Better teaching through better teachers

I’m really looking forward to reading Dana Goldstein’s new book on the history of teaching policy in the US.  Nice piece on it in the Atlantic.  After thorough study of the issue, Goldstein’s conclusions are going to look pretty damn similar to a point I’ve made here and will make here again– pay teachers like professionals and treat them like professionals:

The dream, from Beecher to today, seems to be that if only our schools could get rid of the career educators and install angels instead, the millennium would arrive.

This is an especially pernicious dream since, as Goldstein says, one of the consistent findings in education research is that first-year teachers are not very good. In teaching, Goldstein notes, there is a learning curve, and “the curve is steep.” If we want to improve schools, one of the quickest ways is to reduce turnover; skilled veteran teachers may be schools’ most valuable resources. Because of that, many of Goldstein’s recommendations at the book’s conclusion are focused on making teaching more attractive as a long-term profession. That involves increasing teacher pay, but it also means giving veteran teachers more responsibilities—for mentoring, for developing curricula, for working with peers to develop and evaluate programs. It means treating teachers as professionals to rely on, rather than as suspects to be policed.

So, what are we doing here in NC?  Oh, flattening the pay scale for advanced teachers to give them little financial incentive to stay in the profession.  And the obsession with students’ test scores to evaluate teachers is not treating them like professionals:

One of the reasons for the smaller raises for experienced teachers is longevity pay. It’s a bonus for most state employees that kicks in after ten years on the job, and goes up every five years.

When the General Assembly simplified the teacher salary schedule (pdf) from 37 pay steps to six, longevity pay was folded into it.

Republicans say the schedule, and the raises, were designed to benefit newer teachers because they were leaving the state at a high rate. The General Assembly raised salaries for teachers early in their careers as much as 18 percent.

“We’ve got to be committed to raising the level of our experienced teachers who have been here, have fought all the battles, have been through the two pay freezes,” said State Sen. Jerry Tillman during a teacher compensation task force meeting earlier this year. “I know about them, I set there through them myself. But if we only had a limited amount of money, we had to start somewhere.”

The emphasis on newer teachers is starting to show up in schools. In 2013, 27 percent of teachers had five years or less experience. On the other end of the scale, just 15 percent of teachers had more than 25 years on the job…

As others point out, almost all teacher effectiveness research has a basic flaw: it relies solely on student test scores. Only about 40 percent of teachers even teach students who take end-of-grade or end-of-class tests.

“I really wish we would change the narrative about teacher effectiveness because when people talk about that, by and large, they are talking about standardized test scores and that’s it,” says Maher. “As though that were the end-all, be-all of classrooms and schooling, when there’s so much more that happens in a classroom.”

If the research is conflicting, the economics are not: teachers later in their careers cost more.

Meanwhile, Joe Nocera’s recent column discusses a new report on all the damage done by our testing obsession:

We know what the current system of accountability looks like, and it’s not pretty. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind 12 years ago, teachers have been judged, far too simplistically, based on standardized tests given to their students — tests, as Marc S. Tucker points out in a new report, Fixing Our National Accountability System, that are used to decide which teachers should get to keep their jobs and which should be fired. This system has infuriated and shamed teachers, and is a lot of the reason that teacher turnover is so high, causing even many of the best teachers to abandon the ranks.

All of which might be worth it if this form of accountability truly meant that public school students were getting a better education. But, writes Tucker, “There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance.” Meanwhile, he adds, test-based accountability is “doing untold damage to the profession of teaching.” …

Not long after founding the N.C.E.E., Tucker began taking a close look at countries and cities that were re-engineering successfully. What he came away with were two insights. First was a profound appreciation for the fact that most of the countries with the best educational results used the same set of techniques to get there. And, second, that the American reform methods were used nowhere else in the world. “No other country believes that you can get to a high quality educational system simply by instituting an accountability system,” he says. “We are entirely on the wrong track.” His cri de coeur has been that Americans should look to what works, instead of clinging to what doesn’t.

Got that?  All this obsession with teacher accountability through testing?  No evidence from anywhere else in the world that this is the way to improve education.  So, what do all those high-performing nations have in common, oh, just maybe something you might have heard before:

The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals.

Yes, damnit!  This is not rocket science.  It takes two things– will and money.  Or heck, just will, because if we mean it, money will follow.  So let’s stop mucking around with all this other stuff and create a professional class of highly-skilled, highly-qualified, highly-valued, highly compensated teachers.  Is it really impossible for us to do what they have in Finland, South Korea, Poland, etc.?!  Of course not.  We just need to focus on the right things and be willing to spend the money to do so.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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