03/18/2015 05:16 pm ET Updated May 18, 2015

Another Example Why Teaching Must Become a Team Effort

The research of Robert Pianta and others indicates that as few as 25 percent of teachers "provide a level of instructional or emotional support consistent with the production of learning gains." I can believe it, at least in places with the challenges that my old high school faced.

I think school reformers were wrong, but I can understand why some of them (to borrow historian Larry Cuban's words) tried to "deputize" teachers as the agents to defeat poverty. If we could somehow "build a better teacher," so that 100 percent of us had the ability to overcome the legacies of poverty, the so-called "teacher quality" experiment would have been the ultimate quick fix -- with a simple lever moving an incredibly complex world.

I wouldn't have bet the farm on the idea that better teacher quality could drive a victory over the educational legacies of extreme poverty. But, an attempt to focus on improved instruction within the four walls of the classroom in order to improve inner city schools was not necessarily irrational. The key to improving high-challenge schools might have been a heavy investment in teaching teachers how to offer more engaging instruction and, especially, to better tend to students' emotional needs. It sure would have been cheaper and easier than implementing comprehensive whole school improvements.

By now, however, it should be clear that there are no shortcuts. It takes a team effort to improve student performance in schools serving intense concentrations of children from generational poverty who have often survived extreme trauma.

The Tulsa Public schools has an excellent record of starting down the path to high-quality early education and full-service community schools. So, it might have made sense for Tulsa to accept a Gates Foundation grant to improve teacher quality, as long as it was seen as a supplement to more holistic approaches. But, even if money was no object, there are only so many hours in the day, and we must prioritize the tasks we impose on educators.

In retrospect, even the best of the high-dollar Gates efforts look like a mistake if they make curriculum, data, and instruction the top priority, and distract from the most important need -- aligning and coordinating the socio-emotional supports. We won't significantly improve teaching until we tackle the complex conditions that can wash out even the best classroom instruction.

This sad reality is only one reason why Andrea Eger's retrospective on Hawthorne Elementary School's struggles is a must-read. It follows an equally outstanding series by Eger and other Tulsa World reporters on the challenges faced in that high-challenge school.

During the 2014-15 school year, as in previous years, staffing Hawthorne with effective teachers remains maddeningly difficult, with only seven of the faculty having taught there for four years. Due to the lack of promising applicants, the school was short a third grade teacher when it began the year, creating a class with 50 students or more. By this spring, three more teachers needed to be replaced. It is unclear whether two 5th grade replacements will come back next year. One of them, who did not know what she was getting into when she came to Hawthorne, is torn because teacher mobility has hurt the students and, "One of my kids said, 'Pinky-promise me that you're going to stay until the end of the year.'"

There is nothing new, however, about teachers being overwhelmed by the challenge of the inner city. A year ago, the school's dedicated principal, Dr. Estella Bitson, had to replace eight full-time and one part-time teachers to fill Hawthorne's 26 positions. Six hires backed out of the commitment during that summer. Bitson then had to fill another five vacancies that opened after the winter break.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the Gates/Tulsa collaboration resulting in 200 teachers being "exited" by the spring of 2014. I suspect that its focus on value-added teacher evaluations will mostly reduce the quality of instruction in schools where it is harder to raise test scores. But, I have no direct knowledge about whether or not Hawthorne was hurt by Gates' flawed accountability scheme, and I sure don't want to be critical of Tulsa educators who seem to believe in the Gates-style use of data.

It's frustrating, however that so much effort was invested in improving teacher quality before laying the foundation for more promising approaches. By now, it should be obvious that the heroic efforts by the principal and her teachers will yield minimal results before the conditions that undermine excellent instruction are addressed.

For instance, during Bitson's first three years:

A Hawthorne teacher's assistant plus two fathers and one older brother of Hawthorne students were murdered; another child's uncle was shot in the neighborhood; and the mother of another student was killed in a car wreck. ... A 4-year-old in Hawthorne's prekindergarten program died alongside her 18-month-old sister in an apartment fire. Their aunt, who was baby-sitting them at the time, has been charged with second-degree murder in the deaths.

During the World's series last year, teachers described their job as "high pressure," "high stress," "emotionally draining," and "a constant battle." The principal admitted with "a nervous laugh" that, "There were times I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I would go home and tell my husband, 'I don't know if I can do it.'"

After last year's stories, "officials at Family and Children's Services saw the Tulsa World series and offered new assistance in the form of two therapists who provide on-site counseling to students, parents and even teachers." It's sad, however, that educators were so slow in recognizing the seemingly obvious need to beef up those supports before teaching effectiveness can be improved enough to make much of a difference.

The chances of using "teacher quality" to drive transformative school improvements were always slim, but perhaps we could have gotten lucky. It is a shame that true believers in Big Data ignored a huge body of social science research, some funded by the Gates Foundation, which explains why instruction-driven, curriculum driven reforms are incapable of turning around the most challenging schools until after a foundation of student supports is laid. Hawthorne is just one more example of why reformers need to abandon the quest for one cheaper and easier shortcut after another, and tackle the entire problem of creating comprehensive solutions for educational underperformance.