For a third-grader sitting in a classroom trying to comprehend fractions, the ability of her teacher to help her understand this mathematical idea is vitally important. Without knowing this core concept the student may never be able to succeed in future math classes and beyond. The more we study teaching, the more apparent it is that excellent teaching is likely to lead to learning. In sum, this student’s future in school may depend on the skill of the teacher in her classroom today.
The Obama administration took bold and controversial steps in the president’s first term to ensure that teachers have the skills to help all students learn. The Race to the Top grant competition—totaling more than $4 billion over the last three years, with top awards to 18 states and the District of Columbia totaling $700 million—required winners to implement more rigorous standards for teaching and learning and to build teacher-evaluation systems that consider student achievement. Additionally, the 34 states—plus the District of Columbia—that received a waiver last year from certain outdated and overly prescriptive requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act by the U.S. Department of Education were directed to design and implement an evaluation system for teachers and principals and to indicate how that information would be used to improve educator performance and student learning. All of these actions will help improve teacher and principal effectiveness.
Teacher-evaluation systems give powerful tools to schools and districts by providing information about how well teachers are performing and where they need additional support. Teacher-evaluation systems can also guide key human resource decisions, such as who will continue to be employed and the size of pay raises. But simply increasing the pay of high-performing teachers and removing poorly performing teachers won’t improve instruction. To get the very best from teachers and leaders, we need to develop high-quality assistance and processes to ensure the continuous improvement of all educators.
The best result of the new evaluation systems is that they put the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness at the center of the conversation about improving student achievement. By measuring how much a particular teacher’s students learn and coupling these measurements with professional observation of teaching practice and other measures—such as surveys of students’ perceptions of the classroom experience—education leaders can pinpoint which teachers are helping students learn the most, and which are struggling. The conversation that follows an evaluation should be about professional learning and instructional improvement and directed squarely at improving the quality of teachers’ performances in their classrooms.
The most successful schools and districts do exactly that, characterizing the central work of instructional improvement as learning on the part of the teaching force. The Long Beach Unified School District in California, for example, requires that all new teachers receive regular “instruction” on the job in the basics of classroom practice—from how to manage student behavior to choosing effective strategies for small group instruction. District leaders at Long Beach say outright that better instruction will lead to improved student learning and that asking teachers to learn more about teaching is crucial to that outcome. Instituting such professional learning is a single step in a larger process—one that requires all practitioners across the organization to align all efforts toward shared goals, implement a plan of action, and evaluate the effect.
The Obama administration asked states that received Race to the Top grants and flexibility on requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act to create improved learning opportunities for teachers; it can continue to press for these in its monitoring of Race to the Top grantees and the states that received Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility waivers. The U.S. Department of Education simply needs to put instructional improvement in the foreground when it reviews and evaluates states’ progress in reforming educational policies—there’s no need for new legislation or regulation for this action. The department has the potential power to move states that received waivers toward a stronger focus on excellent instruction and the support that educators need.
In monitoring states’ implementation of their waiver proposals, the U.S. Department of Education should ask states to specify how they are using federal funds for improved support and professional learning in conjunction with the teacher-evaluation systems that were required as part of the waiver application. In its first monitoring guidelines, there was no mention of professional learning for educators, but the department promises that there will be two more monitoring rounds in the 2012-13 school year. One of these rounds should look at professional learning.
The department should provide guidelines, for example, that describe the kind of professional learning opportunities that are most likely to result in improved teaching and greater student achievement. And the department should offer incentives to states that take steps to design professional development processes that more closely mirror the dynamic, sustained, and inclusive activities taking place in Long Beach. At the same time, it should list aspects of professional development that are less desirable—such as one-time programs bought from an outside vendor who has no ongoing relationship with educators in the district and schools. Research shows that these drive-by models of professional learning for teachers have no effect on improving instruction.
The department should also look closely at the part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provides funding to states and districts for professional learning opportunities for educators. About $3.5 billion flows from the federal government to states and school districts for this purpose, and there is little monitoring of or accountability for how the money is spent and whether it improves instruction. There is language in the legislation, however, that would allow the department to request from states and districts a more careful accounting of how the funds are spent to ensure that teachers are better able to teach in ways that improve student learning. When suggesting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Obama administration should propose an overhaul of Title II funding for professional learning to fund only those efforts that have been shown to help teachers improve their practice.
Without such pressure on states and districts to improve professional learning for teachers, it’s likely that all the work on teacher evaluation might be for nothing. Simply saying a teacher needs work in a specific area of instruction or labeling another as marginally effective does nothing to improve what happens between students and teachers in classrooms. It’s like a student being told that his or her answer is incorrect but getting no instruction on how to think about the problem to get the correct answer.
That’s what teaching is—supporting students in learning how to think, solve problems, and expand their knowledge. And that’s what teacher learning ought to be too—supporting teachers in learning how to provide better instruction and enhance their performances in their classrooms. Without improved opportunities for professional learning, we’re simply labeling teachers and magically thinking that they will somehow invent better ways to teach.
Cynthia G. Brown is Vice President for Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. Jenny DeMonte is the Associate Director for Education Research at the Center.