It seems to me that too many educational reformers are simply terrified about a zombie horde of so-called ineffective teachers shambling toward our city’s children, moaning, “Brains!”  It seems to me that the National Council on Teacher Quality may be falling into this trap.

That’s the only explanation I can give to NCTQ’s first recommendation for my school district, “The district needs to do a much better job of hiring and assigning teachers.”

When I first read the recommendation, I thought, “Absolutely!” Oakland schools don’t have enough Oakland natives teaching. Most of Oakland’s teachers are imports from the white suburbs where college was as certain as thirteenth grade. As such, most Oakland teachers have very little understanding of the circumstances that our children come from every day as they enter our classroom doors. While NCTQ’s report makes a nod in this direction, including a table of the ethnic backgrounds of Oakland teachers and their students, sadly, this isn’t the point they are trying to make.

Instead, NCTQ recommends that Oakland consider a teacher-candidate’s SAT scores, GPA, state-licensing test scores, or the relative selectivity of the  university they attended as a factor in how good a teacher that candidate will potentially be.

Additionally, NCTQ recommendations seem to view veteran teachers as more of a problem than an assets to school.  More importantly, the report says little about the need for continual teacher support and development.

Throughout the city, the teachers who had been hired most recently lose their jobs when enrollment drops and a school closes, referred to as LIFO (last in, first out). While I agree that LIFO is not a perfect system, I do not see it as the main problem.  Rather than focus on how to rid our schools of a handful of sub-par teachers, schools should be building a comprehensive system of teacher evaluation and development that promotescontinuous instructional improvement.

Instead, NCTQ would like to see my district move to a system where principals have the power to refuse an experienced teacher’s transfer to her school. In theory, NCTQ hopes that principals will look for candidates who are a “good fit” for the climate and culture of their school and avoid “burned-out” veteran teachers. In reality,  principals who are
facing budget cuts every year might choose to forgo more experienced (and thus more expensive) teachers in favor of rolling the dice on cheaper newly credentialed teachers.

Furthermore, NCTQ thinks that a teacher’s “quality” be the determining factor used to decide who is laid off and who is retained. As While I agree that children need high quality teachers, I disagree with NCTQ’s definition of “highly qualified.” While NCTQ gives a nod toward alternative ways to determine teacher quality other than student scores on state-mandated tests, these alternative measures are so expensive and cumbersome, that I have a difficult time imagining my school district adopting one of the alternative measures.

I think NCTQ missed a great opportunity here.  Rather than attack LIFO and seniority, we could have talked about the need to strategically staff our schools. Instead of trying to define teacher effectiveness based solely on test scores, we could have examined what teacher behaviors and qualities make up effective teaching. We could  have discussed the kinds of 21st Century performances and projects students might complete to demonstrate their learning, rather than rely on how well they filled in the correct bubble on a scantron.

As NCTQ’s report briefly sites, Oakland is suffering a teacher dropout rate that exceeds our city’s student dropout rate.  In a typical year, my district loses 250 teachers. Nearly half of those had been teaching less than five years. If Oakland were to focus our efforts on supporting and retaining our young teachers, we wouldn’t have to be so concerned with hunting down and ridding our classrooms of phantom “bad teachers.”

Teacher dropout is a national problem.  On average, one two in five new teachers will still be working in their classrooms five years later. NCTQ devotes four sentences to the problem of teacher dropout. A conspicuous missed opportunity.

However, a group of teachers working with Great Oakland Public Schools hasn’t missed this important issue. GO’s Teacher Policy Fellows recently decided to focus their work this year on teacher retention.

Even as I continue my deep dive into the National Council on Teaching Quality’s report about Oakland, I’ll periodically report on the work of the GO Fellows. I’m hopeful that this group will generate some creative ideas about how to support and retrain teachers for Oakland’s children.

Together, teachers can use our brains (rather than shamble about looking for Braaiiinnnsss!) to design education policy and school reform that makes sense for our students.


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