The Tampa Tribune had a long article on the front page below the fold on Monday titled, “Does school success pivot on teachers?” The article highlighted the fact that those teachers rated “highly effective” are more likely to be in schools with students with high grades. Wow, I am absolutely shocked.
The article listed the top three and bottom three elementary, middle and high schools and the percentage of “highly effective” teachers in each of the schools in Hillsborough County’s school district. The school superintendent, MaryEllen Elia, wants to encourage some of these highly qualified teachers to transfer to a school where the “challenges are great.” Talk of financial rewards are being considered.
There are 243 schools in the district and 152 are Title I schools which means they receive either free meals or reduced priced meals. Naturally, this generally means the students come from poorer families. For some reason, over the years, poor performance in schools has been linked to poverty. I do not agree and I will explain later why I believe that.
Several individuals from around the country state that the principals are a key factor. Kathie Christie, a vice president with the Denver-based Education Commission, stated that if good teachers are supported by good principals in low performing schools, positive results will occur almost immediately. Christie also stated that more pay might entice teachers to transfer to struggling schools, but with poor leadership they will not keep them.
I have preached and written for years that the key factor in any school is the principal. If the principal is a superb leader, the school will perform well and it is not necessary for the principal to be an educator. The principal must be educated and really like children. That type of principal will demand results and allow teachers the latitude to be innovative and interesting. There are many examples of leaders who assumed duties at struggling schools and turned them around. The best example of this might be the Glen Mills School in Pennsylvania which has adjudicated youths from all over the country. If one were to visit, he or she would think it was one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country. That only happened when a leader took charge. Joe Clark did the same in Patterson, N.J., when he took over a high school. These individuals were not supported by the staff initially, but they won them over and results followed.
I really become angry when I read or hear poverty being used as an excuse for not performing well in school. More often than not, it is not poverty per se that is the cause of poor performance but rather that there is little semblance of a family with both parents. The Hillsborough district is no different than Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New York or any of our large cities. Being poor does not make one stupid; but if there is no structure in the home that does make a difference. There is no positive male influence to show boys how to become men. Children look for guidance and direction and when it is provided, they perform.
I recall working with juvenile delinquents in Baltimore at a place called the Hickey School. They responded when we took over the school and most of the problems disappeared almost immediately. I spoke to most of the boys while I was at the school, and almost all had never had a positive male role model. If they knew who their father was, more often than not he was in jail. I doubt if anyone ever had sat down and talked to these guys. I suspect nothing much ever was expected from them. They were street-wise, but not ready for the real world at that point. We worked to change that.
The article in the paper glosses over the part that the principal plays in the system. The article mentions the leadership twice, but does not dwell on it. The school cannot create a positive home environment where none exists, but it can ensure a positive academic environment.
Education need not be boring if imagination is applied. History is fascinating, but I have been in classes where it is nothing but a bore. Science is the same. Imagination and innovation can make many topics and subjects interesting and the good teachers do this. The best teachers go where they will be appreciated and allowed to innovate.
Donald Myers is a retired Marine Colonel and regular contributor to Hernando Today. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.