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Originally published Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 3:44 PM

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Guest columnist

High-quality teachers are only one piece of the educational challenge

Teacher accountability is at the center of many debates around school performance. Guest columnist Dan Magill argues it's not fair to hold teachers accountable when students have other serious challenges, including an unstable home life. Parents and culture are key.

Special to The Times

THE teacher accountability craze continues to pick up steam, gaining public support due to the oft-repeated notion that teachers are the most important factor in determining student success.

But are they? I just saw the movie "The Blind Side," and was awe-struck by how this true story exposes both this falsehood and the parallel futility of tying student performance to teacher evaluations.

The story features an African-American male named Michael Oher. He underachieves. Fails to take advantage of resources. Doesn't advocate for himself. The same old "risk factors." His GPA? 0.6.

The teachers at his new ritzy private school are at a loss for how to deal with him. "We're setting him up to fail," one of them says. Over time, however, they discover methods to help him. They start to believe in him. He also gets an expensive tutor. Sure enough, his GPA rises above 2.5 by graduation.

So, who deserves the most credit for Oher's academic turnaround (besides Oher himself)? His teachers? His coach? There is only one answer to this: his new family.

Before, he was one of 12 children born to a drug-addicted mother and multiple fathers. Foster homes. Different schools. No continuity. No enrichment — not a shred of positive investment by his birth mother or absent father.

After being taken in by a new family — a stable, loving, ambitious family that first meets his physical needs (like a bed, new clothes, good food and other things all the educational commentators take for granted) — this family then starts advocating for his academic development.

We must now ask two questions: Had he attended a typical public high school, but still been a part of this new family, could Oher have succeeded? Conversely, had he attended the same ritzy private school, but lived homeless and aimless with no love or support, could Oher still have turned it around?

The answers are obvious. Why then do we persistently and at times passionately avoid this reality? Why do we perpetuate the fallacy that teachers have paramount control over the success of our students?

There's a class I teach that gets new students each semester. One semester, I had five students fail, all due to bad attendance. Every attending student learned. But the next semester, fifteen students failed, with only one A. What happened? Did I forget how to teach? What's wrong with me?

We will never solve the educational problem until the family units in this nation become strong. And this cannot be legislated, because family strength comes down to moral choices: prioritizing people over pleasure, choosing sacrifice over material excess, investing in the mind, not the image. If you can't see the wisdom in these choices, then don't start a family. You'll be doing educational reform.

Were Michael Oher's previous teachers incompetent? No doubt he had several superb teachers along the way, but his unstable home life prevented him from benefiting from their professionally developed, district-accountable, state-tested, board-certified, acronym-infested, data-overloaded, overworked, pedagogical expertise.

How do I know this? Because I see Michael Ohers every year in my school. In the film, all the enormous resources, the people and the time it took to reach a standard of competence (not mastery) were devoted to just one student. Now, picture a school with 300 students like this, mixed in with 1,200 others, and you begin to grasp the issue.

How silly would it be to "hold accountable" Oher's previous teachers for his lack of achievement? How much control over his situation did they have?

Teacher quality matters. Obviously. But if we don't turn around our morally anemic culture, and soon, the efforts of our best teachers won't be good enough.

Daniel Magill of Seattle is a public-high-school teacher.

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