News and Tribune


December 8, 2010

GUEST COLUMN: The merits of a quality education

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — In response to Andrea Neal’s recent column titled, “Give best teachers more money,” I find it rather disingenuous that Neal, a private school teacher, would be advocating a position on merit pay that has the great potential to negatively impact public school teachers much more than it will those in private schools.

Teachers at private schools are not subjected to all the rules and regulations of a capricious state legislature looking to get behind the cause of the moment. While most private schools in the state do follow state regulations regarding ISTEP and ECA testing, teachers and administrators at those schools don’t have to worry that the state will take over local control of their building, nullify teacher contracts and restructure the school because the school fails to meet performance goals that are based largely on standardized test scores alone.

At Neal’s school, St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis, students pay anywhere from $13,000 to $14,000 a year in tuition, according to the school’s website. The average class size is 16 students, and all students from kindergarten through eighth grade are required to take a foreign language. The majority of the eighth grade graduates go on to prestigious private high schools in the Indianapolis area, including Brebeuf Jesuit, Park Tudor and Cathedral.

Obviously, the students at this school come from highly motivated, highly educated families and are prepared to be good students from the moment they walk in the door. I could not find any information on special education or ELL (English language learners) services on St. Richard’s website, so I assume that, like many private schools, it simply does not admit students with these needs. While I am sure that the teachers at St. Richard’s work incredibly hard every day — as do almost all the teachers I know — their reality is nothing like the reality public school teachers face on a day-to-day basis.

Unlike the business model that so many politicians want to hold up as an example for public education, I have no control over the quality of student who walks through my classroom door, and that variance in quality greatly affects the final outcomes used to measure my success or failure.

A student comes to me four grade levels behind in reading and I’m supposed to find a way to have her up to 10th grade level before the state’s end-of-course assessment. A student’s parents allow him to stay up all night playing video games and I’m supposed to find a way to make sure he stays alert in my class at 8 a.m. A student hasn’t eaten breakfast and has no lunch money in her account because her parents haven’t given her any and I open my wallet and hand her some cash. Then, I worry about what’s going on in her home and how it’s affecting her education.

Most teachers have no problem with being evaluated based on a system that would encompass classroom observations, student portfolios showing examples of increasing quality of work over the course of a year and the teacher’s effort at gaining more professional knowledge. However, using standardized test scores as the primary measure of a teacher’s worth will never give the true picture of that teacher’s impact.

Scores will vary from year to year based on the students in that teacher’s classes. For example, if the teacher has a high number of special-education students in a given year, that teacher’s scores are going to reflect that reality, especially when in most cases, the special education students are mandated to take the same tests as all the other children and, on the state’s tests, are not allowed all the same accommodations that teacher is legally required to give them in the classroom.

The pressure to achieve ever-higher scores on standardized tests is also contributing to a complete lack of critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills and creativity in our students — all skills that colleges and businesses say they want from Indiana high school graduates.

I have seen this becoming a growing problem over the past decade in my classes; my students can easily churn out a basic, five-paragraph essay that will allow them to pass the 10th grade ECA. However, when I ask them to challenge themselves to analyze literature and write with any depth of thought, they struggle. I can only conclude it is because we have created a culture in schools of teaching to the test.

Interestingly, a study published in the December 2008 issue of the journal “Science Education” compared two sets of high school science students — with one group racing through the curriculum in order to cover all the material tested on a standardized assessment but the other group being taught by educators who delved deeper into the material and challenged students’ critical thinking skills.

The second group moved more slowly and did not cover all the standards. Not surprisingly, the first group actually scored higher on the standardized assessment. However, the second group, which took a more in-depth approach, earned higher grades when they moved on to a university. This illustrates the challenge for today’s teachers — teach to the test in order to show good results in the state’s eyes or take the time to challenge the students to think deeply and critically and risk missing covering something that might end up on the standardized test.

It is also interesting that Neal criticizes teachers unions in her column while holding up Finland as an exemplary model of public education. Teachers in Finland are 100 percent unionized. Additionally, Finland provides free, mandated preschool education for all its children and provides parents access to much better day care services. Pre-service teachers in Finland are also provided a rigorous teacher education program that helps ensure their later success in the classroom.

Politicians in the United States must stop putting improvements in public education on the backs of teachers in the name of giving the public a scapegoat and realize that it will take a group effort to make large gains in student achievement. State and local governments must mandate quality early childhood education for all children and provide adequate funding for schools. Parents must work harder at making sure their children are ready for school by insisting they are well-rested and well-fed and that they do their homework and study for tests.

Teachers must continue to gain professional knowledge in their subject areas and work harder to really meet the needs of each student in their classrooms. Administrators have to work to support teachers and parents in their efforts. Only when we begin to look at problems in education as societal problems, rather than teacher problems, will we begin to see better results.

Finally, Neal notes that merit pay will help restore teaching as a prestigious profession. I think it already is a prestigious profession. I am proud to say I am a teacher. I am proud of the work that I am doing with young adults in my classroom every day, and I know that I am a good role model and mentor for them.

I don’t need merit pay to build my self esteem nor restore prestige to my professional role.

— Jolie Lindley is a Jeffersonville resident

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