Many state and local governments are under political and economic pressure to create more effective schools as measured by common standards. In international rankings of 34 developed countries, the U.S. comes in 27th in mathematics, 20th in science, and 17th in reading. In their search for a silver bullet to raise student test scores, some reformers have set their sights on teachers, believing that better teaching will result in greater student achievement. In order to do this, these reformers talk in terms of “teacher effectiveness,” which refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher. We find this approach to raising student test scores unsatisfactory and ineffective.
In recent years, there are two major arguments related to improving school quality, and both are related to the “no excuses” argument proffered by many education reformers. One side argues that poverty is only an excuse not to teach to high standards. Those who argue this position indicate that better teachers are the solution. The other side indicates that schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact of poverty and a poor family environment. Their solution is better public policies to elevate children out of poverty.
Twenty-three percent of American children live in either poor homes or in poverty. Among the most prosperous 29 countries, the United States ranked 28th in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools. By age three, children from poor homes have been exposed to dramatically fewer words than wealthier students. By age five, they are already two to three years behind in language development.
Poverty is a political issue and not a school issue. Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats seem unwilling or unable to do anything about it. From our perspective, the social environment contributes about 60 percent to the effectiveness of student performance, while the school and the classroom contribute about 20 percent each.
We believe raising student test scores must include enhancing public policies regarding poverty. But if Republicans and Democrats refuse to improve public policies related to poverty, which would certainly raise student achievement, then what can be done to improve the education of our students? Here are some thoughts:
Standardize teacher education. There should be three teacher quality checkpoints. The first is that competition to get into teacher education programs should be tough and only “the best and the brightest” accepted. The second is that all teachers must earn at least a master’s degree at one of the country’s universities. The third teacher quality checkpoint is at graduation from an education program. At this last checkpoint: Student teachers should not be allowed to graduate unless they demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and morals necessary to be a successful teacher. Teaching must come to be regarded as a profession with challenging certification, on par with medicine, law, or engineering. Current routes to the teaching profession are not equal. Thus, teacher effectiveness should be a result of careful quality control when entering the teaching field rather than random success once they have begun to teach.
Concentrate on schools and principals, not teachers. Education policies should concentrate more on school effectiveness than on teacher effectiveness. What schools are expected to do is raise the effort of everyone in a school so that everyone works together, rather than teachers working individually. Effective school leadership of a principal is among the most important characteristics of an effective school and is just as important as effective teaching. Effective principal leadership includes leader qualities, such as (1) being firm and purposeful, (2) having a shared vision and goals, (3) promoting teamwork and collegiality, (4) providing frequent personal monitoring and feedback, (5) maintaining focus on learning, (6) developing a positive school climate, (7) setting high expectations for all, (8) developing staff skills, and finally (9) involving parents. Good principals and their leadership matters as much as teacher quality. Principal leadership begins in the classroom; principals should be successful, experienced teachers first, then administrators.
Acknowledge the problem of teacher retention. Education reform alone cannot overcome the powerful influence of poverty, a poor family, and social environment. Unfortunately, this is the purview of a dysfunctional Congress, whose members seem more interested in posturing than in sound policies. Yet reformers insist that schools should get rid of low-performing teachers and then only hire “great” ones. This type of reform is impractical. Even if the definition “great” were agreed upon, it would be difficult to know exactly who is a great teacher at the time of recruitment since becoming even an adequate teacher normally takes five to ten years of systematic practice. Determining the effectiveness of any teacher requires at least five years of reliable data. And yet, a startling statistic: most teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching.
Professionalize teaching as a career choice. Just having better teachers in schools will not automatically improve student learning outcomes. We must think about teaching as a profession and the role of the school in our society.
First, as stated earlier, standardization should focus more on teacher education and less on teaching and learning in schools. Priority must be placed on strict quality controls before anybody will be allowed to teach – or even study teaching! As a result, controversial topics related to teacher effectiveness and teacher evaluation will be nonsensical and respect for teachers would increase.
Second, the toxic use of accountability for schools disempowers teachers and should be abandoned. Current practices that judge the quality of teachers by considering only their students’ measured achievement is inaccurate and unfair. It is inaccurate because most schools’ goals are broader than good performance in a few academic subjects. It is unfair because most of the variation of student achievement in standardized tests can be explained by out-of-school factors such as immigration, language proficiency, poverty, peer pressure, poor family life, etc. Most teachers understand that what students learn in school is because the whole school has made an effort, not just some individual teachers. In education systems that are high in rankings, teachers feel that they are empowered by their leaders and their fellow teachers. It is because of this lack of empowerment that teachers consider leaving their job if their performance is determined solely by their student’s standardized test results.
Third, in order for teaching to become attractive to the young and talented, school policies must be changed. In many cases a teacher’s main demand is better working conditions in schools. Teachers should have greater autonomy over and more time for planning lessons that lead to best results and authority to influence the assessment of the outcomes of their work. In addition, the administrative burden on teachers must be reduced and the extra time devoted to teaching or learning their trade.
Improve teacher pay. You cannot expect to have quality teachers without commensurate pay. Low pay is associated with low student outcomes, whereas high pay is associated with high student outcomes. In the United States, male teachers are in the 30th earning percentile for college graduates while female teachers are in the 40th earning percentile of college graduates. In addition to low pay, the teacher faces the hurdle of an obsolete pay structure that is based primarily on time on the job. This single salary structure is obsolete and should be replaced with one based upon performance and extra responsibility. Poor pay is one reason why the teaching profession is not as respected as it should be.
Create career paths for teachers. Teachers have no career path and, after time, may become stagnant and burned out. Teachers must be offered a career path that is exciting and varied over the long term. After, say, ten years of teaching, a teacher should be offered one of several leadership paths in such things as curriculum writing, school administration, or instructional mentoring. The highest performance pay should be offered to those teachers taking on responsibilities that help other teachers improve.
Use assessments as diagnostic, not evaluative. Student test scores should not be used to evaluate, pay, or fire teachers. For whatever reason, school reformers now seem to feel that student tests should evaluate teachers, when in reality student tests are designed to diagnose what a student knows so that teachers can better target their instruction toward what a student does not know but should. They are assessments for learning and not necessarily assessments of learning.
Mentor new teachers. The classroom is not a black box closed to outside scrutiny, especially classrooms of first-year teachers who are learning on the job. The first year teacher’s learning curve is steep, and they need all the help they can get. To turn a first year teacher loose in a classroom without mentoring is courting disaster for both the teacher and the students. More experienced teachers should spend some of their time each day coaching the first-year teacher—and they should be paid for that mentoring.
Modify or end outdated union practices. One of the most outdated of union practices is the Last In First Out (LIFO) policy related to laying off teachers in a budget crisis. The intent of this practice is to prevent older, more expensive teachers from being discriminated against during a budget reduction cycle. A more sensible practice would use teacher seniority as a tiebreaker when a layoff decision is between similar levels of performance. Another outdated practice is the difficulty experienced by administrators in firing ineffective teachers. If a teacher is judged to be ineffective even after feedback and adequate training, then the teacher should be fired and any protests should go before a peer-review board for final disposition.
Parents, not the teachers, bear ultimate responsibility for the education of their children. Parents entrust the teacher with shaping the mind of their children yet pay little heed to the quality of our teachers, the effectiveness of school policies, or the leadership provided by principals. Parents need and must get more involved in assuring the education of their children and one way to do that is to take a fresh look, not at teachers, but at the system that produces teachers and then expects them to perform miracles.
J.T. Oney is an Adjunct Professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. Nora S. Oney, a former instructional coach, teaches 7th grade English and is a National Board Certified Teacher.