Don’t Be Left Out Standing in Your Field

Etched in my memory is the image of a card I received decades ago. The picture: a lone cow standing in a large field. The text: “Out standing in your field.” It struck a chord. As someone who went off to college to be a high school math teacher but took a detour into youth work that became a journey into youth policy, I felt very much as if I was out standing in my field, whatever field it was.

Two recent news jolts caused me to wonder how many teachers feel that they are out standing in fields, with uncertain fence lines and hidden land mines. Last month the U.S. Department of Education released its annual “Condition of Education” report.

It’s a tangle of data, but what caught my eye was a chart on “out-of-field” teachers.

In 1999-2000, one in five middle school students were being taught English by teachers who were not certified in that subject. Data from the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing survey documents that students in high poverty and high minority schools are much more likely to have out-of-field teachers.

This data is not new. It was the title, “out-of-field teachers,” that hit me. I wondered: What would the data look like on teachers who are out of touch or out of reach?

Education advocates such as the Public Education Network use teacher certification, retention and distribution as metrics for teacher quality. Repeatedly, students and parents tell us that these qualifications are necessary but not sufficient. Relationships, relevance, reach and respect are the unofficial measures of teacher quality.

These comments are not new. Student focus groups, summits and surveys are now politically correct activities. The data are there, collected by schools. But, as one local California school official said in a recent interview, “We get student input … all the time. The problem is, we don’t have a systematic way to hold on to that information and act on it.”

A new website, www.ratemyteachers.com, offers one solution: Put the students in direct contact with the teachers via the Internet. Students can log on and fill out forms to rank specific teachers, providing written comments and rating the teacher’s easiness, helpfulness, clarity and popularity.

The site has come under criticism from teachers and districts. Students cannot log on from school computers in Montgomery County, Md., where I live. The Washington Post (“Students Fill Grade Book on Teachers at Web Site,” Oct. 6) reports that administrators fear that “instead of improving teaching, the ratings could push already stressed teachers out of the profession by subjecting them to public, although anonymous, barbs.”

“One negative comment, one negative interaction, is the thing that you go home with,” one teacher told The Post.

I wonder whether this and other educators have the same concerns about the impact of negative comments and ratings on overstressed students.

The website rating system can be abused. A youth can post multiple entries about one teacher, and those entries can be painfully blunt. The rating system is unscientific. The students who choose to post comments are probably more likely to have had very good or very bad experiences.

But the system is not dangerous. And if we cannot find better ways for young people to provide feedback to the people who are paid to work with them – whether those people are teachers, youth workers, probation officers or health care professionals – then we will all be out standing in our fields, rather than outstanding in them.

Districts that do not want their teachers to rely on the website for feedback should create feedback loops closer to home. What Kids Can Do (www.wkcd.org) is testing the power of structured student-teacher dialogues about improving teaching and learning. Youth working with Listen UP (www.listenup.org) are creating short spots on what makes a good teacher and a good school, which will be released on a CD-ROM.

On the community side, organizations such as Community Networks for Youth Development in San Francisco continue to break the mold by working with researchers like Michelle Gambone to do two things: First, create youth surveys that give programs direct feedback on how well they provide the core elements of positive learning environments – safety, relationships, skill-building, participation and opportunities to contribute to the community. Second, work with practitioners to engage youth in discussions about changes that youth programs and workers need to make.

In almost every case, the feedback from this process led to significant program improvements within a year. So there’s the good news: When adults listen, adults learn.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings, including the e-mail conversation described here, are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.


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