Who's To Blame

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The Robert Taylor Homes, a two-mile-long stretch of high-rise buildings running parallel to the Dan Ryan Expressway, has the dubious title of being the largest of Chicago's 19 public housing developments. Shootings, rapes, and robberies are part of everyday life for the 15,000 people living there. As far back as 1968, a presidential commission on urban problems described Chicago's public housing this way: "The...child caught in such a social environment is living almost in a concentration camp from which he has little chance of escape.''

Not much has changed since then, and the slim chance of escape for the children of this camp is usually found at school. For many of those who live in the Robert Taylor Homes, their first school is Mary C. Terrell Elementary, a low-rise brick building surrounded by a tall security fence. However, by the time children reach the relative safety and order of Terrell Elementary, many are so far behind that they never catch up.

Sitting in her office one day, principal Reva Hairston told the story of a single child whose deficiencies were emblematic of the troubles confronting not only the teachers at Terrell Elementary but also teachers everywhere dealing with large numbers of disadvantaged children:

We have kids starting school without the givens. You assume that kids know their colors, that they know their first and last names, something about their birthdays. They know mommy's first and last name, or a telephone number and an address.

Our children, if you say "Where do you live?,'' they will either say "a red building'' or "a white building,'' based on the color of the brick. It is not important to them to know their address. So we have to say, "Suppose you get sick. We need to know the number on your building and what apartment you live in.''

Two years ago, the most amazing thing happened. It was a Friday. Everybody had gone. It was getting to be 4 p.m., and I wanted to get out, too. This kid was sitting in the office, waiting to be picked up, a little kindergartner. He didn't know his name, he said. Of course, he didn't know his address.

I said, "Well, what's your teacher's name?'' He didn't know. At that time, the two kindergarten teachers were white, so asking if she were a white woman wouldn't help me figure this out. I was looking for a clue to his identity.

I thought I had a brilliant idea. I said, "Does your mommy have company? Do people come by to visit her?'' He said, "Yes.''

I said, "And they knock on the door. Mommy opens it, and she says 'Hi' to them. What do they say?''

"Yo, bitch,'' he said.

The child was crying. So was I.

It is fashionable these days to discuss the "accountability'' of teachers. Most often, the word is wielded as a weapon by administrators, parents, and experts. They demand that teachers be held "accountable'' for the decay of public education. Proposals are advanced--and, in some cases, implemented--to link teacher pay to the test scores of their students; the scores become the measure not so much of the children but of their instructors.

As in any profession, teaching has its great teachers, its competent teachers, and its poor teachers. The problem with teaching, however, is that the stakes are so high, making the price for incompetency too steep. Parents are understandably angry and frustrated when they find their children in class with an incompetent teacher. The reaction intensifies when they discover that getting rid of a bad teacher is almost impossible.

As Linda Raines, a 2nd grade teacher in Greencastle, Ind., aptly described the responsibilities confronting every teacher, "If I fail, I've wasted a whole year of a child's life.''

Yet the problems in removing poor teachers have been illustrated dramatically in Rochester, N.Y. An attempt to rebuild the ailing public schools there linked teacher pay with incentives for reform, such as improving test scores and weeding out weak teachers. By 1992, five years into the program, the personnel chief for the schools estimated that only two of the 2,000 tenured teachers had been removed, and test scores had improved only modestly.

Current teacher evaluations are arbitrary and superficial in most districts. When Congressional investigators looked into the subject in Washington, D.C., they found that all but 621 of the city's 5,909 public school teachers had been rated "very good'' or "outstanding'' in 1991. That same year, 3,000 students dropped out of the capital's schools.

However, there is merit to some arguments for evaluating teacher performance on the basis of student performance. There is no chance of reversing the decline in American schools unless teachers do a better job and are held accountable for what occurs inside their classrooms. The question is how.

This recognition that teacher performance must be improved is the force behind the movement toward creating a national board to set professional standards for teachers. While other professions have established stan- dards for admissions, efforts to promote a national certification program for teachers have languished--or have been actively blocked by powerful teachers' unions.

Even implacable foes of national standards concede that teachers must be accountable for teaching children the skills they need to improve the future for themselves and the country. The best teachers are the angriest at colleagues who have lost their enthusiasm for education, who show up late regularly and rely on the rote of lesson plans. At Terrell Elementary, Reva Hairston says she would put a third of her teachers up against the best in any school district in the country. Another third, she says, are satisfactory. A final third, however, Hairston vows she would fire today, if only she had the power to do so.

Any time a group of teachers gathers to gripe about their jobs, the issue of accountability will arise before the conversation gets too far along. Perhaps more than any of the criticisms heaped on them by parents and politicians and education officials, teachers are most angered by the notion that they must be accountable for the total performance of their students. This notion, they argue, makes teachers responsible for factors outside the school grounds over which they have absolutely no control.

"Accountability doesn't take into account where these kids are coming from, and that's not fair,'' fumed Alice Golub, who teaches at a public school in Miami.

As in so many areas of education today, the key to improvement lies in understanding that teachers and parents are not natural adversaries, that the system will work only when there is an alliance between educators and those outside the system. A central element of that alliance depends on the ability of parents, education officials, and others to recognize that accountability does not rest solely with the teacher.

One of the teachers that Hairston would put up against the best anywhere is Carolyn Epps Jackson, an articulate young woman whose silk dress brushes the floor as she sits in the classroom at Terrell, where she teaches a class of 2nd and 3rd graders:

I think that the accountability, the way it is now, is unfair. If you take a group of children and at the end of that school year they can read, write, and do whatever math is appropriate for that grade level, then you have succeeded. If they come in way below level, and they gain a year or more in your class, then you have succeeded. They know considerably more than when they walked in your door. It has to be relative. If you can't read at all, and you're 12 years old, but by June you can read a 1st grade book, you have learned. Even though it is not ideal, and it is certainly not where you should be, you've succeeded.

We must all be held accountable--teachers, parents, school, the community. I have [students] for only six hours. If nothing is going on at home, then that means my job is harder. Then I have to do the things that the parents should be doing. Politicians are at fault because they don't want to provide enough funds. I can only do so much with limited resources. I have 26 children, which isn't a bad number in a public school, but ideally I should have 15. I should have more computers and all sorts of books. I should have things to make it more interesting and easier. There should be all sorts of labs the children could go to. But the money isn't there, or at least it is not being spent on these things.

I would like a rug on the floor. We should have tables instead of desks. It would be nice if we could have an art center. You can go broke buying your own art stuff, but you find places where you can get special things--like a pound of feathers, sequins, buttons. Teacher aides would help because that way, if a child needs a little extra, it's possible.

When people say, "Teachers, they only work 8 to 3, they get summers off, it's an easy job,'' I want to kill them. I want to say, "Hey, come in here for the day.'' Actually, I used to think that way until I started doing this. In these seven hours, I am on my feet all day long, talking constantly, keeping 26 little bodies and minds motivated doing stuff that I want them to do, which usually isn't exactly what they want to do. Sure I can have my summers off, but I need them. You have a short day, but at 3:15 I am so tired. I don't have a desk and a phone. I can't put someone on hold. I can't close the door. I can't go to the bathroom when I want. I have to stay here and grin and bear it until it is time to go to lunch. I have people crying, sick, and with runny noses....

I think the whole curriculum should be changed. I think the expectations should be a little more realistic. They need to take into account when I have a child coming from a home where there has been no reading going on, no education of any kind going on.

Many of the standardized tests that children take are based upon a white, middle-class environment. If these kids have no idea what the test is talking about, how are they going to give the right answer? It doesn't mean that they are any less intelligent or mean that they can't perform. It means only that they don't know what this is. So there has got to be a way of testing knowledge without penalizing children for not having the same kinds of experiences....

Pat Maier is a French teacher at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School outside Los Angeles:

My first year I taught in Ohio. I was 19. They needed a teacher. I needed a job. I had one of those special credentials to allow me to teach. It was the most interesting year I ever taught. I was supposed to teach Spanish, English literature, and run the library. I immediately closed the library because none of the books had ever been cataloged.

That was the year I had Phillip in my class. Phillip, who was older than I was. He came in and said, "I got to graduate and get out of this school, lady. I got to go to barber school. I want to be a barber.''

I said, "Well, Phillip, you do your work, and you'll graduate.''

He said, "Yeah? But I got a problem: I can't read.''

"You what?'' I said.

I opened up the literature book and asked him to read a paragraph. The first word was "the,'' and he couldn't read it.

"Oh shit,'' I thought. "What am I going to do with this kid?''

Anyway, I got to listening to him, and he could tell me verbatim what I had said in class two weeks earlier, right down to crossing the t's and dotting the i's. So I went to the history teacher and asked him to give him his next test both written and orally. He got an A on the oral and flunked the written. He was telling the truth.

So I went down to the elementary school, and I got this special reading program. He came in at lunch time, and we started learning the alphabet and sounds. The greatest moment in my life was when he came in to me and said, "Hey lady, do you know what I was doing this morning?''

I said, "No, Phillip. What were you doing this morning?''

And he said, "Reading the words on the milk carton.''

God, I had to leave the classroom and cry.

I think teachers have to be accountable, but I am not necessarily in favor of standardized tests for students. I don't think they take care of the issue. Instead, they create a minimum level of competency, rather than a maximum level of competency.

Standardized tests are generally multiple-guess, whereas they should be written tests. We need to change the testing situation in the U.S. 100 percent. Of course, I believe that we desperately need some kind of national education standards in the United States.

It's a touchy issue because you don't always have great students. You can get a bad class. By bad class, I don't mean bad kids. I mean they might not be up to par. You could just have a bad year, when your best friend is dying, or you're going through a divorce. Or there may be a chemistry that just doesn't work because each class has its own global personality.

Over the continuum, we still need to have stan- dards, and I believe that pay has to be tied to accountability. I also believe that all kids can learn something.

Sherry McCarty left another school in Albuquerque, N.M., to teach at Van Buren Middle School because she admired its reform-minded principal, Gary Hocevar, and his efforts to involve teachers in running the school. She teaches language arts:

We are held accountable already, but it is a lousy way to do it. We are held accountable by tests like the SATs and ACTs. These things don't talk to you about what the child knows. They provide only an estimated guess at what the child might minimally know. We are working on something else.

I am co-chair of a committee to study curriculum and evaluation, and we are looking at alternative assessments. One alternative is the portfolio, where the kids put samples of their best works--writings, videos, best speeches, best dances.

We are also looking at getting the kids out into the community, at taking them to elementary schools for tutoring elementary kids, getting them to the high schools to work with older students on the computers, and getting them into the business community to see how they work. We want critical thinkers, kids who can make decisions and react positively to lots of situations.

Personally, I would like to see us assess each individual student with a panel of teachers and other students so the kid's final performance is just a culmination of several smaller performances, each time getting it more perfect. They could be graduation performances. It would be verbal, visual, and written....

I hope the mission of our public schools is changing. I hope we are beginning to meet the needs of the community. Our community doesn't need cookiecutter kids. It doesn't need an assembly-line education. It needs for us to address the individual child, based on exactly what his or her needs are.

Rita Gilbert teaches at South Pointe Elementary School in Miami Beach, Fla.:

I am accountable for Rita. I can only do so much, and I have no control over what happened to my 6th graders in 1st through 5th grades. We have to draw lines of who is accountable for what.

If you really want to talk about accountability, you have to start in kindergarten and look at who passed them and who did not remediate. In Florida, you are discouraged from retaining kids, especially if they have already been retained once. Especially in 6th grade, there is this feeling that kids should stay with their classes. You don't want big kids in with the little ones.

It's frightening, but what do you do? They put so much pressure on teachers for performance when they should involve others, too. What about parents? If you know Johnny is not functioning on a 5th grade level, why don't you spend some extra time with him? Or get some extra tutoring?

I had one parent tell me, "I just don't know what I am going to do about Johnny.''

"Well,'' I said, "can't you work with him? He isn't performing; he won't get serious.''

The parent replied, "Well, why don't you do something?''

I said, "You can't expect me to do for your child what you haven't done in 11 years.''

When parents throw their hands in the air like this, that's frightening. Then who really is accountable? Can the teacher really be a miracle worker?

Marion Clermont teaches at Tilden High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.:

I resent parents and people in the community who have not been into a school lately putting all the blame on the teachers. That is a crock. Granted, there is some dead wood in the system, but I tell you from the heart, the majority of the teachers do their best. They dress well. They come to school prepared. They want to do their job--at least the teachers I have known throughout my career. There are a few--how they got into or through the system is beyond me. They are basket cases, just doing time, but that is not the majority.

I think the problem is a political thing. It is beyond a teacher's control. The paperwork, the red tape, the administration, the people in charge. What matters more to them is statistics, numbers, balancing out the quotas, and making sure the superintendent sees so many passing grades. I have been told in the past that I have to pass so many students. When I say, "But they can't do the work,'' they say, "Well, it's up to you.''

Accountability has been a hot issue among teachers in Florida because of attempts by the state legislature in Tallahassee to adopt standards for evaluating teacher performance. Third grade teacher Alice Golub was angered by the narrowness of the solution:

...They want accountability. Yet they take no account of what's going on in [students'] homes, no account of their backgrounds.

Accountability wants me to motivate a child who has no interest. Unless the child just has a love for learning, loves to read--and you know how many of those there are--he is not going to learn without support from the home. What am I supposed to do? You can't ignore the home.

Sanford Bearman, who also teaches in the Miami public schools, expressed similar complaints:

...As a parent, I want to know what kind of quality of education is going on in my children's school. When they publish the testing scores, I want to see how my son's elementary school is doing. There has to be some form of accountability, but it has to be across the board.

Students have to be accountable. Teachers have to be accountable. Administrators have to be accountable, and let's not forget parents. I am all for laws that say that if kids do damages, the parents are responsible for the costs of the damage. I am also for holding parents responsible for how their kids do in school and for making sure they are in school.

But I am not happy with the new accountability bill coming down from Tallahasee. I don't think the process will take into account all the variables: Do we measure a first-year teacher the same way as a sixthyear teacher or as a teacher with 20 years in? Do we measure a teacher teaching at Highland Oaks Elementary School, which is an upper-middle-class, predominantly white school, the same way we would measure someone teaching at an inner-city school? How do you keep track of the variables and make it fair?

Then, what happens when the students don't progress? Do you punish the teacher? The plan coming from Tallahasee is punitive. We have found in Dade County that punitive measures do not make better teachers, just lower morale. I find that if you want to get a better product, you get more with honey than vinegar. A reward system works much better than a punitive system.

The state of Florida has one system for evaluating teachers, and Dade County has another. We have [a] teacher assessment and development system. Teachers are observed and asked to perform at certain minimums. If they go beyond that, fine. If they don't, the system offers them opportunities to remediate. If they do not, then they begin the process of termination.

After 23 years, I have seen about half a dozen teachers dismissed. The process is there for removing a teacher if the principal is willing to pursue it. The union position is that the teachers are guaranteed due process the entire way and the opportunity to remediate themselves. If they refuse, eventually they will get dismissed. It is much easier to do with a first-year teacher. But you know, things happen, divorces, family changes, sometimes people just have a bad year. Does that mean they should be dismissed?

When there is a widespread sense that a new reform has fixed the education system, pressure builds on teachers for quick results. Parents want to see test scores go up and dropout rates come down. These expectations are often unrealistic, particularly in the short run. Teachers at the Walt Disney School, a magnet school that draws elementary and middle school students from throughout Chicago, have experienced some of those unrealistic expectations. Tom Starnicky, who is head of the science department at Disney, says:

I know a lot of teachers are frustrated. They're frustrated because they feel there are all kinds of pressure on them for the children to perform for these tests, and everything they do is relegated to a number as to how they're teaching or how they are doing with the children. I sense resentment.

As a teacher, you're looking at a year's effort with a child, and you're putting it down to a single number. This child is four months below grade level, and it is as if you have not done your job, and there are possibilities that this child is four months above what he would be without your efforts. That isn't seen, though.

The only thing that really bothers me with this whole accountability situation is the test interpretation. All of a sudden everybody should be scoring at or above normal. I can understand when 50 percent of the children would be above normal, but if they're using standardized tests, 50 percent will be below normal. But that is not acceptable. Everybody must be at norm or above. I don't think it's realistic.

Billy Sue Vogel teaches at Claude Pepper Elementary School in Miami:

Children learn at different rates. They all learn to walk at different times. They all learn to talk at different times. Yet we plunk them in school when they turn 5 by Sept. 1, and we expect them all to do the same thing. Sometimes there is just a developmental lag there. It doesn't mean the child isn't bright. They may just not be ready.

You should be able to say to a parent, "This is where your child was when he entered in September, and this is a sample of what he can do now.'' It is not an issue of whether it is A work or B work. It is how much the child has grown in the time, but this approach is going to take a lot of parent education.

I really don't have positive feelings about judging children by test scores because there is always going to be a bottom and a top. Just because you can score on the test doesn't mean you can go out and be successful. I don't think it is realistic.

Alan Marks is a former New Mexico teacher of the year. Educated in law and business, he has a piercing intelligence that sometimes needles colleagues and administrators at Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque, where he teaches the unlikely combination of English and economics:

Here's my biggest criticism of the schools: There is zero accountability...

Let me give you an example from our district. You've seen the film Stand and Deliver. You're familiar with the story, which is basically that, given enthusiasm and encouragement, kids from a background whose first language can be anything can certainly be taught to handle mathematics.

Would you agree with me, then, that the top 20 kids in any high school in an evenly distributed city would be roughly as intelligent as the top 20 kids in any other school? That doesn't mean they are going to do as well or that they are exposed to the same kind of language at home or reading or anything else. Just that they have the same basic native intelligence.

But listen to this. Why is it then that, just taking these 20 kids and no one else, why is it that their college entrance scores are hundreds of points and tens of percentile points below their peers at another school? If these kids are as intelligent, if they're the top kids in the district, and if the school is doing any kind of an adequate job, you would expect that very small percentage of kids to be more or less comparable.

No way. No way. Kids in my school can't do any math. Kids in poor schools across the country can't do any math.

Teachers get away with teaching almost nothing in areas where parents don't know any better. There is no one pushing them.

I think it's crazy not to have some evaluative instrument that teaches us, that lets us learn from what we're doing. I don't think it happens. I don't think we evaluate ourselves. I don't think our systems evaluate us. We can relieve teachers from the fear that the effort will be to punish teachers by making it bring everybody up, students and teachers alike.

But yes, we're going to have to do some weeding out. That's why I started out being one of the main union organizers in New Mexico, and now I find myself being very antagonistic to that same union that tries to protect incompetent people.

Margie Eriacho teaches Indian students at Dowa Yalanne Elementary School in the Zuni Indian reservation in western New Mexico:

I think testing for teacher accountability is good. When we did have testing here, I used to use it for my own purposes. Say there was a child who I thought was maybe top in the class, and then I saw their testing, and I would look and say, "I haven't taught this,'' or "I should have taught this,'' or "I just assumed I had taught this.'' That was a good measure for me.

A lot of us assume that our children are so verbal, that we've taught them or given them enough practice through stories we've read to them over and over again, that receptively they understand. One year, I said to my children, "Let's do some bulletin board decorations. Let's put up pictures of the Little Red Hen.'' So they were all excited about this. They all got busy. Everybody was through, and I collected the papers. On one of the papers, I got a picture of a little red hand. We had lost that little one to confusion for how long? I think I've become more aware that you need to do assessments. You need to do testing in many more different ways than just pen and paper.

Dan Ruggaber teaches math at Menchville High School in Newport News, Va.:

There is a lot of pressure on us to produce passing grades for these kids. The goal is that we are supposed to lower our Ds and Fs percentage rates. The theory is that we are to do that by bringing the kids up. You lower your standards, of course. I have been told by other teachers that they have been pressured by administration to reduce their numbers. It is handled as if it is a bad reflection on the teacher.

One teacher...looked up the past grades and said, "How do you expect me to teach them at this level in a math course, when they were getting Ds and Fs in the previous level?'' If they got a D in Algebra 1, how can they do better than that in Algebra 2?

Maria Sculley teaches 7th grade at St. Issac Jogues School in Hinsdale, Ill.:

We should be accountable. So should doctors. So should nurses. So should anybody who has the influence that we have. It is serious.

You know, I never pray that I'll be a success as a teacher. I pray that I'll be just and that I will be fair because if I am just and fair, everything else will fall into place. I will be a successful teacher.

Parents here are extremely supportive. We have 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences. One hundred percent. I think that is crucial. I don't know if it is what makes a school good, but my heart goes out to those teachers who don't have the support of parents because I'm sure they want for their students what I want for these kids.

I know our parents care, and we're put on the carpet, so to speak. I think parents care more about the result than about the process, but doesn't everybody? I think it's OK for parents to care about the end result. They're looking out for the future of their kids. In a lot of respects, what that says is that they trust me. It says to me, "Please, do it right.''

Barbara Knowles teaches 6th grade at Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News, Va.:

Some are quick to give accountability to one person. I think it has to be a combination. We have to have the school counselor help us out, we have to have a good team of teachers whom you trust and work well with, you've got to have the cooperation of the parents. Sometimes we need a psychologist, outside people, brothers, sisters, it's got to be a combination. But in the long run, the bottom line is, the kid has to be accountable.

We use that word a lot in the 6th grade. I told one of my 6th grade classes this, and they were really surprised to hear it. I may have made a couple of them feel a little guilty. But I was talking about accountability and responsibility, and I said: "I've had conferences with parents in this school (and I'm not talking about any parents in this class), and you know, we sit down and Mrs. X says she doesn't know why her daughter is not doing what she's supposed to be doing, she has everything, the VCR, the TV, and the phone, and the skateboard.

Then I ask what responsibilities the daughter has in the home. Is there anything that she must do to earn these privileges? And Mrs. X says they don't require her to do anything. And I said to these 6th grade kids: "Where is the responsibility going to come?'' I'm listening to this mother, and I'm saying, "That's it. That's the problem.''

Accountability is a big thing, and I think some parents don't think beyond the next skiing trip. They want the child to go to an Ivy League college where he's going to be around people who are just like him. Teachers cannot by themselves instill accountability. They can require it, but they have to have backup from the family. Sometimes parents get so caught up in things, and their lives are so busy--I can understand that, I've been guilty of it. Face it: It's easier to fix your child's book report yourself than to take the time to show him how to do it.

Catherine Collins, a columnist with The Los Angeles Times, and her husband, Douglas Frantz, a reporter for the same newspaper, spent nearly two years traveling back and forth across the country, interviewing teachers about their jobs. The result is Teachers: Talking Out of School, published this month by Little, Brown and Co. "In all, we talked with about 150 teachers at more than 70 schools,'' the authors write in the book's introduction. "Their stories were inspiring, sad, charming, angry, funny, and dramatic. Each teacher opened a new window onto the state of education and provided a signpost on the road to revitalizing America's schools.''

Vol. 05, Issue 02, Page 1-24

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