Pass or Fail: Hiring Teachers Who Can Beat the System

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

How can teachers rise above the ingrained system of pass/fail standards?

Kyra Shugt felt called to be a teacher: She was ashamed that her home state of Minnesota had one of the largest achievement gaps in the country, and wanted to do something about it. She had some teaching experience under her belt, as a preschool teacher and part-time art teacher. Hoping to get a teacher’s license as quickly as possible, she enrolled in Teach for America’s five-week summer program in Chicago.

At the TFA institute, she trained to be an ESL teacher, but when she received her teaching practice placement, it was in sixth-grade mathematics. She hoped her final placement as a teacher would be in the ESL field for which she had received training, but that was not to be: She ended up at Bethune Elementary in Minneapolis, teaching fourth grade. Though she was excited to have a job, she soon realized she was hopelessly unprepared.

“It was challenging,” she commented. “It was the hardest position I had ever taken on. I consider myself to be a dedicated teacher and just have a strong work ethic, but it was overwhelming.”

Not only had Shugt ended up in a position for which she was not prepared; she was also teaching in one of the worst-performing schools in the state. She noted that Bethune was “considered a lemon school. Students from the district that are kicked out of other public schools are sent to Bethune.” About half of the teachers at Bethune were newbies like Shugt, and they were paired with more experienced mentors. Though Bethune was designated a Priority School and received extra funding and had smaller classes (there were just fourteen students in Shugt’s fourth-grade classroom), teaching there was nevertheless an ongoing struggle.

In particular, Shugt felt unequipped to deal with the significant behavioral issues that cropped up on a daily basis. When fights broke out in the classroom, she would try to intervene, but felt that her involvement was endangering her. Finally, in consultation with the school management, Shugt decided to leave the school in the middle of the year.

“I loved the staff and the students,” she said, but “it just wasn’t the right fit. It was hard to leave my students but at the same time it just felt like it was not in their best interest for me to stay.”

A Familiar Teacher’s Tale

Kyra Shugt’s story may be extreme, but her experiences are all too common: under-trained teachers with little to no classroom experience are sent to some of the most difficult schools in the country. In the end, not only the teachers, but the students and the parents are left hurting.

In the not-so-distant past, public schools represented the central building block in the education and socialization of students outside of the home. Young minds were molded by the teachers, administrators, and friends they met at school.

Modern classrooms, unlike those of the past, are full of sophisticated youngsters that show up with a detailed view of the world formed from more than home life experiences. Instant access to knowledge from the age a child can press a touchscreen on a smartphone and widespread socialization from as young as six weeks old mean that kids arrive at kindergarten with less naivety than previous generations. Teachers are not handed a clean slate but rather one that is already cluttered with random knowledge that must be fostered or remediated.

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