Thursday, April 10, 2008

Can a teacher be expected to ensure every one of his/her students makes progress?

Can a teacher be expected to ensure every one of his/her students makes progress? 

I don't know. It's a tough question.

Obviously, we want the answer to be "Yes! Of course!" But what is the reality of the situation?

The question is really comes from the debate about whether to hold teachers accountable for student progress. To what degree should individual student data be the basis for kind of system, even leaving aside problems with the tests themselves. 

During my last year teaching in New York City -- where the state maximum class size for high school classes is 34 -- I had as many as 37 students in class. Could I ensure that every one of those 37 student made progress. The previous year, I had a class roster of 41, but I was told that most of them would never show up. (This was a class for sophomores held during the the last period of the day, a period that usually was only for freshman, who did not start the day until second period.) Less than a dozen of them showed up even once, and only half a dozen showed up more than a small handful of times. That spring I also taught an extra class during first period for freshman who had failed English the previous semester, giving them a chance to catch up on that missing credit. Again, a roster of 40+, but only a fraction of that showed up even once.

Would it have been appropriate to expect each of the students on my roster make progress?

What about students who are pulled out of classes regularly for speech therapy, to speak to a social worker or psychologist or even is suspended? Should their teachers be expected to ensure that they make the same kind of progress as other students?

What about the students who show up to class, but don't do their homework? Or those who sleep through class most of the time? Should the teacher be accountable for their progress? How much progress? How about the student who misses the first 20 minutes of his/her first class every day because s/he is drops of his/her little brother at school every morning before coming to his own school? 

If a teacher is working one on one for even half and hour with just one student, of course the teacher should be accountable for the student making progress. But how much progress? Whether we like it or not, some kids are smarter than others, or have more aptitude in a particular area. Some are better prepared for the content of a particular class. And some have more support out of class (e.g. people who encourage them to do their homework, a quiet place to do their homework, etc.). 

If a teacher is working with just five students for 38 minutes a day, I think that it is fair to hold the teacher accountable for them making progress. But if they were never properly taught arithmetic, if is not fair to hold the teacher accountable for their learning algebra at the same rate as another group who have mastered arithmetic. Each group might start knowing no algebra, but the educational experiences of one group makes them much better prepared to learn algebra than the other. 

I am not making excuses. Rather, I think that these different situations should result in different expectations for progress. If we are to hold teachers accountable, our system must take these kinds of issues into account. Moreover, I would suggest that issues tend to cluster in schools, mostly as a function of socio-economic and immigration factors  in neighborhoods, 

But even if we take all this stuff into account, we still have the original question. How many students must a teacher have before we would expect one of them to fall through the cracks? 50? 100? 150? 300? 500? Surely there is point where it would be inevitable, right? Surely this is some point where it becomes more likely than not -- what I mean by "expect" in this case. I mean, even for an above-average teacher, there's got to be a point.

Of course, I want the answer to be far above the student loads that teachers face. I want every teachers to be able to reach every student. But is that a reasonable expectation?

This is a great part of why Ted Sizer, Debbie Meier and Paul Schwarz call for teachers to have smaller student loads. This does not necessarily mean smaller classes. The same number of students in a class, but for twice as long (e.g. double periods) would results in halving student loads, whereas a 20% reduction in class size combined with 20% increase in the number of classes taught would keep student loads the same. Their point is that every student should known well by at least one adult, and that is unlikely when every high school teacher has over 100 students. Some may be known well, but many will slip through the cracks. 

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