Further Confessions of an Outlier

January 31, 2012

About five or so weeks ago, I made this confession:

"I graduated high school eighth in my class, and then proceeded through undergraduate and graduate school to achieve a doctorate, almost exclusively making As along the way and being regularly praised for my academic ability. But let me pause for a moment about those K-12 years.

"To this day, I cannot recall really trying in school—not time spent studying or finding anything asked of me being that difficult. In fact, especially when I took standardized tests, I always felt I was doing something wrong; it felt like cheating to zip through tests and score in that rarefied air of the 99th% percentile."

The point of that confession was to confront and reject the rugged individualism myth that drives much of the "No Excuses" Reformers' narratives about students, teachers, and schools; they suggest that those who succeed earn that success, and that those who fail also deserve that failure. The dividing line, for them, is simply effort.

This confession focuses on the role and influence of teachers since "No Excuses" Reformers and a whole host of politicians, including President Obama, are beating the teacher quality drum—notably citing a recent study on value-added methods for evaluating and rewarding teachers (linking teachers to student test scores) that has not been peer-reviewed and has been widely challenged for the conclusions drawn by the researchers and the media.

                                                         --

Teachers Matter: Beyond Measurement and Data

As I noted in my first confession, I was always a top student from first grade through earning a doctorate—always earning B+ and A-range grades in my classes and usually being identified as scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests. What I want to emphasize here is that over thirty years of being a student, my grades and standardized tests scores were amazingly stable despite my having a wide range of quality among my many teachers (yes, gasp, I had some bad teachers).

Teachers never impacted significantly my grades or tests scores for three decades, but the individual teachers greatly influenced my learning, my interests, and even my course in life—none of which can be found in any of the data linked to my learning.

I may be able to name every teacher I ever had, in fact. Ms. Landford, Ms. Townson, Ms. Westmoreland, Ms. Parks—these were the first teachers I had and I recall many moments from their classes to this day, although I began school in 1967 in the South where integration had just begun (the adjacent county to my childhood home did not fully integrate until the early 1970s).

And I vividly recall having had five African American teachers and administrators in my public school life: Ms. Parks (who confronted the entire class about racial slurs and planted an important seed in my young mind), Ms. Haywood, and Mr. Scipio (my high school science teacher who inspired me so deeply I left high school to major in physics) as teachers and Mr. Washington and Mr. Blackman as administrators.

But my high school English teacher, tenth and eleventh grades, Mr. Harrill, took the initiative to say to me, "Paul, you should think about being a teacher." Then, I laughed and even scoffed at this idea, but just six years later, I stood in the exact room Mr. Harrill left to move to the district office and was the English teacher. About a decade later, I entered the same EdD program Dr. Harrill completed, and by 2002, I was holding the tenure track position Dr. Harrill left to return to public education.

If someone wants to give credit to someone or something for my good grades and test scores, I have some clues: the accident of my mother and father conceiving and birthing me, the magnificently supportive and vibrant life and household my working-class parents provided me (this hint cannot be expressed here as much as it should be), and hundreds of books I consumed (including the 7000 comic books I collected throughout junior high and high school).

Grades and test scores, however, don't tell anyone much about my education, and about the dozens and dozens of wonderful, bright, kind, and compelling people who I am honored to have called "teacher"—Ms. Simpkins, Mr. Bailey, Ms. Dula, Ms. Olive, Ms. Neal, Mr. Kitchens...Dr. Moore, Dr. Predmore, Dr. Anderson, Dr. Kridel, Dr. Holt...

Teaching matters and teachers matter, but not in any ways we can measure and trap in data. For the many reformers who claim otherwise, they are insuring that we will soon ruin the very aspects of teacher that genuinely create high-quality teachers.

At the end of January 2012, I had a birthday and attended the annual conference for the South Carolina Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE). On my birthday, my Facebook wall was covered with happy birthday wishes—most of which came from former students. As I walked around the SCCTE convention, I realized about a dozen teachers there had at one time been students of mine (some of them, by the way, think I was wonderful, and a few, not so much).

These are the things of being a student and a teacher. Not VAM data, not merit pay, and not schemes to fire the bottom 25% each year while cramming 40 students in so-called top-teachers' classes.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy...