Shehrever Masters was once a lightning rod in the rolling thunderstorm of debate over teaching standards and why American students lag behind other countries in subjects such as science.
Simply put, maybe American teachers aren t demanding enough.
The former Bowsher High School science teacher was described as too demanding by some of his freshman students in 1996. Nightly assignments required them to read their textbook. Daily quizzes tested what they d learned the night before. Classroom activities were mainly question-and-answer drills led by Mr. Masters, with no supplemental materials and few experiments.
Students dropped the class and failed it in droves. Many of them complained to their parents, some of whom, in turn, complained privately and later publicly to Toledo Public Schools administrators.
When Mr. Masters refused a request by the district to change his teaching style in order to reach more students, he was eventually fired for being an “ineffective” teacher.
Afterward Mr. Masters disappeared as quickly as the administrative lightning bolt that struck him. He went to work as a computer consultant, but he never lost his love for his favorite profession.
This fall, Mr. Masters was able to combine his computer knowledge and his desire to teach. He now teaches computer hardware networking courses for high school seniors at Penta Career Center, a five-county vocational school in Perrysburg Township.
“I was missing teaching very, very much. Even though [the consulting] was lucrative, it wasn t what I really wanted to do,” Mr. Masters said. “I m really happy here.”
Despite the passage of time, Mr. Masters name continues to elicit quick reactions when mentioned to TPS officials, parents, and former students. Many students who supported him at the time speak even more strongly in favor of him now that they have experienced college and, in some cases, graduate school.
“I think it was rather an injustice that he got flak. I just thought it was a real big injustice the way he was treated," said Mark Wilkerson, a 23-year-old computer technician at Owens Community College who graduated from Bowsher in 1998. “It wasn t all that hard.”
But just as fiercely his detractors continue to criticize him.
“I m surprised he s allowed to teach anymore,” said Jackie Frankevic, a mother who testified against Mr. Masters in 1996 and continues to regret she didn t demand her son be transferred out of his class earlier than she did. “The only thing that I m mad at myself about is that I didn t go back and get that F erased. [My son] John would have made the honor roll.”
Jan Kilbride, now a school improvement leader for TPS, was assistant principal at Bowsher when Mr. Masters was fired. She and other TPS officials stand by that decision today.
Effective teachers should strive to reach all students and ensure they are learning the material. Demanding higher standards of his students would have been OK, they said, but Mr. Masters inflexibility and ineffectiveness wasn t what high school freshmen needed.
“It was just about approaching instruction in a number of ways,” Ms. Kilbride said.
“You try to work with all people at all times and try to do the best you can to effect change in your classes when students are experiencing difficulty,” she said of educators. “It s important to do that.”
Milton Pommeranz is a 26-year-old Toledo attorney. He took Mr. Masters honors anatomy and physiology class his junior year at Bowsher and then earned a full scholarship to the University of Toledo for his undergraduate education.
“I actually got my bachelor s degree in biology. He was a big reason for that. Once upon a time I had this big pre-med kick,” Mr. Pommeranz said.
He remembers Mr. Masters class as having about 10 or 15 students who chose the advanced science elective.
“There were some of the smartest kids in the school,” Mr. Pommeranz said. “He expected a lot out of us and didn t give us anything.”
When Mr. Pommeranz, regularly an A student, began earning what he called “not-so-great grades” in his science class, his parents noticed.
“It wasn t like my parents said, It must be the teacher s fault, which is I m sure what all the other parents said. My mom said, What are you doing wrong? It was my fault,” Mr. Pommeranz said. “I m thinking most of the parents came to expect that if there s a problem, they automatically want to blame it on somebody else.”
Phillip Lagger, a 24-year-old carpenter, also had enrolled in Mr. Masters honors anatomy and physiology class. His feelings haven t changed during the last seven years either.
A graduate of Adrian College with a dual major in mathematics and art, Mr. Lagger said it was Mr. Masters rigid style of teaching and detachment from his students that were objectionable.
“Now that I ve been to college and I ve graduated college, it seems to me that he could have tried to teach us more,” he said. “He was teaching us anatomy like a medical student would learn it.”
Mr. Lagger missed two weeks of high school early on with pneumonia. He said when he returned to Bowsher, Mr. Masters was the least accommodating of his teachers as he worked to make up the work he had missed.
“He wasn t going to come in early or stay late for students to help them out,” he said. “I don t think kids in high school are ready for that kind of teaching.”
Since Mr. Masters left Toledo Public Schools, science and other disciplines have been affected by increased emphasis on standards-based education. This approach leads to proficiency tests and public accountability for schools based on them, said Mark Templin, an assistant professor of middle-grade science education at the University of Toledo.
In 1995, the National Academies Press published a 262-page document entitled National Science Education Standards, which included a chapter devoted to teaching.
“They set forth a whole set of standards - not only content standards but also teaching standards, assessment standards, school district standards for how science programs should be aligned and managed within the schools, and science-teacher preparation and professional development standards,” Dr. Templin said.
“The national science standards were a set of standards that are beyond just science content. That s the take-home message there, I think.”
Just last year, the Ohio Department of Education adopted benchmarks for each grade describing what students should know at each level. One of the ideas behind them was to give educators a blueprint for science curricula that would match expectations for science proficiency tests, said department spokesman J.C. Benton. That way they could best teach students - all students - what they need to know for the tests.
Meanwhile, the standards documents continue to influence the classroom, Dr. Templin said.
“When you have standards, that prompts a conversation about what learning environments should look like,” he said. “There s input from the community - and really a conversation with the community - about what an appropriate learning environment should be.”
Educators now more firmly believe science is a subject in which students can be better motivated by a variety of teaching methods, said Jean Moon, senior program officer and director of the community on science education at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.
“By trying to create a classroom where all students are involved in this scientific enterprise, the expectation is that more students will come away with a greater appreciation for the scientific process and a continuing lifelong curiosity about science and science-based ideas,” Dr. Moon said.
Dr. Templin said teachers often need to adjust their styles and use a variety of lessons, experiments, and assignments for students to learn science.
“I really see it as a continuum,” he said. “At one end there s drill em and kill em, where you re focused virtually exclusively on the content and you really don t take the child s needs into consideration at all. And at the other end of the continuum is the child-centered approach, where the child s needs drive everything. What the [national standards] seem to be saying is we need to balance both of those perspectives.”
Shehrever Masters was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1956. His father was an engineer and a businessman. His mother volunteered at children s charities.
His enrollment at a British-style boarding school at the foot of the towering Hindu Kush mountains was a reflection of his family s deep commitment to education.
He left for college in the United States at age 17, and earned a bachelor s degree in biology from Ohio State University in 1978. He went on to Bowling Green State University and earned a master s degree in genetics in 1982.
In 1987, Mr. Masters joined Toledo Public Schools and began teaching science. His first-year reviews were excellent. By 1995, however, he was on track to be fired.
The district charged Mr. Masters that year and in 1996 with “ineffective teaching.” Of his 125 students who started in his classes for the 1995-1996 year, fewer than 44 remained by May, and half of those received failing grades in the third quarter.
School officials began termination proceedings in April, 1996. Parents and students lined up on both sides. The board suspended him without pay in early June and terminated him later that month, effective in August.
“I believe that what occurred at the time was very appropriate,” Ms. Kilbride told The Blade recently.
“I really don t want to get into that whole story again, to be honest,” Mr. Masters said, declining a request by the newspaper to discuss his termination by TPS. “It s what I said then and what I still say. I was teaching kids at the level at which they can learn.”
He sought reinstatement, but a state referee upheld dismissal.
“In some instances, Mr. Masters has not only been an effective teacher but an exceptional teacher,” the referee, Bowling Green attorney Thomas Vogtsberger, wrote. “At other times, he has failed miserably to either motivate or educate students.”
After his dismissal, Mr. Masters pursued his other academic interest: computer programming. He eventually taught himself enough to earn several Microsoft certifications and began his consulting career.
His resume submitted for his position at Penta shows he was a self-employed information technology trainer and consultant, systems administrator-engineer, and troubleshooter since 1997. He also worked as a computer education instructor at Bowling Green State University in 1997.
Mr. Masters has taught several Microsoft applications courses and has been a certified systems engineer since 1997.
It was those credentials that landed him a job at Penta, where he teaches half-day classes to high school seniors who spend the other half of the school day in other academic classes, said Monica Dansack, school spokesman.
“They re students in a highly focused program,” she said.
Mr. Masters is paid $49,814 annually, according to school employment records.
“It s a very intensive class,” Mr. Masters said. “We re going to get them prepared for the Microsoft world.”
Comparisons between his teaching now and in his 1990s science classes at Toledo Public Schools wouldn t be valuable, he said.
“For one thing, it s a different subject to begin with. I m not teaching science here. I have to do things differently in that context. But I m not doing things differently. I m essentially making sure that my students get the education they should be getting,” he said.
Mr. Masters declined to allow The Blade to visit his classroom.
He said his TPS experience with the hearings, controversies, and ultimately his dismissal didn t make him lose his commitment to public education.
“I was never bitter about it,” he said.
He keeps in touch with a few former students from his time at Bowsher and recently attended a graduation party for one young woman who graduated from medical school.
“She remembered me and kind of wanted to thank me for everything. It was wonderful,” he said. “There is something special about teaching students.”