Scoppe: The cost of one bad teacher

Associate EditorApril 22, 2014 

— I HAD PROBABLY 45 or 50 teachers in elementary and high school. Many were very good. A half-dozen of them I didn’t like. One, a very likeable and handsome man who sometimes sang to us in a beautiful baritone, was incompetent.

He taught the highest level math course my high school offered, and there were a handful of times during my senior year when it was clear that I understood the material better than he did. For the smarter-than-anybody-else-in-the-school brat that I was, it was a roll-your-eyes sort of experience.

Until I got to college.

I loved math and didn’t realize how much damage that teacher had done, so of course I signed up for calculus, even though I didn’t need to for my liberal-arts major. Within a month, I was lost.

It didn’t help that the class was taught by a grad student who didn’t enunciate well, had stringy dishwater blonde hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a month, wore patched bellbottoms and screen-printed T-shirts and clearly hadn’t owned a bra in a decade — the sort of hippie throwback Jesse Helms had in mind when he suggested a few years earlier that North Carolina just erect a fence around Chapel Hill rather than spending money to build a state zoo.

I probably would have fared better with a real professor, or at least a grad student who wasn’t so off-putting, but the fact is that I was not prepared for that class, and I wasn’t prepared for it because of the incompetent high school teacher who didn’t teach me what I needed to know.

I managed a “B,” thanks to tutoring from a retired math teacher back home, but rather than taking increasingly more advanced math classes through the rest of my college career, I dropped back and took “consumer math” to fulfill my two-semesters-of-math requirement for graduation.

Every parent knows about someone like my high school math teacher — an incompetent teacher who taught her child or who taught his neighbor’s children. An incompetent teacher who stole a year of a child’s life, who turned a student off to chemical analysis or creative writing, maybe even one who turned a budding math genius into a journalist.

Let’s set aside for another day those schools in poor districts that are dumping grounds for bad teachers. Let’s focus on the schools that have just one.

It only takes one lousy teacher, out of 50 really good ones, to leave indelible scars on a child’s education — and on a parent’s political perspective. It only takes one lousy teacher who returns to the classroom year after year to convince a parent that the public schools care more about preserving jobs for incompetents than providing every child with a good education. It only takes one lousy teacher to make a parent susceptible to the siren song of private school “choice” and “scholarships.”

This is painfully obvious to anyone who cares to think about it, and yet this very basic truth has completely eluded the legislators who have been fighting the attempts by deep-pocketed libertarian carpetbaggers to privatize our schools. It has been completely ignored by the teachers’ groups, who add fuel to the fire of critics who claim they are perfectly willing to sacrifice children’s education for job security for incompetent teachers.

This is what made the discussion in a recent Senate Education subcommittee meeting so exciting. The meeting started with a proposal by Sen. Paul Thurmond to slash the amount of time and paperwork it takes to get rid of a teacher, and eliminate most of the appeals. It ended with two stalwart public school advocates advising teacher groups they needed to work out a compromise with the bill’s supporters, because the status quo could not stand.

The status quo is this: A teacher who isn’t up to the job is notified that she will be evaluated during the following school year. After a year of observation, the principal can fire her. Then she gets to appeal to the school board. If she doesn’t like the school board’s decision, she can appeal to the Circuit Court.

I get annoyed with people who call teacher lobbying groups unions, because S.C. law doesn’t allow public school teachers to be represented by unions, but these are in fact union-style protections, and they are written into state law. And they do not make any sense.

The Charleston County School Board’s attorney testified that 10 Charleston County teachers are appealing decisions made in the spring of 2013 not to renew their contracts. Those would be teachers who were told in the spring of 2012 that they weren’t up to the job. Scheduling problems have made it impossible for the school board to hear three appeals, so those teachers still are being paid but not working.

Even if you somehow can’t accept that this sort of thing is inherently unfair to the children our schools are supposed to be educating — and to the excellent teachers whose profession is sullied by those few bad apples — it ought to be easy enough to understand that protecting incompetence plays into the arguments of the privatize-the-schools crowd. That should be reason enough alone to pass this sort of legislation. A decade ago.

There is more than this to do, of course: giving principals more flexibility to recruit the best teachers, for instance, and requiring state intervention when local officials aren’t getting the job done, and limiting the interference in teacher assignments by school board members who in too many rural districts see themselves first and foremost as job recruiters for friends and family.

But let us be thankful for small favors. Sen. John Matthews is one of the Democrats’ most respected voices on public education. Sen. Brad Hutto is one of the Democrats’ most energetic opponents of reforms from the right. If they say it’s time to support those smart changes in the public schools that Republicans have been advocating, then the days of the status quo are numbered.

That is a tiny first step toward beating back the voucher crowd. It will be a huge step forward for those students who otherwise would lose a year of their lives to my high school math teacher.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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