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Teacher Quality

  • Beyond Teacher Quality

    Written on February 23, 2016

    Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems is a recent report from the Learning First Alliance and the International Center for Benchmarking in Education at the National Center for Education and the Economy. The paper describes practices and policies from four high-performing school systems – British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore – where professional learning is believed to be the primary vehicle for school improvement.

    My first reaction was: This sounds great, but where is the ubiquitous discussion of “teacher quality?” Frankly, I was somewhat baffled that a report on school improvement never even mentioned the phrase.* Upon close reading, I found the report to be full of radical (and very good) ideas. It’s not that the report proposed anything that would require an overhaul of the U.S. education system; rather, they were groundbreaking because these ideas did not rely on the typical assumptions about how the youth or the adults in these systems learn and achieve mastery. Because, while things are changing a bit in the U.S. with regard to our understanding of student learning – e.g., we now talk about “deep learning” – we have still not made this transition when it comes to teachers.

    In the U.S., a number of unstated but common assumptions about “teacher quality” suffuse the entire school improvement conversation. As researchers have noted (see here and here), instructional effectiveness is implicitly viewed as an attribute of individuals, a quality that exists in a sort of vacuum (or independent of the context of teachers’ work), and which, as a result, teachers can carry with them, across and between schools. Effectiveness also is often perceived as fairly stable: teachers learn their craft within the first few years in the classroom and then plateau,** but, at the end of the day, some teachers have what it takes and others just don’t. So, the general assumption is that a “good teacher” will be effective under any conditions, and the quality of a given school is determined by how many individual “good teachers” it has acquired.

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  • The IMPACT Of Teacher Turnover In DCPS

    Written on February 3, 2016

    Teacher turnover has long been a flashpoint in education policy, yet these debates are rife with complications. For example, it is often implied that turnover is a “bad thing,” even though some turnover, as when low-performing teachers leave, can be beneficial, whereas some retention, as when low-performing teachers stay, can be harmful. The impact of turnover also depends heavily on other factors, such as the pool of candidates available to serve as replacements, and how disruptive turnover is to the teachers who are retained.

    The recent widespread reform of teacher evaluation systems has made the turnover issue, never far below the surface, even more salient in recent years. Critics contend that the new evaluations, particularly their use of test-based productivity measures, will cause teachers to flee the profession. Supporters, on the other hand, are in a sense hoping for this outcome, as they anticipate that, under the new systems, voluntary and involuntary separations will serve to improve the quality of the teacher workforce.

    A new working paper takes a close look the impact of teacher turnover under what is perhaps the most controversial teacher evaluation system in the nation – that used in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). It's a very strong analysis that speaks directly to policy in a manner that does not fit well into the tribal structure of education debates today.

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  • What Makes Teacher Collaboration Work?

    Written on December 8, 2015

    Today’s guest authors are David Sherer and Johanna Barmore. Sherer is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He specializes in research on policy implementation and the social dynamics of K-12 school reform. Barmore is a former teacher and also a current doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She studies how policy impacts teachers' instructional practice as well as how teachers learn to improve instruction, with a focus on teacher education.

    You’ve probably attended meetings that were a waste of your time. Perhaps there was no agenda. Perhaps the facilitator of the meeting dominated the conversation. Perhaps people arrived late or the wrong people were in the room in the first place. Maybe the team ran in place and no one had any good ideas. Whatever the reason, it’s common for teamwork to feel ineffective. Good teamwork does not just “happen.” Organizational researchers study teams with a goal of understanding the conditions that foster effective meetings and, more broadly, effective collaboration (see here for a review).

    Meetings can feel like a waste of time in schools, just like they can in other workplaces. However, educational scholars have paid less attention, compared to researchers in other fields, to the conditions that foster productive collaborative work, such as management (see, e.g. Cohen & Bailey, 1997). Educational researchers and practitioners have long advocated that collaboration between teachers should be a cornerstone of efforts to improve instruction – indeed, teachers themselves often cite collaboration with colleagues as one of the key ways they learn. And yet, we know many teams flounder instead of flourish. So why are some teams more productive than others?

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  • Evidence From A Teacher Evaluation Pilot Program In Chicago

    Written on December 4, 2015

    The majority of U.S. states have adopted new teacher evaluation systems over the past 5-10 years. Although these new systems remain among the most contentious issues in education policy today, there is still only minimal evidence on their impact on student performance or other outcomes. This is largely because good research takes time.

    A new article, published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, is among the handful of analyses examining the preliminary impact of teacher evaluation systems. The researchers, Matthew Steinberg and Lauren Sartain, take a look at the Excellence in Teaching Project (EITP), a pilot program carried out in Chicago Public Schools starting in the 2008-09 school year. A total of 44 elementary schools participated in EITP in the first year (cohort 1), while an additional 49 schools (cohort 2) implemented the new evaluation systems the following year (2009-10). Participating schools were randomly selected, which permits researchers to gauge the impact of the evaluations experimentally.

    The results of this study are important in themselves, and they also suggest some more general points about new teacher evaluations and the building body of evidence surrounding them.

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  • Who Are (And Should Be) The Teaching Experts?

    Written on November 19, 2015

    Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

    How do we fix teaching?  This question is on the mind of many reformers, researchers, politicians, and parents.  Every expert has their own view of the problem, their own perspective on what success should look like, and their own solutions to offer.  The plethora of op-eds, reports, articles, and memoranda, can be mindboggling.  It is important to take a step back and see whether we all even consider teaching expertise to be the same thing.  Just as importantly, where does, and should, it reside?

    In a New York Times op-ed, “Teachers Aren’t Dumb”, Dr. Daniel Willingham explains that teachers aren’t the problem – it’s just how they are trained. As a teacher, I appreciate a respected person from outside of the profession coming to our defense, and I do agree that we need to take a hard look at teacher preparation programs.  I worry, though, that a call to focus more on the “nuts and bolts” of teaching – in contrast to the current emphasis on educational philosophy and theories of development – could create an alarming pendulum swing.

    This recommendation is a common message, promoted both by those in academic research as well as fast-tracked teacher preparation programs.  It sees academics and researchers as the generators and holders of the most important expertise and asks them to then give direction to teachers.  By mistaking different kinds of expertise, it inadvertently lays a path towards teachers as technicians, rather than true professionals.

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  • Recent Evidence On Teacher Experience And Productivity

    Written on August 12, 2015

    The idea that teachers’ test-based productivity does not improve after their first few years in the classroom is, it is fair to say, the “conventional wisdom” among many in the education reform arena. It has been repeated endlessly, and used to advocate forcefully for recent changes in teacher personnel policies, such as those regarding compensation, transfers, and layoffs. 

    Following a few other, recent analyses (e.g., Harris and Sass 2011Wiswall 2013; Ladd and Sorensen 2013), a new working paper by researchers John Papay and Matthew Kraft examines this claim about the relationship between experience and (test-based) performance. In this case, the authors compare the various approaches with which the productivity returns to experience have been estimated in the literature, and put forth a new one. The paper did receive some attention, and will hopefully have some impact on the policy debate, as well as on the production of future work on this topic.

    It might nevertheless be worthwhile to take a closer look at the “nuts and bolts” of this study, both because it is interesting (at least in my opinion) and policy relevant, and also because it illustrates some important lessons regarding the relationship between research and policy, specifically the fact that what we think we know is not always as straightforward as it appears.

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  • The Magic Of Multiple Measures

    Written on August 6, 2015

    Our guest author today is Cara Jackson, Assistant Director of Research and Evaluation at the Urban Teacher Center.

    Teacher evaluation has become a contentious issue in U.S.  Some observers see the primary purpose of these reforms as the identification and removal of ineffective teachers; the popular media as well as politicians and education reform advocates have all played a role in the framing of teacher evaluation as such.  But, while removal of ineffective teachers was a criterion under Race to the Top, so too was the creation of evaluation systems to be used for teacher development and support.

    I think most people would agree that teacher development and improvement should be the primary purpose, as argued here.  Some empirical evidence supports the efficacy of evaluation for this purpose (see here).  And given the sheer number of teachers we need, declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and the difficulty disadvantaged schools have retaining teachers, school principals are probably none too enthusiastic about dismissing teachers, as discussed here.

    Of course, to achieve the ambitious goal of improving teaching practice, an evaluation system must be implemented well.  Fans of Harry Potter might remember when Dolores Umbridge from the Ministry of Magic takes over as High Inquisitor at Hogwarts and conducted “inspections” of Hogwart’s teachers in Book 5 of J.K. Rowling’s series.  These inspections pretty much demonstrate how not to approach classroom observations: she dictates the timing, fails to provide any of indication of what aspects of teaching practice she will be evaluating, interrupts lessons with pointed questions and comments, and evidently does no pre- or post-conferencing with the teachers. 

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  • Research On Teacher Evaluation Metrics: The Weaponization Of Correlations

    Written on July 21, 2015

    Our guest author today is Cara Jackson, Assistant Director of Research and Evaluation at the Urban Teacher Center.

    In recent years, many districts have implemented multiple-measure teacher evaluation systems, partly in response to federal pressure from No Child Left Behind waivers and incentives from the Race to the Top grant program. These systems have not been without controversy, largely owing to the perception – not entirely unfounded - that such systems might be used to penalize teachers.  One ongoing controversy in the field of teacher evaluation is whether these measures are sufficiently reliable and valid to be used for high-stakes decisions, such as dismissal or tenure.  That is a topic that deserves considerably more attention than a single post; here, I discuss just one of the issues that arises when investigating validity.

     The diagram below is a visualization of a multiple-measure evaluation system, one that combines information on teaching practice (e.g. ratings from a classroom observation rubric) with student achievement-based measures (e.g. value-added or student growth percentiles) and student surveys.  The system need not be limited to three components; the point is simply that classroom observations are not the sole means of evaluating teachers.   

    In validating the various components of an evaluation system, researchers often examine their correlation with other components.  To the extent that each component is an attempt to capture something about the teacher’s underlying effectiveness, it’s reasonable to expect that different measurements taken of the same teacher will be positively related.  For example, we might examine whether ratings from a classroom observation rubric are positively correlated with value-added.

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  • Recruiting And Retaining Educators Of Color

    Written on July 14, 2015

    Our guest authors today are Audra Watson, Travis Bristol, Terrenda White and Jose Vilson. Watson is Program Officer and Director of Mentoring and Induction Strategy at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Bristol is a Research and Policy Fellow at Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. White is Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist in New York City, NY

    On Thursday, May 7, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) co-sponsored an hour-long webinar, in which researchers, policy makers, and practitioners shared best practices and strategies for increasing the racial/ethnic diversity of the country’s teaching force.

    As discussed during the webinar, a racially and ethnically diverse teaching force is important for several reasons. First, in this flat, or interconnected, world, our children need a diverse teaching force to prepare them to be global citizens. Second, teachers of color are positioned to serve as role models and cultural brokers for children of color, who account for 50.2 percent of all U.S. public school students (NCES, 2015). Despite this diverse student population, Latino, Black, Asian, and Native American teachers comprise only 17.3% of all teachers (Ingersoll, Merrill & Stuckey, 2014). Third, several large-scale studies point to increased learning -- as measured by a standardized exam -- for students when they have a teacher of the same race (Dee, 2001; Egalite, Kisida,& Winters, 2015); Not discussed at the time, but equally important, is the fact that a diverse teaching force challenges the assumption that some of the qualities needed most by high-quality, effective teachers -- intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and deep content knowledge -- are difficult to find in large supply amongst individuals of color seeking to enter the teaching profession.

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  • Empower Teachers To Lead, Encourage Students To Be Curious

    Written on July 9, 2015

    Our guest author today is Ashim Shanker, a former English Language Arts teacher in public schools in Tokyo, Japan. Ashim has a Master’s Degree in International Education Policy from Harvard University and is the author of three books, including Don’t Forget to Breathe. Follow him on Twitter at @ashimshanker.

    In the 11 years that I was a public school teacher in Japan, I came to view education as a holistic enterprise. Schools in Japan not only imbued students with relevant skills, but also nurtured within them the wherewithal to experience a sense of connection with the larger world, and the exploratory capacity to discover their place within it.

    In my language arts classes, I encouraged students to read about current events and human rights issues around the world. I asked them to make lists of the electronics they used, the garments they wore, and the food products they consumed on a daily basis. I then had them research where these products were made and under what labor conditions.

    The students gave presentations on child laborers and about modern-day slavery. They debated about government secrecy laws in Japan and cover-ups in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. They read an essay on self-reliance by Emerson and excerpts on civil disobedience by Thoreau, and I asked them how these two activists might have felt about the actions of groups like Anonymous, or about whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. We discussed the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment, exploring how obedience and situational role conformity might tip even those with the best of intentions toward acts of cruelty. We talked about bullying, and shared anecdotes of instances in which we might unintentionally have hurt others. There were opportunities for self-reflection, engagement, and character building—attributes that I would like to think foster the empathic foundations for better civic engagement and global citizenship.

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