Teacher quality is key to the success of our schools and our children. No matter how you judge success, there can be no doubt that students do better in testing, are more motivated, more interested, and fundamentally happier when they have good teachers. Nowhere is this more important than the English as a Second Language classroom, where children are often more reliant on their teacher than other classes, as their families may be unable to provide the support structure so important to children, yet teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools are less likely to be well-trained. However, although we are rushing to judge teacher “effectiveness,”we are doing very little to help our teachers excel.
In the Race to the Top (RttT) guidelines, teacher effectiveness is measured by value-added student assessments – comparing how students perform on standardized tests before their classes with a teacher to those afterward. While value-added student achievement data can be used to reward and recognize certain achievements by educators, it is patently absurd to use it as the sole method by which teachers are judged. This system ignores the benefits of high-quality induction and professional development, strong and supportive school administrators, and opportunities for collaboration and leadership. Teachers need professional support and opportunities to develop their practice, including focused induction during their initial years in the profession. Measuring teachers’ impact on standardized tests without providing the means to help educators strengthen their practice do little to help us improve schools.
If RttT is to be an effective policy, it needs to recognize the importance of teacher development. RttT should require states to focus on the development of their teachers, not merely identify those who are succeeding at preparing their students for standardized tests.
Only one part of the Recovery Act – Title I School Improvement Grants – makes professional development part of the equation by requiring schools to “provide staff ongoing, high-quality, job-embedded professional development…to ensure that they are equipped to facilitate effective teaching and learning and have the capacity to successfully implement school reform strategies.”
In addition, we have to encourage and train a more diverse supply of teachers. Too few minority teachers are encouraged into the profession and other teachers receive too little cultural training. Recently, University of Southern Mississippi education professor Tom O’Brien explained how the demographic realities of the South demand a change in teacher training, “Historically, we prepare teachers who are white, female and middle-class. That’s not going to change. What needs to change is how we prepare people by teaching them to be competent across cultures.”
Even corporations, which seem to be the current model for school districts, recognize that they cannot expect to improve results without investing in training, and that training is much more cost-effective than hiring and firing. However, maybe the problem lies in the fact that teacher quality is extremely difficult to measure. The specific qualities that constitute an effective teacher are not easily defined, nor are they easily quantifiable. And, in this age of quick fixes and instant results, we do not dare to even try to promote reforms which cannot be easily defined with simple measurement.