The 2014 National Teacher of the Year is Sean McComb, 30, of Maryland, an accomplished English teacher who started a program at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore County Public Schools to help students in the "academic middle" stretch themselves so they can succeed in college.
In an interview, McComb, a strong advocate for public education, talked about the complexities of teaching, the challenges that face educators and school reform policies that scapegoat teachers while ignoring many of the powerful factors that affect student performance.
He is in Washington this week with the state Teacher of the Year winners for the culmination of this year's National Teacher of the Year program, which was started in 1952 by the Council of Chief State School Officers. As part of the honor, McComb will take a leave from teaching next year and travel around the country advocating for and representing his colleagues in the teaching profession.
Here are excerpts of a conversation with McComb on different aspects of education - including challenges facing students and teachers, teacher evaluation, Teach For America, charter schools and modern school reform.
On the challenges many students face
Q: What is the biggest problem his students bring into the classroom?
A: It's not one single problem I can put my finger on. Any time a student is dealing with scarcity at home there are consequences. Sometimes it is a food scarcity, sometimes a financial scarcity. Sometimes it is love, or a scarcity of self-esteem. A study came out of Princeton University that said that if you are truly experiencing the stress of scarcity that it lowers your IQ by 15 points. It's like missing a night's sleep. We all know how well we function when we miss a night's sleep. This is absolutely a challenge that teachers across the country, disproportionately in some communities, are facing. We are teaching whole children. We are not just teaching the math portion of their brain.
Q: Should school reform be less focused on test scores and more on helping students get the support they need to ease these scarcities?
A: These are some services that absolutely are a part of the puzzle when we are developing the next generation to help us compete economically but also be stewards of our democracy. When their learning is affected by the stresses they go through, that is an incredible challenge.
On teacher evaluation and value-added methods
(VAM purports to take the scores and measure the "value" a teacher adds to student learning through complicated formulas that can supposedly factor out all of the other influences and emerge with a valid assessment of how effective a particular teacher has been. Many assessment experts say VAM isn't reliable, and earlier this month the American Statistical Association issued a report slamming the practice.)
Q: Do you support teacher evaluation that links teacher pay and employment to student standardized test scores through a process known as value-added measures?
A: I think that we are not able to quantify everything. We are certainly not able to quantify human achievement. I recently read the American Statistical Association's statement on value-added measures, and I thought that they are experts in statistics far more than I am. So I thought there was some wisdom in their perspective on the matter.
On the morale of teachers
Q: McComb was asked about teacher morale, noting that surveys show that it is at its lowest point in decades because of policies that teachers believe are targeting them through unfair evaluation systems, the reduction or loss of tenure and collective bargaining rights, and other reforms.
A: I think our work is incredibly complex and incredibly taxing and incredibly important. And those factors aren't always recognized in what we see around us when there are decisions that are made and policies that come down that don't seem to respect that. Or you read headlines that seem to target teachers. That all relieves responsibility for other factors that go into student achievement, like income inequality. We need to address the whole child.
On charter schools
Q: Do you think the movement to expand the number of charter schools helps student achievement, hurts it or is a distraction from the work of improving traditional public schools (where the vast majority of students are educated)?
A: I think charter schools are an attempt to answer a really difficult question about what to do in inner cities where we have isolated populations facing incredible challenges. I think there is a lot of literature about how successful they are and how equal they are. I think when we compare a school that can make choices about who enters and what services they get and you compare that to a public school that opens its school to all children, then that's not a fair comparison.
On the Common Core State Standards
Q: What are your views on the Common Core initiative and the growing controversy over new Core-aligned standardized tests being developed to assess students and teachers?
A: From my perspective as a secondary school English teacher, the standards that I know and am familiar with are strong, and I'm comfortable with them. Some people whose opinions I respect have problems with the standards for early years and think they are not developmentally appropriate. I think we have to look at that. We have to have a conversation that separates the standards from the tests and the business entities that get lumped into that conversation.
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On Teach For America
Q: Do you believe the five-week summer training that Teach For America provides to its corp members, who are then placed in high-needs schools, is enough?
A: I think that teaching is incredibly challenging and complex work, and I really valued my preparatory experience. It served me well as an early teacher, and I think the challenge of the classroom would have been far more difficult to handle without the training that I received at Pitt. Children deserve a teacher who is well prepared to work with those children. ... I haven't gone through the Teach For America training, so I can't say to what degree it prepares them. But I can say that even with the one jam-packed year of training and the prerequisites I took prior, I still felt, as most first-year teachers do, that I could have used more preparation.