by Jessica Lahey
In the wake of last week’s release of New York City Teacher Data Reports, educators and administrators are debating what exactly the value in a high value-added teacher looks like. Even teachers who scored high marks on the Teacher Data Reports question the value of tests that cannot possibly evaluate every aspect of what it means to be a great teacher, and the value that teacher imparts to his or her students.
The new feature-length documentary A Place in the World, directed by Adam Maurer and William Reddington, addresses the question of teacher value and the role of a school in building community. The documentary chronicles two years at The International Community School (ICS), a K-6 charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County is the largest refugee resettlement area in the country and the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. Half the students at ICS are recent immigrants and refugees from war zones, and half are local children from DeKalb County.
The film focuses on two educators: Drew Whitelegg (Mr. Drew to his students), a first-year teacher, and Dr. Laurent Ditman, Principal of ICS. Mr. Drew, formerly a post-doctoral Fellow at Emory University, speaks honestly about how tiring his job as a fourth-grade teacher is, how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the challenges inherent in teaching a population of barely English-literate, emotionally and physically terrorized children how to function as educated members of American society. “Teaching at a university was a dawdle compared to teaching here. I mean it really was. And there’s a sense that you are in this for the long haul. But the rewards – the rewards here are absolutely endless. And they don’t come from all the great moments, they come from the small moments.”
According to Mr. Drew, the education gap that divides the American and refugee students in his fourth grade classroom at ICS is created by language deficits. Mr. Drew is not talking about language deficits in terms of the ability to hold a basic conversation, he’s talking about cultural vocabulary, the connotation words carry in American culture that help proficient readers understand context and relevance. Mr. Drew gives an example in the film: The math problem 1/2 + 1/4 written numerically, as a math problem, is something his students can do. But ask this same problem as a word problem, with one kid baking cakes and giving half away to friends and then deciding to give another quarter away to another friend, “then it’s not a test of math, it’s a test of language ability.” Many of Mr. Drew’s students come to his classroom with no knowledge of English, and some students, such as Bashir, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, have no understanding of the concept of school. Bashir spent his first days at ICS wandering the halls, walking in and out of classrooms, calling out for his father. Principal Laurent Dittman recounts the story of a girl from the refugee camps in the Sudan who spent her first weeks at ICS huddled under a table, hiding from whatever dangers she had survived in the Sudanese refugee camp.
Dr. Dittman, himself an immigrant and the child of Holocaust survivors, believes in school as a refuge from his students’ unsettled home lives. He understands his students’ impulse to hide under tables in order to escape. “The first thing I learned from my parents was how to hide. When something bad happens, or is about to happen, you hide. I see that in many of the kids at the school.” Dr. Dittman views his school as a refuge for his students, a place to come out of hiding and learn. Dr. Dittman says of his own upbringing in an immigrant family in France, “I really liked school. It was a safe place. My parents were refugees and things at home were not always a lot of fun, and I saw school clearly as a refuge.”
When asked about the standards his students are expected to meet under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), his outlook is not quite as hopeful. “According to NCLB 2014, all students – 100% – will be proficient in all subject matters. What’s the old Garrison Keillor, everybody is above average? That doesn’t make any sense. My guess is that in a few years, all those standards, all those compulsory standardized tests will be a bad memory. I think that the pendulum is going to swing back the other way and return to a more rational, less ideological approach to education.”
ICS did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2011 under NCLB. Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew, who educate malnourished, traumatized, impoverished and previously uneducated children, must cover core subjects such as math, science, and history while helping their students find a place in American society. They are not simply teaching American history, they are teaching their students how to be Americans. The making of Americans is currently not a category in the Teacher Data Reports’ calculation of a teacher’s value-added assessments.
For validation on that front, Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew do not look to test scores and value-added assessments; they look to their students. Dr. Dittman thinks back to that that one Sudanese girl, hiding under the classroom table. His voice breaks as he recounts the ending to her story. The girl refused to come out until one day her teacher crawled under the table and joined her there. Once her teacher had gained the girls’ trust, she felt safe enough to crawl out from under the table and join the class. According to Mr. Drew, “I don’t think teachers should blow their own trumpets or credit themselves overtly, but I think that you can go home at the end of the day and say, you know what, I’ve made a difference, you know, and the world is actually a better place from what I did today.”
As teachers and administrators move forward and continue to do the job of teaching this country’s students, it is important to remember that not all value is quantifiable. The Teacher Data Reports, in all their margins of error and fuzzy logic, can never get at the real value of this country’s teachers.
Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.