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What makes a great teacher?

Editor:

Americans have long argued about what makes an effective educator. The federal government, however, has ended that debate.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, proposed by then-President George W. Bushand approved with bipartisan support in Congress following decades of progressively louder and more vehement expressions of unhappiness with public schools, teachers and administrators are judged by one measure: standardized test scores.

I have always wondered where Bill Horner, a sixth-grade teacher of mine at Havre de Grace Elementary School at a time when educators' careers did not depend on students' standardized test scores, would have stood on this issue.

The law requires all students in K-12 public schools or in schools or districts receiving Title I federal funds, which are earmarked for needy students, to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, as demonstrated by their test scores.

The penalties are rigorous. After two years of non-compliance, parents may transfer their children to other public schools. After three years, schools must provide eligible students with supplemental services, usually tutoring. 

After four years, teachers and administrators may lose their jobs. And, after five years, non-compliant schools may be taken over by the state or a private education firm.

Some think the controversial law went too far, and a bipartisan consensus in Congress agrees it needs fixing. On Feb. 9, President Barack Obama agreed that 10 states "will be freed from the strict and sweeping requirements of the law, giving leeway to states that promise to improve how they prepare and evaluate students," The Associated Press has reported.

A total of 28 other states are seeking waivers to allow greater flexibility in how they go about complying with the law, according to a Feb. 10 report by Education Week.

Despite these efforts, however, the essence of the legislation stands. Standardized tests remain government's core requirement for measuring meaningful scholastic achievement.

William A. "Bill" Horner, unfortunately, did not live to see the outcome of this debate. His wisdom would have been greatly appreciated, but he passed away in 2010 at the age of 81.

He had taught elementary and middle school science classes for 39 years at Havre de Grace elementary and middle schools. At the age of 12, I was in a class of his for only three months in the winter of 1960-61, while my father attended an officers' school at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

That was five years after Bill Horner had begun his teaching career. But even today, 51 years later, I shall never forget him. He was the best teacher I ever had. And I am just one of many to say that.

Following his death, tributes poured into his memorial website from his former students, all now spread across the world. Many were writing about him decades after they had sat in his classroom.

They remembered him for his character, compassion, humor, and dedication to learning. They praised him for treating all students equally and for instilling in them a sense of human possibility.

"Mr. Horner was the first teacher to believe in me as a person with genuine potential and attributes to contribute to the world," wrote Michael Ezell. "That belief was a seed of greatness that he sewed deep within my heart."

Some called him a father-figure who exuded wisdom, character, and common sense.

"What a wonderful teacher and concerned human being he was," wrote Bertie Rice.

"He turned us into young ladies and gentlemen," wrote Diana Lewis.

He made interesting and important what otherwise would be, for most pre-pubescent teens, little more than a distraction. He captured the attention of students at that vulnerable age when getting their attention ranks in difficulty with trying to scale the world's highest peaks.

Others remembered how his classroom "extended beyond the confines of the building."

One recalled finding him preparing lessons in his classroom – on a Sunday afternoon. He taught a student how to grow a pear tree; he set up "an aquarium for everything"; he took them on a search for fossils.

He introduced important ideas.

Eric Jones recalled how used "spot on" humor to talk about climate change in the 1980s, well before Vice President Gore launched a national debate on the topic. Dora Lyn Kelly remembered how that with an "ornery grin and a twinkle in his eye," he made "science the highlight of my sixth-grade year."

Yes, they all remembered being changed by Bill Horner. They all remembered his lasting, positive influence on the lives they have lived.

And none of them said anything about test scores.

Mike Norris

Fort Worth area, Texas

The writer, who grew up in Harford County, earned bachelor's and master's degrees at The College of William and Mary and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Nevada. After a career in newspapers, he became a professor of government in Texas.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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