How to identify bad teachers: Ask a parent

Sep 5, 2011

Most people can remember a favorite teacher – the one who got you love a certain book or made science class exciting. But you may also remember that bad teacher – the one who made your life miserable. And according to the studies, those teachers may have had just as big an impact on your education.

About 25 soon-to-be first graders are clinging to their parents. The kids are about to start class at Ramsey Elementary in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. And the school just posted a list with something almost as exciting as entering the first grade: who their teacher is.

Heather Duff has been waiting patiently with her daughter Cameron and is looking forward to meeting this new teacher.

Parents here talk. When Duff runs into another mom she knows, Nicole Symons, both agree:

"If they don't have a very good and loving teacher, it can sour their whole feel of school and education," Symons says.

"Yeah, and trust with their teacher too, that it is a safe learning environment," Duff adds. "I think that's big too."

A few minutes later, the big doors open and anxious kids and parents head for the classrooms.

Getting the right teacher – and not getting the wrong teacher – has helped drive a change in the way parents send their kids to school. These days more than a quarter of parents don't go with their assigned public school. They opt for charter schools, home schooling, or schools in a nearby district, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That's what Ann Cone did with her nine-year-old son.

Cone lives in Post Falls, Idaho. But her son Dalton doesn't go to school here. He goes to school in the next town over, in Coeur d'Alene.

Cone heard that her son would have better teachers in the Coeur d'Alene district, and after meeting the local first grade teacher and having her fears confirmed, it was decided.

"I drive him to Coeur d'Alene every day," Cone says. "But yeah, it was worth it, it was way worth it to make sure that he has the teachers I think he needs."

Parents have known for years that the teacher makes a difference, says Eric Hanushek. He's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Only now researchers like Hanushek do statistical analysis on the subject, and he says the results are surprising.

"What we found is some kids can move much farther ahead of other kids all because of the luck of the draw of which teacher they get," Hanushek says.

He and other researchers have found that the teacher is the deciding factor in a child's education. So much so that a bad teacher, or a series of bad teachers, can set a child back several grade levels.

Here's the problem though. These studies are all based on analysis of student test scores, not on what goes on in the actual classroom. Are bad teachers too nice? Are they too mean? Are they traditional? Or out of the box?

Hanushek says there has been some research trying to determine the characteristics of a good and bad teacher ...

"It turns out that this research has not been very successful," he says. "We don't have a good checklist. Teachers do it in different ways."

Many educators argue there are observable differences between good and bad teachers; you can look at whether they have control over the classroom, engage students, their organization and mastery of the material. In fact, those things are the basis for most teacher employment evaluations.

But more administrators and politicians are pushing to use test data.

"When we talk about bad teachers or ineffective teachers, the question is, what can we use, to make the decision that they shouldn't be teaching," says Nancy Stowell, superintendent of Spokane schools, Washington's second largest district.

"And I personally believe when children come in in September we ought to be able to measure where they are and when they leave at the end of the school year, every teacher needs to have added at least one year's educational growth."

Idaho recently passed a series of reforms that make end-of-year results a factor in teacher salary and bonuses. And the Obama administration's Race to the Top grants require evaluation systems to use achievement data.

Stowell would like to see Washington do the same. And yes, she says, she believes her district does have bad, or as she prefers, ineffective teachers.

"I'd like to be able to tell you that we don't have any," Stowell says. "But that wouldn't be true."

Bad teachers aren't just a problem for students, but for another group: Teachers.

"It does bother me that it gives me a bad name," says Brooke Matson. "When somebody has a bad teacher and then say 'Teachers these days suck.'"

Matson is 28 and teaches at M.E.A.D. Alternative High School in Spokane. She recently formed a group called Radical Teachers to bring her colleagues together to share ideas about innovative teaching.

Matson worries that calling teachers "bad" if their student doesn't pass a test won't lead to better teachers, as advocates hope, but to less creative ones.

"Tests, they cut a small piece and say 'That's what's important and everything else is not' and that's very morale killing for a teacher who's passionate and loves their subject and thinks all parts are important," she says. "And I want to be that teacher."

Like everyone, she agrees that making sure kids have great teachers is crucial. After all, it was a great one who inspired her to teach.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network