The student arrived late to the honor roll ceremony at my son's middle school last week. Even though it was almost over, the teaching staff graciously presented him with his certificate for high honors. The tall, shy African-American walked across the gym floor to polite applause and a visible lack of camera flash. No parent was there to congratulate him.
The turnout was abominable -- only about 10 percent of the children listed in the program as having made the honor roll showed up to celebrate the accomplishment with their families. And those students really deserved to celebrate their statistically improbable academic success. Seventy-nine percent of the school's students are minorities, 68 percent are classified low-income, and 12 percent have limited English proficiency. The school hasn't made adequate yearly progress in math or reading since No Child Left Behind became law, and it ranks below the state average in students who go on to finish high school.
As we were heading home, we drove past the late arriving youth as he walked alone, his certificate rolled up in his hand. I wondered if he'd been late because the walk was an unfamiliar distance compared to his usual bus ride. And where were his parents? Were they at work struggling to put food on the table? Or is this child just one of the 35 percent of black and Hispanic students whose parents, according to the Child Trends DataBank, do not attend school events -- compared with only 20 percent of white students whose parents miss those functions?
I don't know. But teachers ask me about parents every time I write about the controversial push to include assessment of both teacher effectiveness and student achievement in meaningful educational reform plans. The story illustrates why teachers fear being evaluated based on their students' academic performance -- some students thrive in the classroom despite the worst home conditions and a lack of parental engagement, while others fail even under the best of circumstances. According to MetLife's 2010 "Survey of the American Teacher," just 27 percent of teachers say their effectiveness must be evaluated based in significant part on their students' academic achievement.
In any discussion of student achievement, I always note that children in the U.S. spend only 1,150 waking hours a year in school versus about 4,700 hours with their families and in their neighborhoods, where myriad environmental factors affect their classroom performance. But that's not a good enough reason to avoid holding teachers accountable for student success.
"The challenges facing students with less-involved parents and other social issues are enormous, so our responsibility is even greater," said Catharine Bellinger, executive director of Students for Education Reform, a network of on-campus student teacher groups pushing for progressive education reform. She told me the key to fulfilling this responsibility is excellent teacher training in dealing with issues that affect high-risk students and school administrations that demand accountability but also offer teachers the appropriate supports to help them succeed in their task. "Students who come from struggling backgrounds often have the greatest opportunity for growth, but we need to develop teacher evaluations that are fair and take into account the student body's characteristics."
Fair performance-based teacher evaluations don't have to be oxymoronic if they're designed thoughtfully, in conjunction with teachers, and feature test scores and grades as just one aspect of a multifaceted evaluation that can make statistical adjustments for a student's risk factors.
"Many teachers have good reason to fear these types of efforts -- they've seen teacher evaluation policies get done badly and then disappear," said Ulrich Boser, an educational analyst at the Center for American Progress, a public policy think tank. "But if most students in the U.S. are not at grade level in reading and math, we can't have 90 percent of teachers getting high evaluations."
It is tragic that parents of all income levels don't provide their children with the proper tools or encouragement for academic success, but this is a reality in every school in this country. Educators must step up to the challenge rather than continue to use the obstacle as a shield from being held accountable to the promise of providing an excellent education to every student in every classroom.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.