What effective teachers can do
If you are a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who likes playing Follow The Leader, you are probably not reading this column today.
United Teachers Los Angeles president A.J. Duffy has asked teachers — and members of every other labor unions — to boycott The Times because of the newspaper’s “Grading the Teachers” project, which uses student test scores over time to gauge the effectiveness of the district’s elementary school teachers.
The union leader considers the series — which began Sunday and will include a database ranking more than 6,000 teachers — part of a “continuing attack on our profession.”
Duffy thinks that publicizing the idea of using student achievement to identify what makes for successful teaching might be, in his words, “leading people in a dangerous direction.”
What’s really dangerous is that kind of thinking: Cover your eyes and everything looks fine.
If that represents the union’s logic, it’s no wonder students in Los Angeles are struggling and public support of teachers appears to be dropping.
And it explains why so many teachers seem to see themselves as martyrs, not leaders.
I hear from teachers in droves whenever I write about education. They tend to be grateful when I praise the job they do and angry when I don’t.
But my recent column on the importance of “strong, well-trained teachers” in poorly performing schools drew a surprisingly prickly response from teachers who seem to consider themselves insignificant cogs in the learning apparatus.
If students don’t do well, it’s because they lack “intrinsic motivation” or “supportive parents” or “academic talents,” the teachers’ e-mail messages said.
“Even the best teachers are rendered useless without supportive parents,” wrote a former high school teacher with a master’s degree.
“The most significant factor is parent’s economic and educational levels,” wrote another. “When students have no intellectual curiosity; no teacher can penetrate this. If they do, they will learn and accomplish even if taught by the local spinster in a barn.”
And this message came from a teacher who said he has spent 10 years subbing on 50 L.A. Unified middle and high school campuses:
“I am so sick of reading the same simplistic claptrap that great teachers will magically transform nonperforming inner city schools into breeding grounds for future Harvard scholars.... Many of these kids have no academic talents or inclinations....”
They are “wonderful, friendly and warm,” he said. “It’s just that they have very little interest in learning.”
And the best teachers, he said, have no interest in them. “Great teachers will run from these schools so fast, the smoke would burn the ground.”
I’d be heartsick if I thought that teacher was right. But my visit to Polytechnic High in Sun Valley last week showed otherwise.
For years the school, in a low-income corner of the northeast San Fernando Valley, was tagged as one of the district’s lowest achievers. A third of its students are still learning English, more than half of the parents never finished high school and, until recently, half of its ninth graders never graduated.
A decade ago, when plans were being made to build a new high school across the street, some Poly teachers fought to derail it. They worried that the more modern campus would draw the school’s most motivated students and leave them with the slackers. But their new principal, Jan Fries-Martinez, took that attitude as a challenge.
“I realized that I had an incredibly good faculty; very good people who were working very hard,” she said. “But it was not making a difference.”
She created an instructional cabinet of 63 teachers who wanted to help. “And it became all about our students — what they could do if we gave them a chance.”
The teachers invested their own time — “they probably got paid for one hour for every 20 they spent,” she said — studying student data and launching intervention programs to match test score gaps.
They partnered with nearby Los Angeles Valley College, so juniors could take challenging courses that would prepare them for college. They gave ninth-graders more attention and extra English and math classes. They changed the school calendar and schedule so that students could attend school during vacations to add credits or make up classes they’d botched.
Within six years, Poly’s Academic Performance Index rose 131 points based on student test scores, and graduation rates climbed almost 15%. “And people weren’t listening to the naysayers any more,” Fries-Martinez recalls.
The naysayers had included teachers, she said. “People who would say ‘These are nice kids, but I really don’t have them write in class because it makes them feel bad when they don’t write well.’
“These people began to back off, because we really felt like our kids were smart.”
Fries-Martinez retired two years ago, but the school is still evolving. This year, under new principal Gerardo Loera, Poly adopted a new schedule that ended summer vacation early so students can have access to extra classes in a mini-session this winter.
The reforms are being led by teachers now, Fries-Martinez said. “Teachers who are hungry to do better and to see the kids do better.”
Teachers who are not afraid to “keep going back to look at the data, because that’s what tells us what kids still need.”
I hope A.J. Duffy is listening, even if he finds this too dangerous to read.