2014 National Teacher of the Year: Let’s stop scapegoating teachers

Sean McComb of Maryland was named 2014 National Teacher of the Year on Wednesday. In an interview, McComb, a strong advocate for public education, talked about the complexities of teaching, the challenges that face educators and school reform policies that scapegoat teachers while ignoring many of the powerful factors that affect student performance.

The 30-year-old teacher at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore County beat out three other finalists from Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania. He is in Washington this week with the state Teacher of the Year winners for the culmination of this year’s National Teacher of the Year program, which was started in 1952 by the Council of Chief State School Officers. As part of the honor, McComb will take a leave from teaching next year and travel around the country advocating for and representing his colleagues in the teaching profession.

Here are excerpts of a conversation I had with McComb on different aspects of education — including challenges facing students and teachers, teacher evaluation, Teach For America, charter schools and  modern school reform.

On the challenges many students face

I asked McComb about the biggest problem his students bring into the classroom. He said:

It’s not one single problem I can put my finger on. Any time a student is dealing with scarcity at home there are consequences. Sometimes it is a food scarcity, sometimes a financial scarcity. Sometimes it is love, or a scarcity of self-esteem. A study came out of Princeton University that said that if you are truly experiencing the stress of scarcity that it lowers your IQ by 15 points. It’s like missing a night’s sleep. We all know how well we function when we miss a night’s sleep. This is absolutely a challenge that teachers across the country, disproportionately in some communities, are facing. We are teaching whole children. We are not just teaching the math portion of their brain.

Responding to a question about whether school reform should be less focused on test scores and more on helping students get the support they need to ease these scarcities, McComb said:

These are some services that absolutely are a part of the puzzle when we are developing the next generation to help us compete economically but also be stewards of our democracy. When their learning is affected by the stresses they go through, that is an incredible challenge. 

On teacher evaluation and value-added methods

I asked McComb whether he supports teacher evaluation that links teacher pay and employment to student standardized test scores through a process known as value-added measures. VAM purports to be able to take the scores and measure the “value” a teacher adds to student learning through complicated formulas that can supposedly factor out all of the other influences and emerge with a valid assessment of how effective a particular teacher has been. Many assessment experts say VAM isn’t reliable, and earlier this month the American Statistical Association issued a report slamming the practice. McComb said:

I think that we are not able to quantify everything. We are certainly not able to quantify human achievement. I recently read the American Statistical Association’s statement on value-added measures, and I thought that they are experts in statistics far more than I am. So I thought there was some wisdom in their perspective on the matter.

I do think Maryland has found an interesting middle ground on student outcomes. A teacher can have a conversation with an administrator and decide on a certain skill that they want to measure in a student.  The student can take a pre-test so the teacher can see where that student is and then teach lessons to help the child improve that skill. The student can take a mid-year test, and the teacher can make adjustments and at the end of the year see how much growth there is in that classroom on a skill that teachers, in conversation with administrators, have determined can happen. This allows teachers to have a voice. It allows people who know the students locally to come up with assessments and measurements that are worthy of our children.

We need to think long and hard about what we are doing. Our country deserves a conversation about how we truly want to measure students and teachers. To me that means multiple measures. My child at 8 weeks old is complex, and he will grow to be a very complex person. To measure his learning, there should be multiple measures that are true to the complexity that he and all children bring into the classrooms.

On the morale of teachers

I asked McComb about teacher morale, noting that surveys show that it is at its lowest point in decades because of policies that teachers believe are targeting them through unfair evaluation systems, the reduction or loss of tenure and collective bargaining rights, and other reforms. He said:

I think our work is incredibly complex and incredibly taxing and incredibly important. And those factors aren’t always recognized in what we see around us when there are decisions that are made and policies that come down that don’t seem to respect that. Or you read headlines that seem to target teachers. That all relieves responsibility for other factors that go into student achievement, like income inequality. We need to address the whole child.

The teachers I work with are incredible. They pack everything in to the school day. I think that if we allow ourselves to scapegoat teachers then we are letting a lot of factors [that affect student performance] off the hook and we avoid a conversation that we need to have about what we want in this country and what we want for our country.

On charter schools

I asked him if he thought the movement to expand the number of charter schools helped student achievement, hurt it or was a distraction from the work of improving traditional public schools, where the vast majority of students are educated. He said:

I think charter schools are an attempt to answer a really difficult question about what to do in inner cities where we have isolated populations facing incredible challenges. I think there is a lot of literature about how successful they are and how equal they are. I think when we compare a school that can make choices about who enters and what services they get and you compare that to a public school that opens its school to all children, then that’s not a fair comparison.

On the Common Core State Standards

I asked him his views on the Common Core initiative and the growing controversy over new Core-aligned standardized tests being developed to assess students and teachers. He said:

From my perspective as a secondary school English teacher, the standards that I know and am familiar with are strong, and I’m comfortable with them. Some people whose opinions I respect have problems with the standards for early years and think they are not developmentally appropriate. I think we have to look at that. We have to have a conversation that separates the standards from the tests and the business entities that get lumped into that conversation.

On Teach For America

I asked him whether he believes the five-week summer training that Teach For America provides to its corp members, who are then placed in high-needs schools, is enough. He said:

I think that teaching is incredibly challenging and complex work, and I really valued my preparatory experience. It served me well as an early teacher, and I think the challenge of the classroom would have been far more difficult to handle without the training that I received at Pitt. Children deserve a teacher who is well prepared to work with those children… I haven’t gone through the Teach For America training, so I can’t say to what degree it prepares them. But I can say that even with the one jam-packed year of training and the prerequisites I took prior, I still felt, as most first-year teachers do, that I could have used more preparation.

You can read more about McComb here. And  here you can take a quiz that a majority of the 2014 winners took this week after visiting some of D.C.’s historic monuments — and collectively received a B.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 30