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EDITORIAL: The Power of a Teacher

Chicago Tribune

The Power of a TeacherLet us take a moment to praise Chicago public school teachers. Many are so dedicated to their students that they put in grueling hours and dig into their own pockets for supplies. They deal with some of the most disadvantaged kids in the most dangerous neighborhoods of this city. They inspire students.

The power of a great teacher -- in Chicago or anywhere else -- is profound. Not just for a school year. For a lifetime.

Elementary and middle-school teachers who helped lift their students' standardized test scores changed the course of students' lives, according to a 2012 study of 2.5 million students by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities. Researchers tracked those students over two decades and found that they had lower teen pregnancy rates. They attended college at higher rates. They had overall higher earnings as adults.

If you're lucky, you had a teacher who inspired you. That's what all parents want for their children. And, in Chicago, many parents believe that kind of educator is engaging their kids.

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An overwhelming number of CPS parents -- 9 of 10 -- say they are satisfied with their child's teacher, according to a Joyce Foundation-Chicago Tribune poll on education in Chicago. Almost as many express satisfaction with their child's school.

However ... that appreciation has limits. The poll found that CPS parents have little patience, nor do we, for leaving teachers who don't make the grade in the classroom year after year. More than 6 in 10 respondents (61.7 percent) believe it's unfair for a student to have a low-rated teacher for more than a year. We're with that majority.

Struggling teachers deserve a chance to improve. But let's remember, while they are (or aren't) improving, each one likely is holding back the academic progress of scores of students. A 2010 Los Angeles Times investigation found a huge gap between students whose teachers were highly effective and those who weren't. The most effective teachers push students from below grade level to advanced in a single year, the newspaper reported. Closer to home: Rewarding the best teachers and dismissing the weakest hinges on a new teacher evaluation system rolling out in CPS and across Illinois. For the first time, the evaluation system will hold teachers accountable for student learning. In Chicago, student growth now accounts for 25 percent of a teacher's evaluation, going up to 40 percent in five years.

Is that too high, as union officials contend? Not at all, Chicagoans say. More than 6 in 10 respondents (62.9 percent) say improvement in student achievement should carry more than 30 percent weight in a teacher's evaluation. That's a huge vote of confidence for the new evaluation system.

Most Chicagoans surveyed agree that CPS has historically rated too many teachers as excellent. Almost half of the survey respondents (46.1 percent) also believe principals have the primary responsibility for ensuring that struggling teachers improve.

But those principals also have a greater responsibility: to students who have a limited number of years to build the foundations for their futures.

We hope principals use this new evaluation system the way parents demand: To aggressively cull mediocre teachers from classrooms if they don't quickly improve. And to find ways to reward the stellar performers. That is Job One for principals.

That said, the burden of educating children doesn't fall only on educators. Every child deserves a great teacher ... and attentive parents, too. We often hear complaints from teachers that they can't educate students without a massive assist from the other adults in children's lives.

Guess what? Parents agree. In the poll, more than 8 in 10 say that parents and teachers are "full partners" in a child's education. That means parents need to read to their kids. And help with homework. Turn off the TV and stow the smartphone. If parents fail to do their part, survey respondents said, "It isn't fair to blame teachers when students fall behind."

The power of a great teacher is only matched, or surpassed, by the power of a great parent, or grandparent, or another adult who loves and cares.

So if there's even one young person in your life, never stop asking: How can I help this child learn?