March 8, 2012
One major problem behind the Teacher Data Reports and other forms of test-based teacher evaluations is that they put all of the onus of student performance on teachers.In reality, struggles in school are most often the result of domestic tumult or of any number of poverty-related woes — poor nutrition, unstable housing, or lack of family support. Trouble at home is trouble at home, and it will bring your grades down whether you’re living in the ghetto or the wealthy suburbs. But there’s another universal issue high schools must deal with that is mentioned even less often when education reformers talk about teacher evaluation: Adolescents.
Teenagers are freethinking citizens of the United States who are discovering their growing ability to argue, to think for themselves. If they are not given the opportunity to face the consequences of their own choices, these citizens will not grow up to be the responsible adults we need them to be. Unfortunately, sometimes the consequences include low scores.
I recently witnessed a scene in my school’s main office that reminded me how powerful and necessary it is for the adults in a young person’s life to put the burden of academic responsibility on his shoulders. This scene needs to be shared as badly as any TDR data, lest the notion of the teacher who doesn’t check in with parents — not to mention the stereotype of the parent who doesn’t check on his child — go unchallenged in our city.
As a public school, Kurt Hahn lacks the personnel and after-school hours (let alone the legal prerogative) to truly require anything from parents beyond an emergency contact card. Yet our parents know they are welcome in our doors at any time, and I’ve seen teachers repeatedly drop their prep materials to have the essential conversation with students and parents that puts everyone on the same page about academic progress. This is how I witnessed a student’s freshman year forever change — for better or for worse, of course, is still up to him.
The student — let’s call him Daquane Andrews — had come in with his mother to meet with his math teacher about his low grades in her class. Ms. Andrews repeatedly emphasized how difficult it was to take off work and get to East Flatbush. She was concerned that football practice was taking away from Dequane’s energy level and was becoming an excuse for him to not get his homework done. While she was waiting for his math teacher to arrive, the ninth-grade history teacher, Ms. Blain — who was typing a lesson at one of the office computers and didn’t notice Ms. Andrews — asked Daquane to explain his disruptive behavior in class the day before. The mother picked up on this and inquired for details. When Ms. Blain realized who Ms. Andrews was and that she and Daquane were in the office for an academic conference, she set her work aside and joined them in conversation. The arrival of the math teacher turned the conversation into a dialogue about the student’s general lack of focus and tendency to, as his mother put it, “play middle school games.”
Both teachers heartily refuted reports the boy had given his mother that he was never assigned homework. They supported her suspicion that the behaviors he was exhibiting now would lead not only to irritation from future teachers but failure to prepare adequately for his state exams and for college. The mother asked her son, in front of these teachers and the entire office, if they were going to need to reinstate the homework signature sheet she’d made for his teachers in middle school. She asked him how he could get up at 5 a.m. for football practice but not get his math homework done each night. She told him that if he doesn’t start bringing homework home from math and history every night, she’d make assignments for him herself. Her son listened silently, experiencing not just the gravity and humiliation of the situation but the concern of these three women all talking to him together in an open, familiar room. (Of course, if he’s a healthily egotistical teenager, he was probably too miserable at the idea of losing football to appreciate his luck.)
Which is why the final straw was the entrance of a burly man with a backpack swinging his way to the other side of the counter. The boy’s eyes lit up momentarily, then went dark with mortified fear. “Oh,” the mother pounced immediately. “This must be your football coach.” She proceeded to repeat each of her threats so that the coach would hear them. Her son was officially caught in a stifling wraparound web that would make it quite difficult for him to double-cross these particular adults again. The attendance secretary, who acts as a surrogate grandmother for most students, sat in the corner cluck-clucking about how “these foolish kids don’t know how lucky they are.” She’s right.
I spoke to Ms. Blain later in the week about how striking that scene had been to me. She reported that, sadly, Dequane had still shown up without his homework the next day. Despite her fervor in the office, Ms. Andrews is not home in the afternoons and evenings to reinforce her orders. Daquane’s scores won’t improve just because his mother and teachers have breathed down his neck. They shouldn’t. He is becoming an adult, and perhaps he needs to experience the consequences of his own failure — the loss of opportunity, low scores on state exams, the surpassing performance of his classmates — in order to grow. It’s a teacher’s day (and night) job to teach, but it’s a student’s lifelong job to learn.
Don’t get me wrong—teachers should be evaluated on our progress and held to consistent and high standards. But when the core of our work is growing people who will also one day be held to professional standards, society can’t afford to rest a teacher’s career on student performance. We must find a way to convey the responsibility both teacher and student have in creating a successful education system. We need to harness parent energy in whatever form — at whatever time of day — we can get it. We need to fight the symptoms of poverty that distract so many of our bright young students from their schoolwork. And we need to address — head on and without fear of political finger-pointing — the healthy stubbornness of a confident young adolescent whose leadership and confidence we will need once his math, writing, and reasoning skills are strong enough to give voice to those qualities.