Tag Archives: teachers

Accountability from Teachers Union Can Spark Reform

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times and a Boston news radio program covered Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and her proposal for how the union can evaluate teachers more thoroughly. She addressed topics sensitive among many teachers – the use of student performance as a factor in evaluations and the procedures to remove teachers who are ineffective or guilty of misconduct. Breaking with precedent, Weingarten favors using student test scores to assess teachers and agrees that steps to remove ineffective teachers should be eased.

The AFT’s support for these reforms is a positive step in a complicated process. An article in The Future of Children volume Excellence in the Classroom focuses on the role of teachers, and it argues that unions, school administrators, and policymakers should work together to reform school systems. “Reform bargaining” has gained traction in recent years, with the support of both AFT and another major union, the National Education Association (NEA).

“Reform bargaining” was illustrated by the Toledo, Ohio, school district in the early 1980s, when the union and policy makers designed a program to improve teachers’ effectiveness. Under that plan, the first year of teaching was treated as a “trial year.” More experienced but ineffective teachers were required to enter an intervention program, after which even tenured faculty members were let go if they did not show sufficient improvement. The union evaluated the teachers, investing itself fully in the program and helping it succeed. The national ventures promoted by AFT president Weingarten closely reflect this initiative.

Although holding teachers more accountable is a good start, policies linking teachers to student performance must be carefully constructed. Schools may have vastly different student populations, resources, and administrative situations, all of which can create barriers to student achievement, so teacher performance must be viewed in context. Second, educators are concerned that faculty will teach to standardized tests, narrowing content covered in class and giving more superficial treatment to topics, resulting in students being less able to apply and connect material more broadly. These factors make it important to use caution in rating teachers by student achievement, including making it only one component of a broader evaluation.

Research from the FOC volume supports the type of reform recently embraced by AFT, but these measures are only the start of true education reform. Policy makers must work with teachers to clearly articulate goals for teacher quality and to devote resources toward achieving them. Flexibility, peer review, and attention to student needs are key components in this process. The AFT’s movement toward greater accountability must now be met with further commitments by both teachers’ unions and administrators.

Should Teachers Pursue Master’s Degrees?

In an increasingly competitive global economy, high-quality education for American students has become critical for the nation’s future. Most agree that a key to achieving this aim is recruiting and retaining effective teachers, as detailed in an FOC policy brief on the quality of teaching. How to define capable teachers remains controversial. Some have proposed mandating master’s degrees; in contrast, others suggest completely eliminating incentives for continued graduate work. From the New York Times blog Room for Debate to The Future of Children’s Excellence in the Classroom issue, many question the value of teacher education in its current form and seek alternatives.
Education course work has long been part of initial teacher certification and ongoing professional development as a way to increase a teacher’s capacity and value. Although only 16 percent of teachers in their third year of teaching hold master’s degrees, 62 percent of teachers with over 20 years of experience have earned them. Schools encourage this process by providing higher pay incentives and allowing substitution of these courses for recertification requirements.
Lately, however, degree programs have been subject to scrutiny. In theory they ensure that teachers have sufficient subject area knowledge, experience with teaching, and abilities to promote learning through effective and innovations means. Often, however, these programs have been criticized for teaching irrelevant and non-transferable skills, lacking intellectual rigor, or failing to build new knowledge or abilities.
A recent The Future of Children volume examined whether these programs are valuable and have positive effects on student achievement. Research on master’s degrees and teacher quality has generally been inconclusive, according to The Future of Children article “The Effect of Certification and Preparation on Teacher Quality.” This ambiguity reflects the difficulty in 1) establishing whether programs cause improvement in teaching, 2) taking into account the inequity of teacher distribution (with better teachers migrating by choice to higher quality schools), and 3) isolating the effects of graduate degrees on students of different grade levels. As Heather Hill documents in her article “Learning in the Teacher Workforce,” however, some improvement in math scores has been shown for teachers with graduate degrees in math. So far this finding has not been replicated in other subject areas, but it offers potential for more research.
While graduate work has the potential to prepare teachers and increase their students’ performance, recent analysis suggests that it is not currently meeting these goals. Although more research is needed, studies so far suggest that schools should seek teachers with and encourage the pursuit of graduate degrees in the teacher’s primary area of instruction. Programs such as the master’s in education should submit themselves to more rigorous testing to find what skills and knowledge can help teachers positively influence their students’ learning. Higher quality graduate programs and a more thorough understanding of their effects on student learning will lead to better education for our children.

School Reform 101: Effective Teachers in the Classroom

The cover story of this week’s Time Magazine “How to Fix America’s Schools,” features Michelle Rhee, the relatively new and sometimes polarizing chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school district. Rhee has declared that the key to reform is good teachers, and her methods for stacking the school system with good teachers are controversial: shutting schools, firing principals, trimming school administration bureaucracy, and, most significantly, dismissing teachers she deems unacceptable and replacing them with new and improved models. One of her most contentious proposals is to pay teachers who elect to give up tenure higher pay – salaries could reach $130,000 – based on effectiveness as measured by test scores and class room evaluation.

While this proposal has divided teachers and raised the ire of the union (which rejected Rhee’s proposal), research does support Rhee’s basic contention that good teachers equal good schools. According to a recent Future of Children volume, Excellence in the Classroom, that addresses improving teacher quality, what happens inside the classroom may be the most important factor in closing racial and social class gaps in learning. “Indeed, teachers are so important, that, according to one estimate, a child in poverty who has a good teacher for five years in a row would have learning gains large enough, on average, to close completely the achievement gap with higher-income students.”

In light of the findings in the volume, a Future of Children policy brief offers a five part plan to boost teacher quality.

  1. Rethink entry requirements for teaching. Teachers should meet initial certification but then required to follow rigorous procedures and requirements for tenure or promotion.
  2. Implement a strategy to identify effective teachers. Use test scores as one, but not the only measure of efficacy. In addition to student gains on tests, principal and parent evaluations and possibly other tools developed by all stakeholders should be used.
  3. Promote only effective teachers. Target professional development to nurture skills and make up for deficiencies, particularly in the early stages of a teacher’s career. If the extra help doesn’t help a deficient teacher improve, dismiss the teacher.
  4. Give bonuses to teachers who teach disadvantaged students or in fields that are difficult to staff.
  5. Promote professional development linked directly to teachers’ work. Not the current model of professional development, but a new and improved model that is several days long; subject specific; and aligned with school goals and curriculum.

— Based on “A Plan to Improve the Quality of Teaching in American Schools,” by Ron Haskins and Susanna Loeb. For more information, go to Excellence in the Classroom, eds. Cecilia Rouse and Susanna Loeb, Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2007.