Parents and Students Remind Us What Effective Educators Look Like. Is Washington Listening?

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

Two iconic educators—Jaime Escalante and Brian Betts—passed away this month. Known for their work in struggling schools (Garfield High School in Los Angeles and Shaw Middle School in Washington, D.C.), they shared a belief that students in low performing schools can find success as learners and a passion for doing the hard work to make that happen.

“Ganas. That’s all you need—ganas,” Escalante once stated, touting “desire to succeed” as the most important ingredient for Los Angeles barrio kids’ success.

“Nothing I’ve ever seen trumps personal relationships,” declared Brian Betts in a 2008 Washington Post interview about how he intended to turn around Shaw.

Relentless dedication to knowing their students and uncovering individual potential earned both educators high praise from parents and students. Unfortunately, the current national ideas on evaluating principal and teacher effectiveness and turning around low student achievement in schools do not incorporate such indicators.

I had the privilege of meeting Jaime Escalante in 1988, during a promotion for the movie “Stand and Deliver,” where told the story of how dozens of his Hispanic students passed the AP calculus exam. He spoke about the “ganas” it takes for educators to achieve such results. Escalante spent eight years building the math program that led to the story highlighted by the movie. He forged relationships with the principal, a core team of faculty, the community, and the feeder schools, and—most importantly—he succeeded in making math “cool” among students. As a result, his students wanted to succeed, not because of an innate interest in calculus, but because of a student-teacher relationship based on respect for learners and learning.

Under the Obama administration’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing ESEA, a principal like the one who supported Escalante’s dream of high achieving Hispanic math students would be drummed out after five years, and a teacher like Escalante would probably be replaced. Garfield was and remains a low performing school. The overall test scores for the school are still abysmal by state norms. Escalante didn’t even teach his first calculus course until his fifth year, when five students completed the course. His unorthodox teaching methods that produced the stellar results on the AP test were far from a “research-based instructional program” that would today be required at Garfield.

Turning around low performing schools is clearly an urgent need, yet Escalante’s story reminds us that transforming such a school to a beacon of learning takes time, hard work, and the persistence of many. I wonder how many stories like this never unfold due to the current turnaround policy, with its focus on immediate test score increases.

Which brings me to Brian Betts. Educators rarely make national news for doing something wonderful, so the media attention around this young principal’s tragic death stands out. The hundreds of tributes on the D.C. Public Schools website provide us with a glimpse of Betts’ effectiveness as an educator.

Parents and students alike identified Betts’ central success: he really knew each student. “He called my daughter by name; he was the first principal to do that.” “He knew something special about each student.” “He recognized and appreciated the uniqueness about each one of us, even the not so pretty.”

Was Brian an effective principal? He was in his second year at Shaw; test scores actually declined after his first year to 29% proficiency. Yet people believe he was going to make a difference—based on the data they had about the trust, relationships and respect for students he was building as a foundation for academic achievement.

Betts understood critical success factors for student achievement that remain elusive to our policy makers. You need to know learners and learning as deeply as you know the content you are going to teach to students. Research suggests that this knowledge could contribute more to student success over time than the test scores that federal policy would use to determine an educator’s effectiveness. This is not to suggest that academic growth shouldn’t be measured and be a part of educator evaluation. But in ignoring how well educators know and care for individual students, we are failing to capture the effectiveness data about what matters most to students: parents and teachers.

Teacher Appreciation Week is a time when parents and students recognize and reward teachers for their hard work and the lasting influence they have on individuals, not for composite test scores. This is the kind of evaluation that feeds the “ganas” within the teaching profession. I invite you to join me in expressing my appreciation for the teachers who excel in knowing their students, as Brian Betts and Jaime Escalante did.

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