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School puts out SOS for teachers


Talk about hanging your dirty laundry out for everyone to see. This article is not for the faint of heart. If regular education is that bad, what is special education like in the state of Oregon?

11/17/02 by BETSY HAMMOND

Whitaker Middle School Principal Tom Pickett offers a startling pronouncement: My school is unlikely to educate children adequately until one-fourth of the teachers get replaced.

With Whitaker under the gun to make a huge academic turnaround, students, parents and some teachers have joined in the unusual plea: Please free us from our bad teachers, because we'll never get better fast enough with so many of them here.

"The issue is us," Pickett says.

In one eighth-grade English class this month, "Sesame Street" was shown all period as an incentive for students to finish a writing assignment.

In a science class, after a lesson on wind patterns, every student answered a key end-of-chapter question wrong -- yet the teacher praised their work.

In a history class, the teacher assigned eighth-graders to make construction-paper hats.

The idea was that the hats would bring alive a lesson on Colonial Jamestown. But on the blackboard were no words, only a diagram of how to cut and paste. Discussion was not about the Colonists' struggles, but "Who took my glue?"

"I feel like I'm in kindergarten," one student complained.

In the past month, since Whitaker was put on the federal failing-schools list, complaints about bad teaching have reached a crescendo. The listing means that, if reading and math scores fail to shoot up by the time this year's sixth-graders finish eighth grade, the school could be closed.

"The No.1 need in this school is fresh blood, fresh teachers," says Nell Simien, whose grandchildren and foster children attended Whitaker the past three years. "What happens with some teachers in this school is a conspiracy to keep kids from learning."

How the most powerful forces in local education respond to the school's cries for a personnel shake-up could telegraph the fate not only of Whitaker, but also of other low-income, low-performing schools in Oregon: Will drastic steps be taken to give all students an equal shot at high-quality teachers? Or, as studies show, will the academically neediest students continue to get the lion's share of bottom-tier teachers?

Leaders of Portland's teachers union say the premise is wrong.

There is no evidence Whitaker has a teacher performance problem, they say. Among 25 teachers, one is on an official program of assistance, they say.

"If you have this critical mass of people, I would expect more," says Nancy Arlington, a lead representative of the Portland Association of Teachers.

Pickett, a veteran principal who took the helm at Whitaker a year and a half ago, remains upbeat, putting in 10-hour days to help forge a schoolwide reform plan. Huge doses of commitment, time and money are being poured into improving Whitaker, with teachers at the forefront, he says.

But he says he doubts that effort will pay off unless a critical mass of stubbornly ineffective teachers is ejected from Whitaker.

Doing that could take years. In Oregon, firing an experienced teacher generally requires a year of bad evaluations, a school board vote to warn the teacher, then an additional year of coaching to help the teacher improve.

Even then, a pink slip might not stick. Portland's hardest-fought case against a teacher ended with a court order that proof of incompetence was missing and the teacher deserved his job back.

So Pickett is campaigning to get teachers on his poor-performance list transferred to other schools, where each could get the intensive supervision he'd give them -- if there weren't a half-dozen other teachers needing it, too.

The union and some Whitaker teachers agreed to transfers in the past, but school district higher-ups blocked the move, Pickett and the union say.

Nationally, studies show that schools serving mainly low-income or minority students are far more likely than schools in more advantaged neighborhoods to be saddled with bad teachers.

And an emerging body of research shows the impact of having a great teacher versus a weak one is staggering -- enough that average students can get pushed to the level of gifted students or dragged down to a level requiring special education simply because they get three great teachers in a row or three lousy ones. Most students who spend one year with a bad teacher never recover, even if they get good teachers for years afterward, studies from elementary and middle schools show.

Now, with state and federal education policies pressuring schools to get all students to the same high standards, advocates for disadvantaged students are beginning to insist that the most important educational resource of all -- a high-quality teacher -- be put within equal reach of all children.

That sounds simple. But Whitaker is a case study in how powerful forces can prevent it.

Portland School Superintendent Jim Scherzinger, who blames the teacher contract for impeding teacher transfers, ultimately may decide it isn't possible to shake up teachers at Whitaker. Entrenched district personnel practices, the rights of teachers to decide where they work, the ability of other schools to control who they hire and the power of parents with clout to keep weak teachers out of their child's school all could trump the school's call for better teachers.

If so, Whitaker may not survive, its champions say.

"I honestly believe this is Whitaker's final chance," Pickett says.

"The kids in this community deserve a reformed school, and we don't have much time. We have to do it now."

Students feel short-changed Most Whitaker teachers share the sense of urgency. But not all.

One eighth-grade English class has been assigned the same large-print novel since school opened, with students expected to make it only two-thirds of the way through in seven weeks.

"Our teacher tells us to read one paragraph and tell her what color we feel like it is," says Mykiesha King. "She treats us like we're third-graders."

Teachers call in sick so often that Whitaker uses a special term to make substitutes sound more appealing: "guest teachers."

Mondays are the days teachers skip most. That's when teachers are assigned to meet together after school to plot new strategies or get professional training.

Eighth grade is the epicenter of Whitaker's educational emergency, because those students face state tests in 80 school days, and the results will decide whether Whitaker is classified "unacceptable." Yet, for two weeks in October, two of the three eighth-grade English teachers were out sick.

In many Whitaker classrooms, students talk back to teachers, leave their seats or sit and do nothing for long stretches.

But the next class period, with a different teacher, the same students appear riveted by parallelograms, by a science lab on water quality, by dissecting vocabulary words and creating images to help memorize their meanings. They write complex papers, compete to answer the teacher's questions, turn in their homework.

By the dozens, Whitaker students voice a shared lament: Too many teachers let them coast.

"The teachers are not willing to take charge. They're just letting kids run things," says eighth-grader Terry Henry, lolling his way through another afternoon, sensing he's "not really" getting prepared for high school.

"I could learn a lot more," he says.

Teachers lay blame elsewhere Many Whitaker teachers resent the way the school and its faculty are being maligned.

Look at the circumstances under which teachers have labored, they say: Four principals in five years. Air quality problems from radon and mold so severe the school had to temporarily move to two mothballed elementary schools. Unrelenting negative coverage in the media.

How could achievement not suffer, even as teachers give their all?

More dauntingly, these teachers say: Look at whom we have to teach.

Three-fourths of Whitaker's 450 students are poor. Most start middle school a year or two behind in reading and math. Few parents emphasize that school is important, some teachers say. The results Whitaker gets are admirable under those circumstances, they say.

One eighth-grade teacher said that, instead of upending bad teachers, the school needs to send away its worst students. They're the ones responsible for dragging down achievement, said the teacher, who asked not to be named.

A student's home life is key, says seventh-grade math and science teacher Andrew Borgstadt. "Things have definitely improved here, but if you don't have support at home, it shows."

Borgstadt says he assigns homework, but many students don't do it. He expects proper behavior, but many don't exhibit it. He wants a lot for these students, but often, their parents don't care, he says. "If kids come ready to learn and they try and they have support at home, they do well in my class."

Sophie Weatherspoon, an eighth-grade math and science teacher, says Pickett is wrong to imply that if he could oust weak Whitaker teachers, strong ones would flock to replace them.

Northeast Portland demographics drive many teachers away, says Weatherspoon, who is African American. There's too much poverty. And half the students are African American, 20 percent Latino, she notes.

She says she and other teachers who choose to work at Whitaker have stepped up team planning, cut "fun" classes to teach double sessions of math and reading and started using research-backed programs.

"We need more credit for what we have done," Weatherspoon says.

In the job description Turning around poor-performing teachers is a principal's responsibility.

Pickett and Assistant Principal Lynn Buedefeldt are supposed to set clear expectations, closely observe teachers, point out their weak spots, counsel them how to improve, put the worst ones on plans of improvement, ensure those who don't improve get fired.

Over several years, the pair turned around Portsmouth Middle School in North Portland. That required guiding struggling teachers to become solid ones, good teachers to become great ones -- and getting the occasional bad teacher to move on.

No teacher blocked their way, they say. Instead, Portsmouth teachers rallied -- and helped students catch up on as much as three years of reading and math in a year.

Then came Whitaker, a cruel contrast, Pickett and Buedefeldt say. The job of getting every teacher on track is too big.

The problem is not students or their families, they say. Whitaker parents want their children equipped for high school and college. The students are sweet, eager to learn, hungry for classroom success, Pickett and Buedefeldt say.

The problem, they say, is the teachers.

In their first year, the administrative duo spurred about half the school's worst-performing teachers to leave, they say. But there are seven or eight left. Buedefeldt says she has given those teachers no-holds-barred evaluations, spelling out what is expected and where their teaching falls short. She also has checked off the box on the evaluation form signaling how serious the problems are: "Performance does not meet minimum standards."

Pickett calls these teachers "stalled" -- they don't get the job done, yet refuse to get better. Worse, he says, they hamper or even sabotage the work of most Whitaker teachers, who are good at their jobs and striving to improve.

Kristin Erhardt, an eighth-grade math and science teacher, agrees it would be best if a critical mass of teachers not succeeding at Whitaker were transferred to other schools. Those teachers likely would do well in a new school -- where they could find a fresh start and find more master teachers to provide collegial advice, she says.

But Ann Nice, president of the teachers union, says the inept performer at Whitaker is Pickett. "We have no desire to have any less-than-good teacher in any classroom," she says.

How can a principal, aided by two assistant principals and two instructional specialists, fail to motivate and coach a small faculty of fully certified teachers to the level he wants? she asks. "That should tell you where the problem is."

Buedefeldt acknowledges she thought she could help turn things around faster and has been humbled to find herself inadequate for the task. Some days, she says, she questions whether it's morally justifiable to keep Whitaker open -- because the odds of a child getting a teacher with a terrible track record are too high.

That's something Matt Moule wrestles with, too.

An eighth-grade math teacher, he says Whitaker students can do much more than has been expected of them -- which is why he piles on the homework, insists on algebraic skills for everyone, shows students again and again what state standards demand of them.

"The kids are always complaining, 'You're too hard. You're too hard,' " Moule says.

He recently returned from a National Education Association conference for schools like Whitaker, and what he learned shook him. Speakers emphasized what research shows that ineffective teachers do to students.

That is why Moule says the Whitaker faculty should be "reconstituted" -- disbanded from Whitaker and forced to reapply for their jobs or jobs elsewhere in the district, so a hand-picked group of teachers could start at Whitaker next fall.

Whitaker students need and deserve effective teachers three years in a row, Moule says. Right now, "that is extremely unlikely to happen to any student here."

An uncertain future No one has decided what will happen to Whitaker.

National education leaders are calling for teacher talent to be spread more fairly. Congress passed a law that requires states to ensure by 2006 that low-income and minority students don't get an oversized share of lesser teachers. The National Association of School Administrators issued a paper saying that smaller classes, smaller schools and longer school years will be wasted if bad teachers stay clustered in schools like Whitaker.

"The fact of the matter is that none of these strategies is likely to work in the absence of highly qualified teachers," it says.

Some players in the Whitaker conflict are leaning that way, too, without committing to a solution.

Ed Bettencourt, a Portland achievement director, says the district might need to change how it assigns teachers.

"This is not just Whitaker's problem. That is my message to leaders in other parts of our district. This is all of our issue: Can we find a way to help this school get the staff it needs? . . The central office and everyone else has to understand that all children deserve equal access."

Sophie Weatherspoon is the designated union representative on the Whitaker faculty. As such, she is positioned to strongly oppose a teacher shake-up -- and she would oppose it.

But recently, she says, she has laid awake at night, worrying about Whitaker and praying for the neighborhood.

In the end, she says, if Whitaker's fate rested on it, she would rather see teachers moved from Whitaker than see the school close.

"If it took (that)," Weatherspoon says, "I'd be for anything, anything, to keep a middle school for this community."

Betsy Hammond: 503-294-7623;