by district rules, hammered out with unions, that require painstaking documentation for ineptitude. Instead of pink slips, they push for transfers.

Who knows? Maybe letting principals do what private-sector bosses do is the best solution to these nagging questions about teacher quality. Maybe letting somebody make the call, knowing it's dependent on lots of factors, and yes, somewhat subjective, is better than trying to cram the complexity of teacher quality into a tiny, tidy box.

Pinellas officials, wading into the debate over site-based management, will be talking about that soon. In the meantime, ask yourself: Where do those let-go teachers end up?

Are they teaching your kids?

And your kids?

In the past four years, I've had the privilege of being in 60 or 70 classrooms. And I'll admit it: I see the world as a reporter and a parent. I ask myself: Would I be happy if my kids were in this classroom?

Most of the time, the answer is yes.

I often think of my own teachers, too — especially the ones willing and able to teach on the wrong side of the tracks. Mrs. Baldwin, Mrs. Godfrey, Mrs. Senn, Mrs. Atwood, Mr. Brockington, Mr. Meece, Ms. Lamb, Mrs. Mincek. I used to hope all kids had teachers as good as them.

Now I just wish they did.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Rookie teachers

Pinellas County schools with the most rookie teachers.

School No. %

poverty*

% minority School grade
74th-Street Elementary 9 80 50 C
John Hopkins Middle School 8 54 61 B
Lakewood High School 8 34 63 D
Gibbs High School 7 49 66 D
Jamerson Elementary 7 64 66 B
Lealman Ave. Elementary 7 79 48 C
Seminole High School 7 14 11 B
Tarpon Springs High School 7 22 19 D
Tyrone Middle School 6 71 58 C
Woodlawn Elementary 5 82 65 D
Azalea Middle School 5 67 49 C
Sanderlin Elementary 5 77 73 C
Maximo Elementary 5 79 83 B
Oak Grove Middle School 5 35 29 A
*Percentage of children eligible for free/reduced-price lunch.

Number of rookie teachers as of Aug. 26; Source: Pinellas County schools

Defining the good teacher 11/22/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 12:32pm]

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