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Teachers must be allowed to succeed in their teaching

As meetings go, this one resembled one of those anonymous group therapy sessions more than a discussion on how to improve education. First, there were ground rules. No names, please. Don't even identify where the meeting took place. Those were the only conditions under which we could proceed.

They didn't worry about embarrassment, but they worried a great deal about retaliation from above.When I wrote several weeks ago that Utah's schools had no excuses for failing to teach poor, uneducated and even non-English speaking kids, the people who sent me letters and e-mails could be grouped into two general categories -- schoolteachers who assumed a defensive posture and demanded to know my credentials and those, teachers and others, who genuinely wanted to know how some educators around the country are having such success. Thank goodness for the latter.

The column focused on a pamphlet published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. It demonstrated how some low-income schools have remarkable success teaching all subjects, and it found seven common elements of success. And that is why I found myself in a local elementary school a few days later, in a gang-infested neighborhood, listening to five dedicated teachers pour their hearts out about their jobs.

Most of the elements of success have to do with principals, and principals can be effective only if they are given freedom. That leads us to the dreaded S-word, the "system." These teachers, some of whom had three decades of experience, had plenty to say about that.

Their first complaint was about social promotion. In their district, one of the largest in Salt Lake County, students automatically are moved from one grade to the next each year until the ninth grade. As a result, a teacher with unmotivated students has no bargaining chips. He or she can't threaten to flunk anyone. One of the teachers, a male with many years of experience, said he keeps his desk loaded with candy, just waiting to reward anyone who actually completes an assignment. Another said, "Every year I could hold back between 30 and 50 percent of my class. They simply don't meet the requirements for their grade level."

And yet they move on until eventually they are tossed mercilessly into an adult world that is considerably less tolerant.

The conversation turned to discipline, and a woman sitting next to me, who had been fairly quiet, suddenly erupted. "I would like to go back to the days when we could swat their hands with a ruler if they don't write well," she said. Then she thought better and said no, she really didn't want to do that to a child, but she already had opened a spigot of feelings around the room. In this district, teachers are forbidden to touch a student for any reason. The rule sprang from a few unfortunate instances of abuse in other parts of the country, but now, they agreed, it had been taken to ridiculous lengths. One teacher told of watching a colleague try to get a child to relinquish an item the student was forbidden to have.

"She had her hand out for five minutes trying to coax the kid to give it up," he said.

They told of fourth-graders caught dealing drugs, only to be allowed back into school the next day. Yet if a parent complains about anything, the principal automatically suspects the teacher, not the student.

They had attendance reports to show me. Some students were gone more than they were present. One had 42 absences in one semester. It's hard to teach students who aren't there, and it's hard to get them to come if they know they automatically will be promoted to the next grade.

Like most teachers, these are dedicated professionals who stick around because they want to help children. But as they vented with the rage of someone who rarely has a captive audience, they admitted that, to a person, they were getting tired of it all.

One of the people who wrote in response to my column criticized me for citing the fact that 58 percent of the nation's low-income fourth-graders can't read without saying whether this was an improvement over past performance. I am curious as to how someone could look at that kind of illiteracy and wonder whether it represents progress of any kind. All it possibly could represent is monumental failure.

And yet some schools in other states are doing remarkable things under dire circumstances. The author of the "No Excuses" pamphlet, Samuel Casey Carter, told me he is preparing an even larger study that documents successes at many more schools.

If Utah wants to join this list of successes it must change from the top down. School boards and administrators have to make principals accountable for the performance of their students, and they, in turn, must allow the good teachers to succeed. The voices I heard in that schoolroom were pleading for help. If the right people don't respond, they truly have no excuses.

Deseret News editorial writer Jay Evensen can be reached by e-mail at even@desnews.com