^ Boston school reformer Mary Tamer : Marty Walsh needs to reappoint her

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Lawrence Harmon’s column in today’s Globe tweaked me to write once more about the prospects for school upgrade in Boston. My last column on this topic appeared well before the Mayor election. Much has happened since, and not just the selection of a new Mayor. School reform occupies center stage nationwide, as parents, students, and the job market push for — insist upon — huge changes in how we educate children, how rigorously, and to what purpose.

Harmon focuses on the City’s teacher evaluations, which he finds very suspiciously upbeat. 93 percent of teachers, he writes, land “in the exemplary and proficient categories on a new teacher-evaluation system.” He also notes that almost every BPS principal rated high. “Yet,” he goes on, “about two thirds of the city’s schools rank in the bottom 20 percent statewide based on student test data.”

He asks, “what is going on here ?” A few sentences later comes an answer : “It suggests that good teachers are unable to compensate for poverty, social ills, non-native English status, and other difficulties associated with urban schools.”

The suggestion rings true. Harmon says that it should not matter, that just as the Boston Police do not settle for the high rate of crime in certain neighborhoods but attack it head-on, so should the schools. No doubt that Harmon is right. But teachers aren’t a police force. Boston’s police patrol 24/7 ; teachers teach only seven hours a day, five days a week. Boston school children live by far the most of their day with someone other than their teachers.

I agree that the new teacher evaluations disservice everyone, the teachers included. No one working on any job does it perfectly. All of us can improve; all should try to do so. To have value, an evaluation system should do what my Phillips Andover American History teacher did ; “no one in this course will get an A,” he said, “because none of you can master the subject that well.” The best that anyone could do, he told us, was a B. My American history teacher was pressing the point that what he would be teaching us really, really mattered. Being the best teacher that one can be matters even more.

Harmon also quotes school committee member Mary Tamer at length, on the evaluation issue — especially of Boston Public school administrators. Her rigor and critique should be cherished by a system dedicated to improving itself.

That said, as I see it the big problem in urban public schools is not the competence of teachers or principals. The problem lies elsewhere, most often at home. If children are sent to school without a healthy breakfast; if they come from homes in dysfunction or commotion; if they cannot negotiate the English language; if they are prey to peer pressures, from bad decisions to worse; if at home no one ever reads to them, challenges them intellectually, engages their curiosity — if any or all of these home situations devils every part of a child’s life outside school, what is his life IN school likely to be ? Peer pressure becomes even more intense at school.

The home lives that I listed in the previous sentence come to school on the backs of all too many kids. Your kid may have the solidest home life in the neighborhood ,and it is not going to be enough, confronted as it will be in school itself by kids from problemed homes. A very few, remarkable kids can work through such peer pressure. A few can triumph even over their own home badness. But how many ? And there isn’t much that a teacher can do about it. Most Boston public school teachers I have known can rescue many kids from the badness; what about the others ? It cannot be all on the teachers.

School reform begins at home. If the parents or guardians aren’t fully committed to see that their kids triumph intellectually, morally, physically, and emotionally, and if they cannot rely on their neighbors to do the same with their own kids, urban public schools are going to continue to under-perform even with miracle men as teachers.

It is this time that we evaluate the parents and guardians. And time too that we expect no better of Boston public school kids than public school parents put into it.

Frankly if I were a Boston public school parent, I would grow grim about the certainty that my kid(s) will find it almost impossible to get that cutting-edge technology job — or even an entry level tech-competent position — because I am failing, my neighbor is failing, and thus the public schools are failing, too, because my neighbors and I aren’t demanding that school concentrate on testing, teaching, cajoling, piquing every child in class to work to the next level, to experiment, to imagine, and to really, really THINK. None of which my school can succeed at because too much class time is spent getting hepped-up kids to calm down, into some sort of order, into concentration.

No wonder that diligent parents choose charter schools if they can make the cut. But that too is not the answer. The only answer is the community-wide, full-metal jacket — much more than the competence of teachers and principals evaluated without compromise — that I have outlined. Anything less well work only partly, leaving some parents unsatisfied and some children unready for tomorrow’s mercilessly experimental jobs.

One final question : do you have any evidence that the new Mayor will spur a school reform as vast as the effort i have outlined ? I sure don’t. The voters of Boston already passed judgment on how much school reform they wanted. Mary Tamer supported John Connolly, as did I, for much the same reason: school reform cannot be piecemeal. Yet piecemeal it looks now to be. There will be some changes. More teachers and principals will be people of color. The school day will lengthen. Trade and technology curricula will expand, in partnership with universities, labor unions, and businesses. Some children will definitely benefit, somewhat. I doubt it will be anything like enough; yet I am willing to be proved wrong.

Harmon suggests in his column that Mayor Walsh should reappoint Tamer, whose term is at end. “Walsh…needs to hear strong, independent voices,” writes Harmon, “as he tackles the job of improving schools.” I agree.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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