Nicholas Kristof, Olly Neal, Stealing Books, and Good Teaching

In his most recent Sunday column, Nicholas Kristof again wades into discussing education. This week, Kristof discusses the story of Olly Neal; When Neal was in high school in the 50's, he described himself as a "troubled high school senior" turned reader turned law student turned judge turned member of the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

Kristof opens his piece with a link to a study that used value-added methodology to determine that good elementary school teachers can make a difference.

He then goes on to the story of Olly Neal - and the story of Olly Neal is a great story.

Earlier in his high school career - as recounted in the Kristof article, Olly Neal

remembers reducing his English teacher, Mildred Grady, to tears.

“I was not a nice kid,” he recalls. “I had a reputation. I was the only one who made her cry.”

Later in his high school career, Neal cut another teacher's class and went into the school library, where Mildred Grady also worked. While there, he saw a book with a picture of a scantily clad woman on the cover - The Treasure of Pleasant Valley by Frank Yerby - and, as he didn't want to be known as someone who actually checked out books from the library, he stole the book. He brought it home, read it, and loved it, and returned to the library, where he found another Yerby novel.

And he stole that too.

And then, another.

And then, another.

According to the story on NPR about Olly Neal, Neal "read four of Yerby's books that semester — checking out none of them."

Later, at one of his high school reunions, Grady let Neal know that the supply of Yerby books was no accident. As described in the NPR story:

"She told me that she saw me take that book when I first took it," Neal said.

"She said, 'My first thought was to go over there and tell him, boy, you don't have to steal a book, you can check them out — they're free.'

"Then she realized what my situation was — that I could not let anybody know I was reading."

Grady told Neal she decided that if he was showing an interest in books, "she and Mrs. Saunders would drive to Memphis and find another one for me to read — and they would put it in the exact same place where the one I'd taken was."

And this is one of the ways that great teaching manifests itself: in meeting a kid where they are at, and by providing them opportunities that they are able to reach. At times, great teaching also means taking a look at the rules that are in place, and understanding that the potential success of one particular kid means breaking or ignoring those rules.

Kristof takes the story of Olly Neal and attempts to bend it to support a preconceived narrative.

The implication is that we need rigorous teacher evaluations, more pay for good teachers and more training and weeding-out of poor teachers.

Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn't align with Olly Neal's story. In fact, Olly Neal's story illustrates the weaknesses of the exact types of evaluations that Kristof celebrates.

Mildred Grady was interacting with Neal in her role as a librarian, not in a teaching capacity. In a value-added assessment, Neal's other teachers - and NOT Grady - would receive the credit for any improvements made by Neal.

In fairness, Kristof also says, "there are no silver bullets to chip away at poverty or improve national competitiveness, improving the ranks of teachers is part of the answer." But, no one is really arguing that. We can burn that straw man. This is about the same as someone declaring, "Reducing poverty is predicted to improve the nation's financial well-being."

Of course good teachers are part of the answer. And, of course, fair and rigorous teacher evaluations are part of the process of determining what makes teachers more effective. But, the successes of Mildred Grady - and the thousands of teachers who do similar things in difficult situations - don't fit into the types of evaluations that are being pushed as the cornerstones for measuring teacher effectiveness. Driving to Memphis to buy books for one kid to steal doesn't translate directly into a kid having success on the scantron - but this type of thoughtful, targeted attention is essential to the success of individual people.

I recently talked with another teacher who works in a high poverty school. This teacher works in special education, and their school has been on the cusp of not making Adequate Yearly Progress (or AYP) for several years.

In this teacher's class, there were three children who were on the verge of passing the test. Two of these children had diagnosed special needs, and had a primary language other than English. A third student also had a diagnosed special need and had a primary language other than English, but also had a physical disability, was on the free and reduced lunch program, and had been placed in foster care.

This teacher's principal approached the classsroom teacher around six weeks before the test with some explicit instructions: focus on the kid with the physical disability, and don't worry about the other two.

This administrator had done the math: according to the metric that determined a school's progress, the school would get more points toward AYP if the one student with more pronounced learning disabilities passed than if the other two students passed. In short, if the one kid passed and the other two failed, the school would look better on paper. This administrator had broken down the math on a class by class basis, and was giving his teachers - schoolwide - instructions on how to "succeed."

The teacher, who had tenure, told the administrator where to go. The teacher paid for this "disobedience" in the form of less than stellar evaluations.

So, when people like Nick Kristof call for more rigorous teacher evaluations, we need to be clear that one aspect of tying teacher evaluations to test scores leads to some people attempting to game the system.

Nick Kristof justly celebrated the creativity and caring of Mildred Grady. What types of evaluation measure the excellence of people like her? Portfolio-based professional development comes to mind as one option, but accurate, reliable, rigorous teacher evaluations involves improved education policy.

Improved education policy needs to look at education, poverty, and health as equally important elements to be addressed.

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