This morning I spent 55 fast-paced minutes in an Algebra I class. I joined 18 average ninth grade Latino students at a “low-performing” high school in Southern California. The teacher was teaching her students how to “factor special quadratic trinomials that will yield special products of binomials.” How many of us who are reading this can do that? More importantly, did the kids get it? Quite honestly, they got it much better than I did.
My first encounter with factoring special quadratic trinomials was a long time ago, and I’m not sure I understood it then. But if I sat in this teacher’s classroom five days a week, I am pretty sure I would be a math whiz. This teacher didn’t miss a beat. She carefully checked every student’s homework, she had problems ready to go on the board, she explained mathematical processes in clear, understandable ways and then explained them again. She held each student accountable for homework and for working each practice problem. Those kids were focused and engaged. They were getting ready for a benchmark exam, and I am certain that they will ace the test.
So what’s the point? Every day I read stories in newspapers, magazines and journals about the failure of schools to close the achievement gap. Real estate agents and homeowners comb the papers on the day the California state test scores are reported, knowing that housing values follow test scores. We are barraged with stories of districts attempting to change traditional patterns of failure, particularly for English learners and poor kids, and in the midst of all the bad news we fail to tell the stories of the teachers like the math teacher I described here. Great teachers are brilliant experts in their subject matter, and very effective at helping their students care about it and learn it. We must tell their stories, and the stories of their successful students.
As a teacher educator, I am fascinated by great teachers. It seems quite obvious that if you want to find out how to teach effectively, you’d want to seek out the expertise of highly effective teachers. But in spite of the deluge of studies about schools whose test scores exceed expectations, there are relatively few studies of the teachers themselves. That’s not too surprising, considering how rarely we ask teachers what we need to do to close the achievement gap, or to keep kids in school.
Unfortunately, history shows that plans for reforming schools have been largely relegated to the wisdom of school leaders and school boards. While I don’t doubt these administrators’ and community leaders’ good intentions, and generally wise decisions, we see far too little evidence that these decisions are informed by the perspectives and wisdom of the teachers who are on the front lines of the educational challenges that are reported in the newspapers daily. Teachers make literally hundreds of decisions about what is best for their students every day. Their decisions are informed by their own common sense, by their professional knowledge and skills and by their personal moral compass. They are the ones who live with the decisions that they make and the decisions educational administrators and school reformers make for them.
Fall brings several opportunities for those of us who appreciate teachers to let them know that we value their wisdom, their perseverance and their commitment to their students. I urge families to make it a priority to attend their children’s back-to-school events, and use those opportunities to say thank you to the teachers who will spend many hours with their children this year. In addition, let’s agree to create opportunities for our best teachers to add their voice, and their wisdom, to our educational reform agenda. Together, and only together, will we truly be able to engage all students in meaningful learning that is evidenced by test scores that show that we are, in fact, closing the achievement gaps.
Linda Hoff is department chair in the teacher education division at Fresno Pacific University School of Education. This article reflects her research on the characteristics of highly effective teachers who teach in predominantly African American and Latino low-performing schools.