This morning I read two different points of view about teachers. One was Diane Ravitch’s look at a Pasi Sahlberg, the great Finnish educator’s, piece about how Finnish universities select future teachers. The second was a short front page article in my local newspaper about NYS DOE Chancellor Merryl Tisch’s take on which teachers should and shouldn’t have to be evaluated.
Ravitch tells us:
“Finnish universities are famously selective, accepting only 10% of the high school graduates who want to become teachers. But how do they select? Sahlberg’s very bright niece was turned down when she first applied.”
Hey, what about legacy?
“What Finland shows is that rather than get the “best and the brightest” into teaching, it is better to design initial teacher education in a way that will get the best from young people who have a natural passion to teach for life.”
Sahlberg tells us that those who got in ahead of his niece had to take a two part entrance exam comprised of a national written test with the best performers going on to the second phase, a specific aptitude test.
“Last spring, 1,650 students took the national written test to compete for 120 places at the University of Helsinki. Applicants received between one and 100 points for the subject exams taken to earn upper-secondary school leaving diplomas.”
“A quarter of the accepted students came from the top 20% in academic ability and another quarter came from the bottom half. This means that half of the first-year students came from the 51 to 80 point range of measured academic ability. You could call them academically average.”
“The idea that Finland recruits the academically “best and brightest” to become teachers is a myth. In fact, the student cohort represents a diverse range of academic success, and deliberately so.”
“A good step forward would be to admit that academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers. But they don’t do this because they know that teaching potential is hidden more evenly across the range of different people. Young athletes, musicians and youth leaders, for example, often have the emerging characteristics of great teachers without having the best academic record.”
“What Finland shows is that rather than get “best and the brightest” into teaching, it is better to design initial teacher education in a way that will get the best from young people who have natural passion to teach for life.”
Sahlberg made me wonder. I went to NYC public schools. After taking an entrance exam I was enrolled at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science (at the time high school in NYC was grades 10-12), where I floundered as a sophomore and junior, finally maturing and learning how to learn as a senior.
I barely got into college. At the time City College of New York was incredibly difficult to get into. As a poor kid from the Bronx, the city university system was all my single mom could afford. However, Fordham University took a chance on me with recommendations from teachers and my guidance counselor. I received enough aid to attend the School of Education to which I was accepted.
It took that circumstance for me to figure out that I also I wanted to teach. What I learned I had was a passion for teaching. I had always worked with younger kids in camps, coaching and teaching them skills and how to get the best of themselves. I was inspired by my great teachers, most importantly my second grade teacher, Ms. Rita Stafford, who eventually became a world renown professor, researcher, and leader in individual learning styles. I also inspired myself by telling myself that I probably could do a better job than many of the teachers I had at Bx Science.
I went on to successfully teach for 38 years at three different high schools with three very different populations.
Then came Tisch’s bombshell. For years she has been pushing (partly as a Cuomo puppet) for all students to have the “best and brightest” teachers and the only way to ensure that was to have their evaluations tied to the standardized tests administered by the NYS DOE.
But Tisch suggested last week that “high-performing districts” with a record of strong student performance, including high graduation rates, should be exempted.
Said Mount Vernon schools Superintendent Kenneth Hamilton.
“To exclude some implies that teachers are single-handedly responsible for how well students perform on standardized assessments,” Hamilton said. “While it is certainly a major factor, it is not the sole indicator of student success or failure.”
NYSUT’s president, Karen E. McGee said the plan was divisive and unfair to districts dealing with student poverty.
“Instead of doing everything possible to recruit, support and keep great teachers for students burdened by poverty, he’s boxing them in with test and punish.”
Louis Wool, the Harrison, NY superintendent, agreed.
“Here’s the conundrum with this proposal: It separates those with resources from those who have few.” He went on to say that a district should not be able to opt out of evaluation “because they are fortunate to have high resource/high readiness students.”
So, according to Tisch, those who teach our “best and brightest” (i.e. mostly wealthier and whiter) would be exempt as a result New York’s two-tier education system that also is the most highly segregated in the nation.
Tisch makes me wonder. Was I a highly effective teacher in wealthy and white Scarsdale High School when I taught her nephew? Was I a developing or effective teacher in mostly middle class and integrated Woodlands High School? And did that make me an ineffective teacher at Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx, the nation’s poorest urban county, regardless of the huge number of success stories that emanated from there?
David Greene: Author of Doing The Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks