The difficulty of defining what a ‘good’ teacher is

The latest federally orchestrated attempt to close the achievement gap between public school students from low-income families and those from middle- or upper-class homes mandates that all school districts submit to the Department of Education, by May, plans outlining how their best teachers will be assigned to schools with the highest percentages of low-income students. The most daunting of the many challenges associated with such plans will be establishing an accurate and equitable means of identifying the “best” teachers.

How are we doing that now?

Short answer: We don’t.

Some contend that the classroom success of all teachers is heavily dependent upon their years of teaching experience, their track record of year-end standardized test scores and the number of degrees or related professional certifications they hold: master’s degrees, Ph.Ds, National Board Certifications. While those are contributing factors, the making of good teachers starts well before any of that comes into play; it starts with the reasons teachers choose to become teachers in the first place.

First-year teachers who love working with kids and are determined to make positive differences in their students’ lives are already better teachers than those with double decades of experience who merely need a job or are marking time until retirement.

Excitement, enthusiasm and positive energy are more essential characteristics for good teaching than is extensive experience accumulated in the absence of those qualities.

Good teachers, through advanced degrees and professional certifications, can get better by developing their intrinsic talents for the craft. On the other hand, good teachers can also become bad teachers through a loss of dedication and determination, no matter their credentials. But bad teachers can never become good or become good again if they lack or have lost the “it” factor so critical to effective teaching. It’s a factor that must be witnessed, felt, experienced in a classroom to be understood, yet even then one can’t describe it to others.

No profession is more maligned than public school education, and no professionals are more scrutinized than teachers, even though so few of their critics bother to take or make time to experience teachers – good or bad – plying their trade or, in the case of good teachers, working their magic.

Criticism by politicians, news media, special-interest groups notwithstanding, teachers are being increasingly criticized by overly involved parents who hover and hinder rather than help with their children’s education process. Nonetheless, good teachers prefer such ongoing parental interaction to the emotionally charged outbursts leveled at them by parents who rarely involve themselves at school and only then when their children have been disciplined.

Despite all the scrutiny, criticism and judgment of teachers, the fact remains that – due in large part to a lack of critically important input from students and parents – no fair and effective mechanism exists for adequately evaluating teachers.

Currently, teachers are obligatorily and cursorily observed by their principals, for about 30 minutes, once a quarter, who then “evaluate” them using the latest-and-greatest, check-the-boxes, impersonal online assessment tools, the results of which have little, if any, effect on teachers’ careers, and none on their incomes.

In the absence of structured career paths or the possibility of merit pay raises, what is the practical upside of being a good teacher? Conversely, in the absence of any threat of retribution or possibility of termination, what is the downside of being a bad teacher?

When devising a teacher evaluation system that will reveal the true goodness, badness or mediocrity of all classroom teachers, we must accept that teachers who are doing ineffective jobs will – with ardent support from teachers’ unions and lobbying groups – oppose it, whereas good teachers will welcome the change.

The outcomes of any evaluation system must have consequences – both positive and negative. If North Carolina had in place such a system, all teachers would not be getting an average raise of 7 percent.

To be usefully valid, assessments of teachers must include regularly scheduled formal evaluations by all students in middle and high schools, as well as by their parents. At the elementary school level, only parents would be surveyed.

Of course, there will always be students and parents who flavor their teacher surveys with bias, emotion and personal agendas based upon the personality and personal style of individual teachers, but those will be easily recognizable as outliers.

Armed with the summaries of student/parent surveys and standardized test scores, plus the outcomes of their personal observations of their faculty members, principals could conduct comprehensive and meaningful appraisals of each teacher’s overall job performance.

Now, the bad news: Once ineffective teachers are culled, the Law of Unintended Consequences will engage and the existing shortage of viable teacher candidates for our public schools will intensify – but that is a topic for another day. Yesterday.

Bill Massey of Raleigh is a retired teacher and principal.