My seventh-grade music teacher, Mr. Lewinsohn, an accomplished jazz trumpeter, tried his level best to teach me to play the French horn.
As I struggled to play a single recognizable note, sweat would gush from his forehead. With each effort, he’d swipe his brow and say, “No, no.” To show me proper technique and breathing, he’d
inflate his cheeks to what seemed to be the size of cantaloupes as he blew into his horn. He tried. He really tried.
I tried very hard to accomplish a near impossible feat, fearing that a pitiful music grade counted in my GPA. Today I wince at the idea of his pay, his reputation and his public standing hanging on how well I did.
Yet accountability matters. It mattered then as well as today. Parents probably don’t get quite as upset over low music grades as they do over failing math and reading scores. Musically challenged high school graduates can probably find employment much more easily than their functionally illiterate peers.
Granted, not all teacher performance can be measured using test scores. Music and art educators—and those punchlines known as gym teachers— have effects on the academic success of students that cannot be easily quantified or assessed.
But the recently released teacher-evaluation data for public and charter schoolteachers are a great public service to parents and taxpayers. Despite the flaws, we have to start somewhere.
The evaluations are supposed to be a blend of 40 percent student learning and 60 percent teacher classroom performance. Critics point out that state tests have been marred by “rampant test score inflation” and teacher data reports based on them are worthless.
The United Federation of Teachers and their allies want us to believe that poverty and race explain why their students don’t perform well on state and federal assessment tests. Therefore, they say, it’s unfair to include student test results in teacher evaluations. But the job of teachers should be to reach all students and to get the best performance from them.
Critics say posting overall school ratings and ranks should be enough. They ask why individual teachers should be singled out when, for instance, individual cops and firefighters are not singled out and held responsible for neighborhood crime statistics or emergency response times.
It’s tough to hang the performance of a precinct or a firehouse on any one uniformed worker—although I’d favor making their disciplinary records public, because those matter much more for any one person’s performance—but despite all the legitimate caveats the UFT raises, it is undeniable that each teacher is a compelling influence on any student.
Grades, scores and personal assessments are diagnostic snapshots indicating either smooth performance or a larger problem. A yearly series of these snapshots allows for diagnostic patterns to emerge. I’d rather have an inferior teacher identified after three or four years than 10 or 20 years.
Former Wichita State basketball coach Gene Smithson had the letters “MTXE” stenciled onto his players’ shorts to reinforce his philosophy of “mental toughness and extra effort” for success on and off the court.
The same is true for students, teachers and school administrators. The UFT should emblazon “MTXE” on their letterhead, newsletter and union logo as a message to their membership. Parents should purchase “MTXE” refrigerator magnets, book covers, backpacks and cellphone covers to drive home this message to their children.
Teachers and union officials must realize the best job protection is superior performance, mental toughness and extra effort. If they can’t commit to that, they should look for work elsewhere.
Mr. Lewinsohn was undeterred by his tone-deaf students. He gave us his best effort each day. Teacher evaluations don’t denigrate great teachers. Bad teachers denigrate great teachers. Retired Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years.
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Tags: accountability, cops, disciplinary records, extra effort, firefighters, French horn, Gene Smithson, mental toughness, michael-benjamin, Mr. Lewinsohn, MTXE, performance, Schools, teacher evaluation, teacher performance, teachers, test scores, UFT, United Federation of Teachers, Wichita State
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