Teaching Quality

by Rebecca Stussman ’12

This year, the Obama administration launched “Race to the Top,” a program designed to spark education reform and effective teaching practices by rewarding states that make significant improvements in their education systems with federal grants. Around the nation, teaching quality and student preparation have become a major concern as schools face increasing scrutiny.

Yet amidst this national concern for our country’s schools, MCPS remains heralded by many as a national standout. Most recently it was awarded one of only seven Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards, the highest presidential honor an organization can achieve. So does our established educational superiority somehow exempt us from the purge against ineffective teaching practices? At a time of teaching quality scrutiny and reform, how does Sherwood promote effective instruction in each class?

“[Teaching quality is ensured] mostly through observations and working with the resource teachers, who are most closely involved with the teachers on a daily basis,” said Assistant Principal Renee Brimfield.

MCPS groups teachers into departments based on the subject that they teach, with one teacher from each department appointed as resource teacher to supervise other teachers in the department. Resource teachers are expected to observe their teachers often, offer suggestions for improvement and present new ideas to their departments to promote innovative teaching practices.

Teachers identified as needing further support may receive increased observation or advice from their resource teachers. They can also consult with professional learning communities, which are teacher-support systems organized by course and available to all teachers.

Teachers who are in need of substantial assistance may be placed on peer assistance and review (PAR). Under PAR, teachers are given a peer mentor and support for a minimum of three months, after which they are reevaluated and placed on PAR for an additional three months if necessary. After six months on PAR, teachers must either be determined qualified to continue as a teacher or dismissed. This program is designed to eliminate clearly ineffective teachers from the classrooms and promote universally successful teaching. However, only three or four staff members at Sherwood have been placed on PAR since its enactment in 2001, less than one percent of teachers at Sherwood during that time.

“PAR has a connotation of being the way to get somebody fired. And I feel that’s unfortunate, because … to teachers really struggling, there should be a system in place to help them improve that’s not seen as a gateway to termination,” said social studies resource teacher Joe Sangillo. “Sometimes there could be really ineffective teaching going on, and I’m just not sure the system allows us to really intervene effectively.”

All teachers are administratively evaluated with observations, though these are usually only on formally specified evaluation years, which can be several years apart. In addition to these infrequent observations, the school conducts inspections to confirm the curriculum is implemented as well as student data analyses to ensure the material is being taught.

MCPS policy does not have a system of rewarding extremely effective teachers. Nevertheless, many teachers say they are compelled to work hard by the supportive school network and intrinsic value of teaching.

Spanish teacher Moira Kenyon cites the pleasant atmosphere and high expectations as the primary ways in which she feels encouraged to teach effectively. “I feel like Mr. Gregory and the other administration send the message of the core [teaching standards]” she said. “I think it’s my professional responsibility to teach well.”

While MCPS and Sherwood make efforts to provide teachers with the resources and support needed to effectively educate students, incompetent teachers can remain a persistent problem in an evaluation system that is lengthy and bureaucratic.

“I feel there isn’t an effective system to identify teachers who need improvement and help them,” said Sangillo. “I think it’s exceedingly difficult to remove a teacher. You could have a dangerously ineffective teacher and it’s pretty hard to remove that teacher.”

Teacher unions and bureaucratic red tape contribute to resistance in teaching quality enforcement at Sherwood, and in some ways these would seem to hurt the school’s ability to guarantee effective teaching.

“I think that there are some teachers who are still in the classroom that need more assistance than they are getting,” said English teacher Lori Leonard. “I don’t think I can honestly say that the enforcement of [teaching quality] is a priority … I think [the administration tries], but there’s also the union. The union helps protect some teachers who have become more lackadaisical in their teaching methods.”

It seems that, even with the continued influence of unions and apparent lack of effectively employed countywide policies, teaching quality will remain supported, though through means that may not always be wholly enforced.