Not all is within teachers' control
August 30, 2010
ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Chicago Sun-Times columnist
Divorce, chronic illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, job loss.
I saw it all in my first-grade classroom -- plastered on the faces of my students. My high school students were much the same, except for the added woes of unwanted pregnancies, bullying, gang violence and the associated depression.
To assist my students, I would visit their homes and offer research advice on health insurance, social programs and college savings plans. I spent my own money on classroom supplies and extra hours planning cutting-edge lessons to engage all the different students in my class. Yet in the end, I felt I had accomplished far too little.
My efforts weren't special or rare, this is how a great many -- though certainly not all -- teachers in schools across America ply their trade during the academic year and, yes, even during summer vacation.
But you won't see much of this effort reflected in the numbers that tell whether a school has made "adequate yearly progress," or in year-over-year reading and math scores, or in frameworks for evaluating teacher performance that rely heavily on standardized test data.
Last Wednesday -- as Congress continued stalling the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka "No Child Left Behind" -- Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged public schools to publish more data on student achievement so teachers' performance can be evaluated based on students' academic performance.
That sounds like a good idea, but in the real world it's unfair to measure just one outcome that is, in fact, the result of multiple factors -- only one of which is an individual teacher's performance. It is just plain irresponsible to ignore the burden the other factors put on a student's performance.
In March 2009, David C. Berliner, a researcher at Arizona State University, published "Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success," which noted that U.S. students spend about 1,150 waking hours a year in school vs. about 4,700 more waking hours with their families and in neighborhoods. Berliner identified the top six nonacademic roadblocks to student success: low birth-weight and nongenetic prenatal influences; inadequate medical, dental and vision care; food insecurity; environmental pollutants; family relations/stress, and neighborhood characteristics.
His data spotlight the obstacles poor students have always brought into the classroom.
In June, the Foundation for Child Development released its annual Child Well-Being Index for 2010, illustrating some of the effects the Great Recession is having on the quality of life for America's children. Their study of 28 key indicators found that this quality of life began to decline in 2009, and by the end of 2010, the recession will have wiped out virtually all progress made in the last 35 years for children in economic factors such as secure parental employment and health insurance coverage.
This doesn't mean school districts across the country can't or shouldn't hold educators accountable for delivering the best teaching practices. Now more than ever the U.S. educational system -- held hostage to tenure structures that limit the ability of a school to pull a poorly performing teacher out of the classroom -- requires nothing less.
"Out-of-school factors matter a lot -- any of the identified factors or just stressful situations like someone in the family dying; all those kinds of things can and do affect students from middle, working, or any class," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently told me. "Educators aren't here to make excuses, but it's ridiculous to think that teachers individually can overcome every single issue in a child's life."
There's no question teacher accountability for student performance is crucial. But the focus must be on evaluating teachers' performance in the classroom, not strictly on student achievement, which is so compromised by the weight of their outside-the-classroom life.