Teachers make schools great — Buildings don't

“Over the past three school years, I unintentionally participated in a tragic education case study on the west side of Harlem.” — So begins an opinion column penned by a New York City educator and published in last week’s Wall Street Journal.

The writer, Nicholas Simmons, goes on to spin a tale of two student bodies — one attending a public school and one attending a charter school, where Mr. Simmons taught math.

The demographics of the two schools are similar (residing in the same neighborhood, most living below the poverty line, nearly all black or Hispanic), and, further, the schools are located in the same building, with students sharing a cafeteria, gymnasium and courtyard for recess. What differentiates the students at the public school from those at the charter school is that the latter “won an admissions lottery.” Chance.

Despite the overt similarities, the differences in student performance couldn’t be more striking. At the public school, not one single student in grades six through eight passed standardized exams in math or English. At the charter school, the pass rate in math was 96 percent, and in English, 75 percent.

What separates utter academic failure from unmitigated success, Mr. Simmons writes, is this: “[W]e set high expectations … This blueprint works. Rigorous, well-designed and joyful schools can overcome the challenges of poverty.”

Mr. Simmons’s experience illustrates the truism that the quality of facilities does not equate, or even correlate, to academic destiny.

… Bringing us to Clifton Hunter High School, and the news story that appeared on the front page of Friday’s Cayman Compass, outlining the findings of inspectors, who concluded that the experimental “open-plan class layout” of the new facility “limits the range of teaching styles that can be used, and adversely affects students’ concentration.”

Yes, the much-ballyhooed, cutting-edge design of Grand Cayman’s $110 million school campus actually, according to inspectors, inhibits the learning process.

The curse of modern education is, to put it one way, “modern” education. It is dangerous when policymakers become fixated on prevailing fads du jour, rather than ensuring that schools possess the proper foundations for success. When confronted with failing schools, many officials begin searching for a quick (usually expensive) fix. The trouble is, there is no such thing.

Christen Suckoo, the new chief officer in the Ministry of Education, says he and other officials have learned from the mistakes of Clifton Hunter and will apply those lessons to the completion of the new John Gray High School.

We would like to make the following contribution to his syllabus: Fundamentally, little has changed since the time of Plato in terms of how teaching and learning actually work. Much, if not most, of that depends on an unquantifiable factor — the personality of the teacher.

In order to be truly excellent, a teacher must be a salesperson — Can you imagine how difficult it is to get young people to buy a product as mundane as multiplication tables?

A teacher must be an academic — The ignorance of a teacher on a topic at hand is multiplied by the number of students in the classroom.

A teacher must be, at times, an entertainer, even theatrical — A few meaningful demonstrations can do much to engage students and illuminate particularly knotty concepts.

A teacher who is persuasive, knowledgeable and passionate is an invaluable resource. Far above and beyond physical facilities, our government’s attention should be focused on recruiting the best teachers available and giving them the support — and the freedom — they require, and our students deserve.

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  1. Another cock eyed mistake that cost Cayman $110 million.

    Its amazing how governmennt officials in Education arrived at the conclusion that the open concept of teaching was the way to go. It was a path already taken by others and they too got lost in the romantic world of "the new and best".

    So waht dd we learn from the failures of others. It appears not much.

  2. And the rollover doesn’t help Cayman keep great teachers –

    Even if they are given special consideration, that counts for very little – I know one teacher who left Cayman because her husband was due for rollover…

    Of course many teachers are in it for the long term and may avoid Cayman precisely because of the immigration policy!

    And I think everyone remembers their best teachers from school!