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Friday, November 14, 2014

How to Get a Great Teacher in Every Classroom

In case you missed it, the federal government wants states to focus on equity in assigning teachers. To the apparent amazement of the federal Department of Education, schools in areas with high rates of poverty have trouble attracting and retaining highly qualified, high performing teachers. The feds want the states to come up with a plan to ensure that teachers are distributed equitably. Apparently, the belief is that it is a lack of a plan that causes this phenomenon.

Of course this being a directive coming out of the Arne Duncan led DOE, the states are being urged to use teacher evaluation data (read Arne's beloved VAMs) to determine whether those teachers who receive lower ratings are disproportionately assigned to schools with high proportions of racial minorities and students in poverty.

In the most absurd of all the absurd aspects of this discussion of equitable distribution of teachers, we have the city of Minneapolis, where the Superintendent of Schools, Bernadeia Johnson, was dismayed to find out that under the Minnesota teacher evaluation system that includes VAMs, Minneapolis schools  "with the largest number of low-income students have the highest concentration of poor-performing instructors." She says she has a plan to address this inequity by providing incentives and mentoring and by firing teachers. Fellow blogger, Peter Greene, does a great job of skewering Johnson's vapid assessment of the data here.

I would like to save everyone a great deal of time and effort. Let's just concede that if we use student standardized test scores as any significant measure of teacher effectiveness, the teachers who teach in the poorest schools will always be adjudged to be low performing, not because of the effectiveness of their teaching, but because of it has long, long been understood that standardized test scores are a reliable measure of relative student wealth. High percentage of poverty in the school =low test scores. High degree of affluence in the school = high test scores.

A high quality teacher in every classroom is, of course, a worthy goal, but ham-fisted approaches such as those encouraged by Duncan and those apparently being put into effect in Minneapolis will do nothing to move us toward the goal.

My last job in public education before my retirement was as the Human Resources Director for a affluent, suburban school district. I usually had hundreds of applicants for any job opening, and many of these candidates would have been welcome additions to any staff. This afforded me the opportunity to hire the best people I could find. It also meant that most teachers I hired stayed for many years, allowing them to become high functioning effective teachers and allowing for stability in program that fosters student achievement.

Why did I have so many well-qualified candidates? The school district was a desirable place to work. We paid no more than other districts in the state. What we had were the types of working conditions that teachers desire.

From this perspective, here is a plan for ensuring equity in the distribution of teachers.

1. Ensure that every school is clean and safe and has adequate resources. 

Like all human beings, teachers want a clean, safe place to work. They want a building that is in good repair, a well-managed building where safety concerns are minimal and the books, materials and technology that are required to do the job well.

In our cash strapped cities where school buildings have been allowed to fall into deplorable disrepair, where chaos is often the rule in the hallway and where teachers are often required to buy paper, pencils and books for the instruction of the children, we are systematically ensuring inequitable distribution of high-quality teachers.

2. Create a collaborative culture in the building.

Teachers want to work in a place where the administration works with the staff to create a spirit of productive collaboration. Collaborative environments have been shown to be effective in helping all teachers meet the needs of their students. See Greg Anrig's book, Beyond the Education Wars.

This collaboration needs to extend to teacher evaluation systems. Teachers are not attracted to schools where the evaluation system is done to them. The chief aim of a sound evaluation system is to provide meaningful feedback to the teacher.

Any system that uses Value Added Measures (VAMs) for teacher evaluation is sure to keep top teaching candidates away from high-poverty schools. Teachers understand that these measures are skewed against poor children and the teachers who teach them. As I have elaborated on here, a good evaluation system starts with valuing teachers.

3. Provide professional development that is designed by the teachers and for the teachers.

Teachers want to work in schools that help them refine their craft. A school that will attract high quality teachers is a school that not only provides professional development, but includes the teachers in the design and development of that professional development, so that precious time resources are used to meet teachers and children's needs.

4.  Do not use Teach for America recruits in the place of professionals.

One way to ensure inequity is to employ Teach for America (TFA) neophytes in the schools with high levels of poverty. A school building needs a professional workforce of well-trained and certified professionals and it needs a stable staff. TFA provides neither.

A good way to employ these recruits would be as teacher aides, assisting certified teachers in classrooms with high concentrations of impoverished students. That way the TFAs could provide valuable assistance under a professional's guidance and also explore whether teaching is a career they wish to pursue. Then they could go back to school and be properly credentialed.

5. Refuse to include merit pay as part of your plan.

Merit pay does not work in education. First of all, teachers are not motivated by money. Teaching is a calling and teachers are attracted to it because of their desire to work with children. Good working conditions, such as those described above, are much more important than financial incentives (beyond a decent and livable wage).

Secondly , merit pay is anathema to a spirit of collaboration so necessary for a high functioning school that can attract and retain staff. By definition, merit pay sets up a competition for scarce dollars. Finally, merit pay seeds resentments, especially when the measures used to reward winners are suspect and often grossly inaccurate.

To recap: If the federal government and states are serious about wanting equitable distribution of teachers they should focus on the working conditions that will attract top teachers to all schools and they should do away with the foolishness of VAMs, merit pay schemes and neophyte TFA replacement teachers.

Of course, if the federal government is really serious about overcoming the inequity of teacher distribution, they would first have to get serious about the broader economic inequities that pervade this country and are this country's greatest shame. Only by creating a more equitable society will we ever truly erase the many other inequities that stem from that singular reality.


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