By Steve Gunn

MILWAUKEE – A few weeks ago the MacIver Institute issued a report about a new screening process for teachers in Milwaukee Public Schools.

Considering recent test scores which show Milwaukee students trailing their peers academically statewide, one might expect the new standards to have something to do with excellent teaching skills.

No such luck. The screening process has very little to do with academic success, at least as it’s understood in the traditional sense.  It has everything to do with “cultural awareness.”

The video shows Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Bob Peterson proudly announcing last month that the district will employ the “Star Teacher Pre-Screener” process to determine if applicants are “culturally sensitive enough to work in our district.”

If we were Milwaukee parents, we would demand to know precisely what that means. It’s certainly good for teachers in racially diverse districts to have an understanding of how kids from different cultures and backgrounds learn and relate to various situations.

But does this star teacher “screener” make sure that new teachers are effective at instructing children in math, English, science and reading?

Well, not exactly.

Is this what Bush was talking about?

According to information posted on the Internet, the Star Teacher Pre-Screener is a 50-question test, followed by an interview, designed to “evaluate your knowledge and skills when it comes to teaching lower income students.”

The process reportedly “boasts a 95 percent accuracy rate in predicting which teachers will stay and succeed and which ones will fail or quit.” It’s designed to “give a clear picture of the candidate’s beliefs about teaching at-risk youth, and to predict how a candidate will behave on the job.

“Which ones will be able to handle the stress? The discipline?  The unmotivated students? Those who learn differently?”

The program is a product of the Haberman Educational Foundation, founded by the late Dr. Martin Haberman, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

All of the above seems fair enough at first glance. There are certainly unique challenges to teaching in urban, lower-income school districts, and effective teachers in those settings must learn how to adjust accordingly.

But what makes a successful (or star) teacher in an urban school? According to Haberman, the answer has little to do with traditional academics or preparing children for the world they are about to face.

In his book “Star Teachers of Children in Poverty,” Haberman suggests that the most highly regarded, successful teachers in urban districts are those who take an “almost anything goes” approach to education. For example, Haberman says “star teachers” have the following characteristics in common:

“Star teachers are not very concerned with discipline,” Haberman writes. “They have few rules, usually less than four.”

“Star teachers do not assign homework in the traditional sense. They try to create assignments that children are able to do independently and successfully.”

“Star teachers do not use direct instruction as their primary method, and therefore, do not see their role as monitoring students’ time on task. They develop tasks that are part of larger projects students are planning. How much time students spend is an indicator of interest and involvement. It tells the teacher when to generate more interest, or when to move on to something else.”

We can see how teachers who follow this model “succeed” and how their students manage to get through school. It doesn’t sound like there are many demands placed on these kids.

Poor classroom discipline is expected and accepted. Homework is assigned based on what a child can accomplish successfully (and presumably without great effort). Students are not tested and graded based on performance, but on the effort they put forth. Students are only encouraged to pursue the topics they find interesting, and are taught that it’s okay to ignore those that bore them.

The entire approach sounds like what President George W. Bush described as the “soft bigotry of low expectations” aimed at poor and/or minority children.

Children respond to expectations

We do not pretend to be educational experts, and we respect the amount of time Dr. Haberman spent observing teachers in urban school districts.

But if we were Milwaukee parents, we would want to know how the “star teacher” method does anything to prepare students for the real world they are going to face in the near future.

Employers demand self-discipline and peaceful work environments. They expect employees to complete all sorts of assignments, even those they are not particularly interested in. They judge their employees on productivity and quality of work, not simply the effort they put forth.

Kids who have been taught by “star teachers” for 13 years may emerge with some misconceptions about what’s expected of them. And when they learn the harsh realities of the work world, they may feel disillusioned, isolated and mistreated.

Some may come to realize that they have been cheated out of the type of fundamental education that could have prepared them for the real world. As adults they may look back and wonder why their “star teachers” didn’t make sure they had a good grasp on math, science and English.

Are minority kids different than white kids? Certainly. Do many of them face disadvantages in school due to high levels of poverty and dysfunction at home? Of course.

But those are obstacles that must be overcome. The world is not going to create a special job and special rules for Johnny, just because he grew up in less fortunate circumstances.

We believe minority kids can learn just as much as white kids. We also believe kids have a tendency to perform to expectations. If they are treated like they can’t perform in a traditional classroom, they won’t be able to. If they are expected to learn the same material as everyone else, and are strongly encouraged and given the tools to succeed, many of them will.

Success in life derives from self-confidence, and self-confidence derives from overcoming barriers, no matter how harsh they may be.

Can we count on “star teachers” to relay that message to the students of Milwaukee? If not, we have to wonder if they are the answer to the problems plaguing this underachieving district.

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