SCARBOROUGH – Though certainly interesting and noteworthy, the works cited by Ron Bancroft in two recent columns are very small and highly specialized studies that may not be easy to replicate.

On March 16, he cited “What Makes a Great Teacher” by Amanda Ripley in the January/February issue of The Atlantic magazine and “Can Good Teaching be Learned?” by Elizabeth Green in the March 7 New York Times Magazine. In addition, on March 30 he referred to a study by the Center for American Progress (a nonpartisan but decidedly conservative group).

That is a general problem with educational reform, which turns trends into fads and makes working teachers cynical.

The Ripley article is on the success of Teach for America — a unique population if ever there was one — and the Green article focuses on Doug Lemov’s research with the Uncommon Schools coalition — the name itself speaks, perhaps, to its less-than-universal applicability.

“Why shouldn’t (student outcomes) be reviewed as part of the process?” Bancroft asks in the more recent commentary.

There is no reason — other than the fact that it is very tricky to do across the board, fairly and with consistency. If we agree that student learning is cumulative, it is difficult to figure out who should get the credit for what and who should be damned and for what.

A student may have good middle-school teachers in English and not very effective ones in math — and have good English teachers in freshman and sophomore years but an ineffective junior-year English teacher. If that student does well on the SAT and Maine Educational Assessment tests, that not-very-good junior-year teacher is going to be rewarded for the good work of the previous, more effective teachers.

If the same kid gets a great math teacher in junior year, it may be too late to bring the kid up to speed.

If the kid has the soccer coach he loves as a geometry teacher, he may learn geometry even if the teacher fails to meet the needs of the other kids who don’t play soccer.

If you test all kids all year every year, teachers are going to teach to the tests — so you better make sure that the tests are good. That is very hard to do year after year. And if you alter the test, you don’t know what your results mean.

(That is what happened to the MEAs, which were very effective for the first couple of years until they were changed so much that we lost sight of what they were really telling us about student performance.)

In addition, teachers move around and get moved around. A teacher may be new to teaching an Advanced Placement class, so the class may not be good. It may get better, it may even get great — but it will always remain not very good for those students who were in the first year of the class. Then, when it is great, the teacher may get moved.

He or she may now be older and less patient, and he or she may be asked to teach kids who require more patience than the teacher has left.

The teacher may do a decent job, but these kids are not going to do well on a standardized test even if they were given the answers — they don’t care.

The teacher may have a minor in French and be asked to teach French or Spanish. Only one class. She or he hardly remembers the French from undergraduate work 20 years ago but gets through it.

Do you reward such a person for working hard, hanging in and taking one for the team, or do you punish the teacher for not being up to the standard for certified language teachers?

In some ways, education never seems to change; in other ways, it changes from Period One to Period Two.

Student responses range from deep discussions of motivation in “Macbeth” and sophisticated work on graphing calculators to “I can’t and I won’t read, write, multiply or divide, and you can’t make me!”

Think of your own experience as a student. Would you want someone to be paid on the basis of your performance as a 16-year-old? In math? In English?

So, if we make student outcomes a part of teacher evaluation, let it be a small part, and let us do it wisely.


– Special to the Press Herald