Martinez: Teaching makes the difference

August 22, 2012 

What leads to a high-performing school – the teachers or the students?

To my surprise, some educators don’t believe it’s the teachers.

I found this out listening to an educator, Wake County school board member (and N.C. State chemistry professor) Jim Martin. In justifying his vote against the district’s strategic plan last week, Martin explained his view:

“As a teacher clearly noted to me last week, some of the high-performing schools are high performing largely because of the students that are assigned to the school. It’s not that they don’t have good leadership, but the leadership is not what creates the major differential in the high performance or not, whereas there are some of our low-performing schools where the leadership both at the administrative and the teaching level is fantastic. They don’t need more central office oversight.”

So quality leadership is not necessarily a difference maker and a low-performing school can have fantastic leadership regardless of student performance. If this is the prevailing view of some educators, then we need new definitions of effectiveness.

To be clear, Martin’s remarks were specifically aimed at a district program in which low-performing schools would receive more central office staff oversight and high-achieving schools would earn more autonomy. Martin thinks it should be the other way around. He’s also not a fan of paying teachers based on student academic achievement. He argues there’s no statistical evidence that it works, and once implemented it creates more problems than it’s worth. Fellow board members Christine Kushner and Susan Evans concurred with Martin.

Martin’s remarks have me wondering just how much value some educators think a teacher adds to the classroom.

Understand, I don’t expect teachers to be miracle workers who turn every ill-prepared student into an Einstein. But I do think it’s reasonable to ask educators to have more than a “garbage-in, garbage out” mentality when it comes to student achievement. As American students fall further behind their counterparts in the developed world, I can’t help but think a primary cause is the incessant desire of U.S. educators to separate their professional performance from the academic performance of their students.

Contrast Martin’s remarks to the education principles practiced in Singapore and Finland, whose students rank No. 1 and 3 in the world, respectively, in reading, math and science according to the U.N.’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (PISA Survey).

The two countries have vastly different educational systems. Singapore’s is highly centralized. Finland reformed its ill-performing system in the 1980s, giving its municipalities more control.

What Singapore and Finland have in common, however, is teacher quality, which is central to both. Training at Singapore’s National Institute of Education is restricted to students who graduate in the top third of their class. In Finland, every teacher must have at least a master’s degree. Landing a seat in a Finnish school of education is more difficult than getting into medical or law school.

New teachers are heavily mentored in both countries and all classroom teachers receive some form of peer review and evaluation throughout their careers. In Singapore, a teacher’s performance is appraised annually on multiple measures, including collaboration with parents and community groups and contribution to the school as a whole. Each school has a fund to reward outstanding teachers with bonuses.

Singapore also offers its teachers 100 hours of professional development, while Finland has, for a long time, invested in educational research that can be applied directly in the classroom.

Most important, both countries regard teachers as a national resource, not mere educational bystanders.

Let’s face it, many people in this country get into education as a matter of social service. Education doesn’t need more social workers. We need results-oriented leaders, administrators and teachers who believe that the only sin more grave than saddling students with low expectations is to expect even less from themselves.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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