Heidi Sample, 19, of Cordova, recently graduated from the Riverdale Schools unit. Miss Sample, who has battled with dyslexia, contends that Riverdale Elementary School teachers were ineffective in working with her.
SPRINGFIELD – Heidi Sample sat on the floor of her parent’s sun porch amid birthday presents and chattering relatives and struggled to read aloud the birthday cards piled in front of her. It was the sort of performance one might expect of a grade school student, but not of a freshman in high school, her mother Becky recalled. As she listened to her daughter’s halting performance, she said she couldn’t help but wonder: “Would she be doing better now, if she had been taught more effectively earlier?” Heidi has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes reading difficult. Like all student/teacher relationships, instructor effectiveness is difficult to measure. But like 83 percent of Illinois school districts no tenured teacher in Riverdale School District, where Heidi attended, has been given an unsatisfactory evaluation in the last 11 years. Heidi, who is now 19 and a high school graduate, reads much better now, after being taught in a different manner during her high school years, Becky Sample said. Just as an effective teacher can change a child’s life for the better, weak teaching can also have profound and long-lasting effects. “There is a commonly held belief that it all washes out in the end. But that is simply not the case. Our research has found that if a student has an ineffective teacher, a learning deficit can almost always be measured four years later – even if they have had several highly effective teachers afterwards,” said June Rivers, an education researcher at the software firm SAS. Despite this evidence, there has been reluctance among state lawmakers, school administrators and union officials to hold underperforming teachers accountable. In a 1996 study, Rivers and William Sanders, who were then employed at the University of Tennessee, tracked thousands of elementary students' test scores year-to-year and used them to rate teachers as "effective" or "ineffective." Then, they tracked two random groups of similar students who happened to be assigned to either three good or three ineffective teachers in a row between third and fifth grade. The result: a 50-percentage-point difference over three years in the average test-score changes of the two groups, with kids who had the effective teachers doing better. Parents of children from higher-income, better-educated families are often able to offset the impact of a mediocre teacher by helping their children study or by hiring a tutor. But for students from lower-income families these are often not options. Further aggravating this problem is a tendency of administrators to move underperforming or otherwise unprofessional teachers to schools in poor neighborhoods. The negative consequences of a teacher who fails to be effective cannot be under-estimated. “The quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most important factor that a school district can control. It’s more important than class size or school facilities or even course offering,” said James Stronge, professor of education policy at the College of William and Mary. Stronge, a national authority in teacher quality, said it is important to remember an ineffective teacher can harm a student for many years. “Children aren’t born into the bottom of their class. There are reasons they are there. Let’s say, a child has a ineffective first grade teacher for a full year, he’ll enter the second grade unprepared and the cumulative effect is that he’ll be behind five or six years later. Richard Manatt, a former professor of education at Iowa State University and a widely regarded expert in teacher evaluation, goes one step further. “Some teachers actually suck knowledge right out of kids,” he said. “At first blush, it doesn’t make sense. But we’ve found that about 6 percent of students of ineffective teachers actually see their abilities drop. They get so turned off by a particular teacher and begin hating a subject so much that they actually will score lower on tests than at the beginning of the year.” Scott Reeder can be contacted at 217-525-8201.