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Evaluating city teachers

In "Chasing School Reform" (Urban Journal, September 19), you seemed surprised that principals' evaluations of teachers resulted in all teachers being "satisfactory."

In a typical 3000-student high school, there might be 75 or 80 teachers. A certain number of them will retire every year, so each spring principal interview to fill a few positions. And they're aware that statewide, 33 percent of new graduates with teaching degrees leave the profession within three years. Principals need to spend time to find candidates who will fit into their schools, and they also spend time during the year coaching and evaluating new teachers.

I was a high school teacher for 14 years, and before that I worked in manufacturing, often as a supervisor. While teaching, I determined that teachers pretty much fit on the bell curve I learned about in statistics class. Eighty-five percent were good teachers who wanted students to excel and were willing to attend classes to learn new ways to become better teachers; 7.5 percent were beginners, learning on the job and getting better; and 7.5 percent were retired in position, and probably weren't very effective. These same percentages were true of people working everywhere.

No parent wants their child to have an average teacher; they all want the best. Those parent demands lead to rewording the categories as "satisfactory," "exceeds expectations," and "superlative" teachers. There is no average, or regular, anymore. This is especially true with the current political push to make teacher evaluations public knowledge; a principal knows that parents won't want average teachers.

A number of people recognize that using those evaluations of teachers is useless. They have proposed measuring teachers by their students' success on statewide exams. Good idea, but the measurement scale needs to be different for each school district. It won't work countywide, for two reasons.

First, the City of Rochester has neighborhoods where housing is less expensive than it is in the suburbs. So 15 years ago a number of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who'd never been in a school, arrived. Later came a number of refugees from Bosnia; more recently, a significant population of immigrants from Myanmar and Tibet. None spoke English, so they started with a huge disadvantage.

Second, in some school districts (like Pittsford) English, math, social studies, and science aren't taught during the last period of the day, when students are tired and not at their best. The last period is for electives like art, music, business, and technology. This allows those districts to hire average teachers and pay average wages but achieve great results on standardized tests. This only works in districts wealthy enough to have lots of electives.

Of course, schools need changing. We can't go on as we are. But knee-jerk fads and simplistic "sound bite" fixes need thorough evaluation before implementation. And the high level of poverty in the city does hurt students' chances of success.

I don't believe everything Adam Urbanski says, but I believe him when he says that many of our city school problems could be fixed if we could ensure that each student got a good night's sleep on school nights and arrived at school properly fed and ready to learn.



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