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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

We should be grading the teachers Add to ...

Pity the kid whose teacher is a dud. My sister had one of those. The teacher was both incompetent and nasty. Alas, complaining to the principal was useless. The kids simply had to tough it out until Grade 5, when things would presumably improve.

How much does teaching matter? A lot. The single biggest factor in the quality of your child's education is not class size, school funding, socioeconomic status, the school's postal code, or whether the desks are grouped in rows or circles. It's the effectiveness of the teacher. Highly effective teachers make a profound difference. They can move their students from below grade level to advanced in a single year. Yet teachers' unions are unalterably opposed to any kind of testing for proficiency - even though students are graded and tested all the time.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times kicked up a ruckus with a ground-breaking series that rated 6,000 of the city's grade-school teachers - by name. For each one, the Times performed a "value-added" analysis based on seven years of standardized test scores. A teacher's value-added rating is based on her students' progress on the standard tests in English and math. The difference between a student's expected growth and actual performance is the "value" a teacher added or subtracted during the year.

These ratings aren't the sole indicator of teacher performance, of course - but they are significant. The reporters followed up with visits to real teachers in real schools. Their findings were fascinating. Among them:

- Both the best and worst teachers were scattered through the system. They weren't concentrated in the best or worst schools. The quality of instruction varied far more within a school than between schools.

- Teachers had three times as much influence on students' academic development as the schools they attend. Other studies have shown that students' race, wealth, English proficiency or previous achievement level play little role in whether their teacher is effective.

- For kids in Grades 3 to 5 (the grades studied by the Times), the cumulative effect of two bad teachers in a row was devastating.

- The most effective instructors differed widely in style and personality. They were of all ages, races, educational background and experience level. They shared a tendency to be strict, maintain high standards and encourage critical thinking. Those interviewed said repeatedly that being effective at raising students' performance doesn't simply mean "teaching to the test," as many critics fear.

- Los Angeles schools have hundreds of excellent instructors. But no one asks them their secrets to success, and most of the time no one praises them. Often their principals don't even know who they are.

Predictably, the reaction of the teachers' unions to the series was ballistic. One leader fumed that publishing the rankings was "the height of journalistic irresponsibility." Another called for a boycott of the newspaper. But Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's reformist Secretary of Education, wondered what there was to hide. "The truth is always hard to swallow, but it can only make us better, stronger and smarter," he said. "That's what accountability is all about."

Unfortunately, that kind of accountability is almost inconceivable in Canada. Ontario, for example, spends $20-billion a year on K-12 education, but hardly anything at all on evaluating the people who deliver it. After all, what's the point? Teachers are paid by seniority, not merit. Even the worst ones are almost impossible to fire (as any administrator will tell you). Usually, they're just moved along to another school, where they can damage someone else's kids.

Meantime, parents are in the dark. Even the most involved parents have little means of judging teachers. (In fact, most people are inclined to believe that their own children's teachers are above average.) Yet, no other single factor - by a long shot - makes such a difference to their children's education.

On the other hand, if parents knew how good or bad their teachers really were, they might start demanding better ones. And that could be dangerous.

Note to readers: Recently I wrote about a riveting new documentary, In the Name of the Family, that explores the violence against young women at the hands of their own families as they begin defying male authority and embracing their new culture. You can see it tonight on CTV at 9 p.m. ET (check local broadcast times).

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