Mixed messages on teacher quality

Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, and others’ calls for school districts to put more emphasis on teacher quality than seniority in the laying off or rehiring of teachers highlights ongoing contradictions in our national attitude towards teacher evaluation and teacher quality.

A major reason teachers turned to unionization, collective bargaining, and tenure was the notoriously capricious, subjective, and often discriminatory nature of teacher evaluations. Administrators could get rid of any teacher for any reason or no reason. Not surprisingly, this led to widespread abuses ranging from nepotism to retaliation. Today, most teachers have obtained the right to due process, so administrators need actual evidence of incompetence or misbehavior to dismiss a teacher.

Ideally, such evidence should come through a district’s established annual evaluation process. The process is supposed to go like this: A pre-conference between teacher and principal to discuss aspects of the teacher’s work that cannot be observed inside classroom (including review of student achievement data if available). An administrator observes the teacher in the classroom. Finally, and very important, a post-conference at which both parties summarize the observations, identify strengths and weaknesses, and set goals for the next year.

In reality, we too often have evaluations on paper only. Many principals are so overwhelmed or so under-trained, they never give each member of the faculty a full evaluation. There were many years as a high school teacher that no building or district administrator entered my classroom. My main reason for pursuing National Board Certification was to get a full, rigorous, peer evaluation of my teaching, so I could learn where I really needed to improve my teaching…and how.

In fact, among the most essential resources for developing teacher evaluations are the rigorous, comprehensive, scientifically developed, and field-tested standards produced by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. NBPTS now offers certification in 25 areas including: special education, music education, and guidance counseling, as well as the new certification for principals which examines how well they evaluate teachers. Want to know how effective teaching looks? Study any one of these standards.

For 20 years, NBPTS has identified highly accomplished teaching. President Obama, Secretary Duncan, along with Republican national and state leaders have extolled National Board Certification as the gold standard of teacher quality. In 2008, the National Research Council issued a comprehensive, Congressionally-mandated study that found National Board Certification has had a positive impact on student test scores and teacher retention.

How much more ironic then that rather than expand support for what tens of thousands of America’s best teachers insist is the best professional development opportunity they ever had, the House has stripped National Board of its federal funding in the most recent Continuing Resolution for fiscal year 2011. In December 2008, Congress passed and the President signed another Continuing Resolution that reduced the requirements for a person to be labeled as “highly qualified” to teach.

The Federal government is setting precisely the wrong example for states and districts on how to make budget choices based on teacher quality.


Cross-posted at National Journal Education Blog  http://education.nationaljournal.com/2011/03/focusing-on-teacher-effectiven.php#1903155