This is a test: What makes a great teacher?

Let me preface this with a disclaimer. When I go to schools to talk with students, I leave the politics out. In other words, these are my opinions as a parent and a citizen, not when I present my work….

Last night I attended a forum hosted by the Rhode Island Foundation on the topic, “What makes a great teacher?” (It was recorded for broadcast on WRNI)

The session was fascinating and heated. As I listened, I became more and more agitated. This is a combination of a report, and a diatribe…

On one end of the table was Deborah Gist, the Rhode Island Commissioner of Schools. At the other end of the table was an English and Theater teacher from Central Falls High School. That’s the school that gained national attention when all the teachers were fired (many were rehired). In the middle were the executive director of Teach for America in RI and a former NY Times education reporter.

First of all, I’d like to applaud Ms. Gist for attending the forum. One of the great things about Rhode Island is that public officials can be accessible. Having her there gave the event both gravitas as well as a whiff of the possibility that it might make a difference.

That said, the polarization was dramatic.

On one side, Gist and Heather Tow-Yick of Teach for America asserted that great teaching involved a panoply of elements, including setting goals and high standards, not wasting time during the school day, and caring — but not caring too much, or rather not allowing that caring to stop the high standards. An interesting anecdote was told about a student who said that her teachers had “bought into” her sob stories about how difficult her life was and so they lowered their expectations for her. Years later, the girl wished they hadn’t.

On the other side, Deloris Grant, a re-hired veteran teacher from Central Falls said that she had to spend the first six weeks of school preparing students for the NECAP standardized tests, and only then was she able to get to the job of teaching.

Richard Rothstein, who is now a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute bluntly stated the conundrum: There are a variety of factors that make up great teaching (and great learning) but only one measurement–Standardized Testing. Because Standardized Testing is the measurement, then all the other factors become unimportant from a practical point of view.

I watched the ping-pong match carefully.

Gist said that only in the lower performing schools did teachers and administrators cram kids for testing.

Rothstein disagreed and suggested that any intelligent organization would adapt to the measurements. He explained that when cardiac surgeons began being measured on post-operation survival rate, they began to boost their ratings simply by no longer treating obviously sick patients. He said that according to the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, 100% of a schools performance is based on standardized testing.

Gist denied that was true. She countered that there are other elements used in measuring schools, however when a North Kingstown teacher later asked her how that worked, she said that the system in place predated her administration and that the Board of Commissioners was still trying to work out what the federal requirements meant.

Rothstein suggested that while great teaching was important, his research said that about two-thirds of a student’s learning process was affected by factors outside the school — whether the student had a good breakfast, tardiness, poverty, mobility (moving around a lot), parental support and so on. Expecting to judge students and teachers on (what he called) poor tests was foolish.

Gist said that tests are reliable. She was upset that Rothstein seemed to be suggesting that poor students had different abilities. “It makes my blood boil,” she said. Rothstein reiterated that “The ability to learn is the result of a lot of different factors… how secure you are… did you have a healthy breakfast… I’m not talking about innate abilities.”

Heather Tow-York kept suggesting that teachers should “Do more of what works.” She had a list of six ways the best teachers support students, including, ” Set ambitious goals and invest students and families in those goals.”

During the question and answer session that happened after the WRNI recording ended, I finally had the opportunity to present the fact that my 9th grader at Classical High School — the top public school in the state — had been excused from two hours of classes a day for two weeks not because he was testing, but because other students were testing in the building. In other words, he went in at 10 am instead of 8 am… His learning day was shorter. Why? Additionally, my 6th grader has no homework from his middle school for this two-week period because he is testing. My daughter took her first NECAPs this week. (After I prepped her by sending her to a two week before-and-after school program at the school.) She’ll be doing them two weeks a year for six or seven of her school years. That’s 12 to 14 weeks of testing over the course of her studies.

Gist seemed surprised. She said she’d look into it. She said that students only took tests for 9 hours… That they were spread out over two weeks bothered her…

My point was that the top school in the state is gaming the system. Every school in the state is gaming the system. A recent email from school system with a relatively low poverty rate baldly stated that “…this [NECAP] testing is a high stakes assessment…”

After Gist left to go to her classes (she is working toward a doctorate), the energy in the room remained, but the focus was diffused. One parent reported that her nine year old came home and asked for a party, “Because I’m done with the NECAPs.”

The former interim superintendent for Central Falls reported that, in one year, of the 850 students at the CF high school there were 300 transfers. In the whole system of 3,700 there were about 1,000 transfers a year. What can great teaching do to solve that?

Earlier, Gist said that at the best schools, when the administration noticed that there was a tardiness problem, they said, “What can we do about this.” She said that at the lowest performing schools, the administration said, “We have high tardiness, how can you expect us to teach with that?” She said that the attitude of the school makes a difference.

I agree, but if that’s the case, why is the only measurement of the school still testing? And what does testing prove? The sole high school student who spoke said that all the kids in her school thought that, “NECAP testing was a joke. Nobody took it seriously.”

I agree. A number of years ago, a story that I wrote was on several standardized tests, and at first I was thrilled. Students from around the country would be reading my work! But then I remembered how I used to take tests. If you’re good at test taking, what you do is you read the questions first, and then skim the story until you find the answers. Then you move on. You don’t actually read the story.

As an adult reading this, when was the last time you had to take a test that wasn’t driving or drug-related? Does your job depend on standardized testing? We are teaching our students to take tests. We are judging the teachers by the student’s results on these tests.

When the Bush Administration put forth No Child Left Behind (yes, I know it was co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy) it became one of the most subversive pieces of Orwellian legislation ever to hit the USA. Funding was siphoned from education, from teaching, from enrichment into testing, testing analysis, test planning and test result evaluation. Whole industries emerged to take advantage of the gushing money leaking away from actual teaching.

Isn’t it time that we turned off the tap?
Spend the money on teaching. On nutrition for low-income families. On providing stable housing. On job creation.

This will be on the test.

More info at
The show will be broadcast this Sunday on WRNI. I don’t know what time.