Creating conditions for effective teaching

Late last week, in reading both an essay by New York Times columnist David Brooks and a report by a team of economists, I wondered when American policymakers will begin to take seriously the need to address not just effective teachers, but the conditions that will allow them to teach effectively. Brooks’ opinion piece (titled “The Relationship School”) and Matthew Ronfeldt, Susanna Loeb, and Jim Wyckoff’s intricate economic analysis, combined, tell us much about what it takes to improve public education.

Brooks relates the story of the New American Academy, where teachers are well prepared and supported. With backing from both unions and education schools, teachers there have time to really know students and their families well. Ronfeldt, Loeb, and Wyckoff show how faculty turnover creates a revolving door of teachers and undermines academic achievement. Their study found that for each of their several analyses over eight years, students taught by teachers in the same grade-level team in the same school had much lower achievement in years when turnover rates were higher, in contrast to years in which there was less teacher turnover. The negative effect of teacher turnover was far more profound in schools serving low-achieving and black students.

I wonder how much more we could be doing for students if our nation’s Race to the Top strategy placed a premium on school designs that promoted faculty retention (and not the hiring of itinerant teachers), as well as conditions, like more time and support, that allow teachers to learn from one another and spend more time with students and their families.

We know how to make this happen, and not just at the New American Academy. Take a look at the work of Ted Sizer at the Coalition of Essential Schools, the thoughtful leadership of Furman Brown at Generation Schools, or the role that teacher leaders play in the top-performing nations of Finland and Singapore. Isn’t it time for us to focus on the right stuff of school reform?