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The Good Teacher-Bad Teacher Debate

The full effect of the Vergara v. California decision has yet to be seen, but already it has reignited the old debate about identifying good and bad teachers ("Lost in tenure debate: What makes teachers good or bad?" San Francisco Chronicle, Jun. 15). The facile response is that everyone in a school knows which teachers fall into one category or another. I'd like to explore this assertion.

I maintain that evaluating teachers is far more difficult than evaluating employees in other fields. That's because successful teaching is a delicate balance between teaching subject matter and inculcating attitudes about the subject matter.  It's altogether possible to teach a subject well but to teach students to hate the subject in the process.  I've overheard students say to each other that they aced the material but were elated that the class was finally over.  Does the teacher of such a class deserve to be called effective?  Conversely, I've had students who were ecstatic about their former class but demonstrated huge deficits in their knowledge and skills.  Does the teacher of that class deserve to be called ineffective?

Complicating matters, students' opinions about who is a good or bad teacher sometimes change with the passage of time. I've made it a point to attend the 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year class reunions of the high school where I taught for my entire 28-year career.  Students sometimes admit that they misjudged their teachers.  When I asked for details, they said that they lacked the maturity to make valid judgments. I grant that this is strictly anecdotal evidence, but I wonder if a study would confirm my observation.

Before reformers extol the Vergara verdict, I wish they would spend a few weeks in a public school classroom.  I think the experience would help them to understand just how difficult it is to evaluate teachers fairly.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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