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Posted at 9:51 AM ET, 04/12/2010

Teachers make schools great

By editors

By Sho Maruyama
Falls Church

The sentence “The fact is, schools become great only if engaged parents make it happen” was highlighted in the text of Caryn Ernst’s April 4 commentary on the D.C. schools, “A recipe for more choice schools in D.C.

Notably, however, this commentary appeared soon after the March 31 obituary of Jaime Escalante, an educational pioneer for his work in guiding poor Hispanic students to success on the tough Advanced Placement test in calculus and other subjects. Frequently, his students were being raised by uneducated or illiterate parents, and their scores amazed and dumbfounded national testers. The popular movie “Stand and Deliver” made his accomplishments famous — but obviously to no avail. We still blame students for their inability to learn, not their teachers for not teaching them.

The conclusion one can come to from Mr. Escalante’s accomplishments is that poor children, with or without breakfast; with or without books, newspapers, magazines at home; with or without decent classrooms can and will learn — if they are taught. And if they do not learn, they were not taught.

On far too many occasions, news articles present the circumstances of students’ home lives or the horrible conditions of their schools as a justification for why they have not learned to read or write and do math. No doubt such conditions make learning more difficult, but great teachers are still able to teach. When schools are able to attract and keep more great teachers like Mr. Escalante, our students will learn.

By editors  | April 12, 2010; 9:51 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, schools  | Tags:  Caryn Ernst, D.C. schools, Jaime Escalante, Sho Maruyama, “Stand and Deliver”  
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Next: A contract that puts 'children and teachers first'


perhaps your title should be "Great Teachers Make Schools Great".

I agree that in some cases certain teachers can make a huge difference in a childs education.....other teachers do not.
That being said the best case scenario would be for teachers and parents to work together.

Posted by: bertzel | April 12, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I wish journalists and columnists would do their homework. If all you did was watch the movie "Stand and Deliver," then you know all it takes is a little more love and a few pep talks. (Watch "To Sir with Love," for extra credit.) But the truth was a lot more complicated. The principal was a MAJOR player. He broke up gangs by transfering students; he fought the bureaucracy. At the beginning students were paid. They did not go from 5th grade math to calculus in a single year as the movie suggests, AND the legacy was lost when the principal left. Jaimie Escalante's final years are a sad tribute to entrenched small-minded bureaucracy.

Sure teachers are important. But much as it would be reassuring to pin the rap on them for not teaching, or the credit for teaching, there are other factors in play. The conditions for learning have to be in place. That means students show up, teacher discipline is supported (major), time is given for preparation. A dirty little secret is that scores and learning would skyrocket if one to four students could be ejected from most classes. The other twenty-five students would actually be able to learn. But we care more about the five trouble-makers who hold everyone else hostage.

Try teaching chemistry to students who show up twice a week (or less.) Never bring their books, never open them, and refuse to pay attention. And the principal comes by and scolds you for a noisy class and then runs back to his office. People like you don't want want saints. Until people become realistic about what works and what doesn't, we will continue to spin our wheels in political correctness.

One example is same sex classes. How many districts have made this simple change? It doesn't cost anything. And are you going to argue that hormonally charged teenagers learn chemistry or algebra better when totally distracted by the hunk or honey in the next row?

Posted by: donrus1 | April 12, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher -- the ONLY time we ever hear from a parent is when teir kid is in serious trouble or if they are failing miserably. Kids muddling along, as long as they are passing even if it is with Ds --- the parents seem just fine with that. So the notion that parents are going to lead school reform is a bad joke. There are a handful who get involved in anything even resembling a meaninful way. Ad they are the one's whose kids do just fine. We have a student body in the high school of 1,200 and less than 20 parents at the absolute highest ever show up for a PTL meeting. Usually it is single digits.

TEACHERS are the ones who make things happen in schools. Period. Those kids that are struggling along get prodded pushed and cajoled by their TEACHERS not their parents. Not by administrators. By their teachers. If you want real ideas of how to make schools better the only people with a good idea are teachers and the students who are actually tuned in to what is happening around them regarding education. Most parents have no clue. And all you anti-union conservatives who love to howl about unions - you are exactly the reason why unions are so necessary. You don't care about the schools, you just are 1. angry that your job does not have a union to protect your interests, or 2. you are angry that you have to pay a pittance in taxes. The kids that we are educating now are the ones who will pay for your Medicare and Social Security. You may want to start thinking of the big picture instead of nothing beyond next week.

Posted by: John1263 | April 12, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

john1263....I am so glad you do not teach my kids or in my school district for that matter. I'm guessing this article is NOT about you...

Posted by: bertzel | April 12, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Indeed, engaged, dynamic, talented and well-trained teachers make a big difference in the quality of teaching. But what this article discredits is that teaching and learning are not the same thing. To measure teaching quality by assessing learning is like estimating the number of green M&M's in a bag that contains a varying number of green, red, and blue ones, based on how chocolaty the bag is, on average. You know that the green ones are quite chocolaty, but you have no idea how chocolaty the blue and red ones are. Based on that information alone, you guess how many green M&Ms are in the bag.

Obviously that's not an effective way to determine how chocolaty the M&Ms are, and student learning is not an accurate gauge of teacher performance. Learning has three major components, of which teaching is just one. The other two, motivation and practice, are within the realm of parenting much more so than teaching (perhaps if student compliance with homework assignments was factored into this measure, it would be more accurate). So, if student learning is an accurate measure of teaching quality, then suppose the SAME teacher were to transfer from a school where the students' parents were say, 60% entrepreneurial, and highly engaged with the student's educational development, and went to, say, an urban inner-city school in the same district where the students largely come from impoverished, illiterate homes with single parents who have all they can handle with scrubbing toilets in some resort hotel. Then suppose the students score lower on standardized tests, which is quite likely. Has the teacher become less competent? Highly unlikely, yet that's what we suggest when we use student learning as a metric of teacher accountability.

We don't live in a perfect world, nor do we live in a world where everything works as predictably as it does on paper... we live HERE.

And somehow politicians, not educators, are deciding what's best for our kids. Isn't that kinda like insurance administrators and not doctors deciding what's best for our health?

If you are tired of the disingenuous spin and would like some HONEST commentary based on real, objective facts, go to

Posted by: nikFlorida | April 12, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Of course Teachers make schools great, but when it comes to a new referendum in smaller cities where the teachers have a big number in the voting power of the city it is not fair that these teachers should be allowed to vote on a referendum that has anything to do with their jobs, pay raises or spending tax dollars on things that they have an interest in personally. Thats a conflict of interest and maybe they should not be allowed to vote on special referendums.

Posted by: randykree | April 12, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Strong agreement with John1263!

Individual student motivation and maintaining classroom decorum (that is, teacher-applied, adminstration-backed discipline for inappropriate student conduct) are the keys to improving the public schools, not searching for "great" teachers.

If "great" teachers were the key to improving public schools, how to explain the fact that public schools -- even in the inner cities -- were much better in the 1950s than today? Were the schools full of "great" teachers in the 1950s? Arguably the 1950s teachers were, on average, slightly more talented than teachers today (because talented women had few other career options), but there is no reason to believe the 1950s teachers were mostly Stand-and-Deliver quality while today's teachers are incompetents. To the contrary, the fact that teacher salaries were significantly lower -- relative to other professions -- in the 1950s than they are today suggests that the 1950s teachers were less talented than today's teachers. The difference between the 1950s schools and today's schools is not teacher quality -- it's declining personal student motivation and deteriorating classroom decorum caused by administrators' unwillingness to support teacher-imposed discipline for disruptive student conduct.

Finally, even assuming a "great" teacher could motivate otherwise unmotivated students and could quell disruptive classroom misconduct through strength of personality, such supermen/women are extremely rare -- and will command high salaries in other professions. There will never be enough of them to begin to staff the public schools. School reform that focuses on the teachers -- rather than on factors impacting student motivation and classroom decorum -- is destined to fail.

Posted by: LaborLawyer | April 12, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Last Friday, two boys arrived for my first period advanced senior English course visibly drunk, high or both. They had been given permission by their parents to stay out all night on a school night. A student just showed up for the same class an entire hour late (a student teacher is doing today's lesson). This student has not arrived to school on time for five straight weeks--arriving 30-45 minutes late for a 90 minute block most days. The administration refuses to take action and my attempts to contact the parent have been unsuccessful.

This week, 80% of the students in my fifth period American history class will miss class for two days for track meets and two days for field trips--one an ENGLISH language concert as a SPANISH class trip. They will have only attended class for one day in a five day school week.

I could be the greatest teacher in the history of the world. But I can't teach kids who are high, drunk, or continually absent or tardy. Parents do have some responsibility. So do administrators who typically value exciting looking (but useless) field trips and sports competitions over time in the classroom.

Posted by: amielou31 | April 13, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

"If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught". This was firmly planted in my mind as a designated military 'Master Training Specialist'. It wasn't my bosses that drove me to do my best to make sure the subject matter left with the student having it firmly in his/her brain. In my view, we need many more GOOD teachers and a LOT fewer administrators/superintendents. Students learn nothing from those not in the classrooms with them.

Posted by: seyboldr | April 13, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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