Yesterday’s LA Times profile of Zenaida Tan, an elementary school teacher who has been extraordinarily successful in helping students learn English and math, illustrates an important facet of the way we understand teacher quality.
Most teachers are unionized public employees with contractually defined job descriptions whose pay falls within a narrow middle-income distribution. This has a huge effect on the way we perceive them. Quality is seen mainly in terms of qualifications and competence: we want sufficiently trained teachers who competently manage classrooms and deliver mandated curricula. Among those who meet this standard, one is about as good as another.
This way of thinking allows for far more downward variance in quality, conceptually, than upward variance. So we don’t allow people without bachelors degrees to teach and we’re alarmed when poor children are disproportionately taught by uncertified teachers. Violence is unacceptable, as is gross misbehavior like passing out drunk in class. Classrooms shouldn’t be chaotic. And we understand what certain kinds of gross educational malpractice looks like, as with stories of the teacher who passes out mimeographed worksheets at the beginning of class and orders children to work silently while he drinks coffee and reads the newspaper for the next 35 minutes.
But what does the other end of the quality distribution look like? What kind of teaching is as good as mimeographed worksheets are bad? We don’t really know. The qualifications-and-competence mindset doesn’t allow us to know. We can’t see it, and so gradually we allow policies and institutions and organizational cultures to evolve that pretend it doesn’t exist. So it is with Zenaida Tan:
The Los Angeles Unified School District has hundreds of Jaime Escalantes — teachers who preside over remarkable successes, year after year, often against incredible odds, according to a Times analysis. But nobody is making a film about them. Most are like Zenaida Tan, working in obscurity. No one asks them their secrets. Most of the time, no one even says, “Good job.” Frequently, even their own colleagues and principals don’t know who they are…
Morningside Elementary in San Fernando is in many ways an average school for the district…its pupils are largely poor and still struggling with English. Its test scores are below the state goal but in the middle of the pack for L.A. Unified.
In this very ordinary school, year after year, Tan quietly accomplishes extraordinary things. In the 2008-09 school year, four of Tan’s students started below grade level in math. By the end, they were all advanced. In English, nine of her students started below grade level. All but two ended the year at grade level or higher.
Tan is 62 but looks to be in her 40s. An immigrant like many of her students, she understands what they face. She is still self-conscious about her strong accent from her native Philippines, which she left at 27. When not teaching, she is a marathon runner, with the wiry frame to show for it. Last spring, she finished Boston’s in 4 hours, 20 minutes.
Inside the classroom, she sets a sprinter’s pace, at times zipping around her students’ desks in an athletic shirt and shorts. Tan is not reading from a district playbook or drilling her students in how to take tests. She says she has little patience for the district’s rigid curriculum and at times ignores it. That gets her into trouble on occasion with district administrators, who urge teachers to stay on the same pace.
Tan brims with innovative ways to reach limited-English students, handle discipline problems and keep the kids engaged. “I do a lot of singing, games,” she said. “It doesn’t look like a lesson.”
But no one asks for her advice. She says her fellow teachers at Morningside consider her strict, even mean. She tends to keep to herself.
“Nobody tells me that I’m a strong teacher,” she says…
By the LAUSD’s measure, Tam simply “meets standard performance,” as virtually all district teachers do — evaluators’ only other option is “below standard performance.” On a recent evaluation, her principal, Oliver Ramirez, checked off all the appropriate boxes, Tan said — then noted that she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times.
“I threw it away because I got upset,” Tan said. “Why don’t you focus on my teaching?! Why don’t you focus on where my students are?”
Ramirez said he wants to give more recognition to his excellent teachers, but with no objective measure to rely on, he’s concerned about ruffling feathers. “What about the teachers who feel they should have been recognized?” he said. “There’ll be a whole mess. The district knows this would open up a can of worms.”
“That’s why it doesn’t happen.”
There’s a natural tendency to proceed from here to the conclusion that we need to intensively study teachers like Tan so we can help others be more like them. And we should, this will be valuable research. But we ought not expect it will produce a new list of qualifications and competencies to which every teacher must adhere. Just as there are many different kinds of great writers and lawyers and artists, so too does great teaching come in all manner of variations. This should be seen as entirely positive for the teaching profession. The jobs worth having–and worth paying for–are those that can’t be wholly reduced to definable rules.
Yet the union that purports to represent Tan has done nothing but oppose the creation of the only measures that accurately identify her value as a professional. In doing so, it helps depress the public understanding of all teachers as professionals. If the LA Times hadn’t performed these value-added calculations and published them, who would have? How long do great teachers have to wait to be recognized? How long are they going to be held hostage to a mindset that pretends they don’t exist?