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Why Teachers Need Time to Succeed

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In the hoopla surrounding Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th win this past January, some commentators opined that it was remarkable how patient the university was with its new coach in the early 1980s. Coach K’s Duke teams endured two straight losing seasons, going 10-17 and 11-17, before righting the ship, when, coincidentally, Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, Tommy Amaker, and Mark Alarie, among other superior players, came along and helped Coach K turn his program around.

Some commentators even went so far as to say that were this scenario played out in the current age of social media, there might have been a firestorm of protest against the coach for his early losing seasons, and he might not have survived at Duke University and gone on to have a celebrated career.

I cite the example of Coach K with regard to the current penchant for blaming teachers when their students perform poorly on state exams. In particular, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Transformation Act of 2015 is a travesty.

This law, when enacted, will deny tenure to young teachers whose performance in their first four years falls short. Student scores on unproven and often developmentally inappropriate common-core tests will have an expanded role in such tenure decisions: If those test scores are not up to par, teachers cannot be given an overall rating of “effective” no matter how well they perform during classroom observations. And, as Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker: “Any teacher deemed ineffective for two consecutive years may be fired.” Such teachers will never have the chance, at least not in New York state, to grow and mature and improve their craft. And so, another group of young initiates will replace them and be thrown to the wolves of Gov. Cuomo’s educational regime, and many in this new cohort will fail as well.

“Firing promising teachers who will never get a chance to salvage their careers, unlike Coach K and me, is a misguided and shallow approach to a difficult and complex problem.”

Yet the governor has trumpeted this draconian system with the Orwellian assertion that it is part of the “the most pro-teacher budget in history.” Understanding well the flaws in his plan, New York state parents, teachers, and students from Niagara Falls to Montauk Point are taking measures against it. One upstate New York district reports that approximately one-fifth of its students have opted out of this year’s common-core tests.

While I suspect that Gov. Cuomo’s agenda will ultimately weaken and not strengthen the public school system, I am particularly concerned about his plan’s failure to allow young teachers the breathing room to learn on the job. For there is a simple truth in pedagogy that any teacher would acknowledge—if pundits and the powers that be ever took the time to actually ask teachers about teaching, that is. And the truth is that very few teachers are as good in their early careers as they will be with a few years of experience.

I taught my first classes in inner-city Cincinnati in the late 1970s. We did not have state exams back then, and it was a good thing, for if truth be told, I was not a very polished professional, and, had my poverty-stricken charges been given state exams, I might well have finished my career selling real estate or life insurance. (Nothing against those fine professions, but I certainly would not have been teaching.) I left Cincinnati after two years to pursue an advanced degree and subsequently came to Rochester, N.Y., where I taught first at the Harley School, a tony independent school, then at Brighton middle and high public schools. Brighton was recently ranked the 41st-best public school district in the United States. I then finished my career in the Pittsford, N.Y., district, which ranked No. 7 in the same study.

Now, my knowledge of the craft certainly improved with experience, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how much better a teacher I became once 92 percent to 98 percent of my students were college-bound, as opposed to the relatively few students in Cincinnati. Those Harley, Brighton, and Pittsford students were my Tommy Amakers and Mark Alaries. And my test scores suddenly soared.

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Interestingly enough, any time Coach Krzyzewski is asked what he does for a living, this is what he says: “I always wanted to teach. My ambition in high school was to be a high school coach and teacher, and that’s still what I do: teach.” But even the great Coach K is only as good as the players who perform for him. In his last year as coach of Army before coming to Duke, his team was 9-17, for example. Had he been subject to New York’s Education Transformation Act and endured three such “ineffective seasons” so early in his career, the winningest “teacher” in men’s college basketball would likely have been fired.

We educators can “coach ’em up” to the best of our ability, motivate our students, and instill self-esteem. Some years we can work wonders, and our students will overachieve. But here’s another truth about education that few will admit: A teacher, too, is only as good as his or her students. Another renowned college basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, has been quoted as saying, “There are two kinds of coaches—the ones who coach great players and ex-coaches.” Will this soon be the case with teachers as well? Firing promising teachers who will never get a chance to salvage their careers, unlike Coach K and me, is a misguided and shallow approach to a difficult and complex problem.

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