One cheer on the way to respect

February 25, 1996|By Sara Engram

RESPECT. Aretha Franklin sings about it, warriors fight for it and everybody craves it. But respect doesn't just happen; it's earned.

Teachers, especially public-school teachers in beleaguered systems like Baltimore's, have had a particularly hard time earning respect. They often bear the brunt of criticisms they don't always deserve.

But if there is any truth to that old saw about crisis being another term for opportunity, the stand- off between the city school system and state legislators may be providing a chance for the city's teachers not just to earn respect, but also to set an example for other systems.

Legislators have demanded that the city establish a credible method for evaluating teacher performance. After dragging its feet for too long, the city last summer cranked up its efforts. Lo and behold, it now has a plan that is not only credible but goes further than any other system in the state in judging teachers according to their most important task -- making sure that students actually learn.

Legislators are rightly miffed that the plan at this point is still only a plan. If the city speedily implements it, their impatience should turn to respect.

The plan addresses two weaknesses of most traditional methods of evaluating teachers. It includes student performance as an important factor in the evaluation -- a factor sometimes ignored among checklists for things like showing up and following the rules. A series of tests will measure students against the progress that could normally be expected in their circumstances. Poverty and other obstacles will be taken into account.

Second, the city's plan includes a model for professional development, which is missing from most teacher evaluations. Teachers who don't measure up will get help to improve. If, after two years of coaching, their performances still fall in the bottom 10 percent, they will be dismissed.

Unsurprisingly, praise was not unanimous when the proposal was adopted by the Board of School Commissioners last month. One board member branded it ''punitive'' and ''criminal.''

What is punitive?

Punitive? If a school's mission is to turn out educated young people, isn't it punitive to students to allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom?

And wouldn't any self-respecting teacher welcome a system that recognizes merit, while offering to help under-performing colleagues raise their skills? Teachers who need help would choose a high-performing colleague as coach and mentor. That gives teachers an active role in the evaluation system and a stake in improving professional performance in the schools.

Unless an evaluation system distinguishes between good and bad performance, it does nothing to foster professional respect. Ultimately, it ends up being an exercise in self-deception. That's what often happens now. Data compiled in producing the new plan help illustrate the problem:

Between 1988 and 1993, almost half of all Baltimore city teachers who were evaluated were found to be ''superior.'' The number found unsatisfactory never reached more than one-half of 1 percent. Only six teachers were dismissed for incompetence, while each year 98 percent of those evaluated were rated satisfactory or better.

The city deserves some credit for its ambitious new plan. Few systems in the country have tackled the problem of evaluating teachers by assessing how much their students have learned. Few have gone beyond the checklist mentality to make sure that an evaluation also includes a plan for professional development.

Baltimore is benefiting from pioneers. Its task force, led by Christopher S. Lambert, an attorney with Advocates for Children and Youth, borrowed heavily from an assessment system developed in Dallas. For a professional-development model, the task force looked to Rochester, New York. Baltimore put the two ideas together, and then went further than either system in providing for dismissing teachers after three years of failing performances.

So here's a cheer for the city schools. They have a top-notch plan. If they actually implement it, we can make that three cheers -- served up with respect.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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