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A Focus on Teachers and Teaching

Monday, January 23, 2012 - 08:04 AM

11:18 a.m. | Updated Teachers, teachers, teachers. This was the focus of education news in the city this weekend, from reports that the state is closer to an evaluation system to a touching account in an opinion column about how one teacher changed the life of one troubled student.

In her Big City column in the Metropolitan section of The New York Times, Ginia Bellafante writes that it may be all the political rage to regard teachers' unions "with a certain distaste," but in fact, as the headline says, "Petty Differences Mask Consensus on Teachers."

What has been lost in these performances of reproach and imperiousness is the extent to which the city and state, and the related unions (the United Federation of Teachers in the first instance and New York State United Teachers in the second) are generally in agreement over how classroom evaluations ought to be held and what, in fact, constitutes sound teaching.

The column says that while conflicts linger about "nagging disagreements over bureaucratic implementation," consensus lies around what makes a good teacher and what categories and subcategories should be evaluated in assessing them, all based on the work of a woman named Charlotte Danielson.

Ms. Danielson’s program, which also trains principals in how to properly execute the evaluations, is already being used in several states and on a pilot basis in 140 New York City schools (though in the experimental phase the outcomes will have no consequence). In November, a study out of the University of Chicago that looked at Ms. Danielson’s method as it was practiced in Chicago schools determined that it was not only a considerable improvement over an old evaluation system but that, just as significant, it established a shared definition of what good teaching was.

The bigger challenge facing educators, the column says, is "drastically changing the status of the profession" to attract the best and brightest teachers.

That would be someone like Mildred Grady, described by Nicholas D. Kristof in his opinion article this weekend as "big-hearted" and "a reminder that teachers may have the most important job in America."

As he tells the tale, in the late 1950s, Olly Neal was a poor black kid with an attitude. He remembers reducing his English teacher, Mildred Grady, to tears. Yet Ms. Grady was able to put Mr. Neal's life on a wildly different, extremely successful trajectory, and in doing so changed the lives of generations.

To me, the lesson is that while there are no silver bullets to chip away at poverty or improve national competitiveness, improving the ranks of teachers is part of the answer. That’s especially true for needy kids, who often get the weakest teachers. That should be the civil rights scandal of our time.

In his On Education column, Michael Winerip looks more closely at how difficult it is for school districts to figure out ways to assess teachers' performance when they are not teaching one of the grades -- or subjects -- covered by state tests.

Like band teachers, for instance: Paul R. Infante, the director of fine and applied arts for the Commack School District on Long Island, is struggling to figure out an efficient and effective way to judge how well the district's band teachers are performing. Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg continued pressuring the city's teachers' union, this time in his weekly radio address on 1010 WINS on Sunday. According to the prepared text, Mr. Bloomberg said:

This year, we’ll continue to expand school choice for parents -- and we’ll work to make sure that every classroom in every school is led by an effective teacher. We can do that by adopting a more rigorous teacher evaluation system, which is a top priority for our Administration. And last week, I’m glad to say, we were joined in that effort by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In presenting his executive budget, the governor made it clear that he will not allow the teachers’ union to drag its feet any longer on implementing new teacher evaluation systems across the state. That’s great news for New York City’s 1.1 million students. Ensuring that they graduate ready for college or a career is one of our most important duties. And to achieve it, we’ll do more than ever to attract, reward and retain great teachers -- while also stepping up our efforts to remove ineffective teachers."

On Monday, the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, heads to Albany, where he will presumably speak on these and other matters.

Kyle Spencer writes in The Times' Metropolitan section about modern-day help for struggling children: virtual tutoring. She writes:

In a hushed first-grade classroom at Public School 55 Benjamin Franklin in the South Bronx, Edward Muñoz, a bashful 7-year-old in scuffed sneakers and a worn hoodie, was sounding out tricky words with his tutor.

How?

Edward’s tutor, Jenny Chan, was an hour away in Midtown, on a bustling trading floor at JPMorgan Chase, where she provides technology support. She was talking to Edward by phone and seeing the story he was reading with screen-sharing software on her desktop computer.

The capability to tutor from afar was provided by a computer program developed by Seth Weinberger, she writes -- "a 56-year-old former technology lawyer from Evanston, Ill., and the founder of Innovations for Learning, a 19-year-old nonprofit organization that has set its sights on raising persistently low reading scores among the nation’s poorest children. The tutoring software is being tried by over 550 volunteers in 60 low-performing classrooms in Chicago, Detroit, Miami and Washington, as well as at P.S. 55, where in 2010, only 15 percent of the third graders passed the state English exam."

Not everyone loves the idea, but a school like P.S. 55, which earned a B on its latest progress report, often has difficulty attracting volunteer tutors to its location in the Claremont neighborhood of the Bronx, says its principal, Luis Torres.

The Education Life supplement was folded into The Times this weekend, with a cover story that wades into a national controversy: "How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life."

For good or ill, big-time sports has become the public face of the university, the brand that admissions offices sell, a public-relations machine thanks to ESPN exposure. At the same time, it has not been a good year for college athletics.

Also in Education Life, Jacques Steinberg, who edits The Choice blog, writes about the coming changes to the common application for college admission in "Common App 4.0."

The Common App, the all-purpose form accepted by 456 colleges and universities, is getting a digital makeover, down to the most fundamental swatches of code, with the end result intended to be a smoother, faster, more intuitive application. (The application itself will still be a rigorous exercise, complete with 250- to 500-word essays.)

Gotham Schools has a more complete roundup of the weekend's education news in its Rise & Shine post.

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