A recent editorial by the Washington Post’s, Fred Hiatt, outlined Bill Gates school repair plan. The Gates Foundation has already spent $4 billion on education reform and has learned a thing or two. Now, the foundation’s two main goals in education funding are promoting charter school-type initiatives, such as KIPP, and improving teacher quality.
Recent studies overwhelming point to the fact that students with better teachers learn more. What does a “better” teacher do? For one, she doesn’t need to be an expert in her subject area(s). Up through about 10th grade, knowledge of subject material isn’t that critical to student success. What matters is the more subtle classroom management strategies. The most successful teachers have great classroom “awareness.” They open lessons quickly, get kids engaged, know early on which students “get” the material and which need more coaching, incorporate the students into the learning conversation and are able to bend the academic interaction, so that even “wrong” answers are transformed and produce learning value.
Can these skills be taught? Not sure. All teachers spend four years in undergraduate studies including student teaching. In theory, this would be the time for some prospective teachers to be “redirected” into other fields with only the most capable moving on. Of course, this doesn’t happen. If you pass your classes, you become a certified teacher. Is this the only profession where you have a “knack” for it or you don’t? In other words, can you “learn” good teaching?
One hopeful statistic comes from the National Teacher Board Certification program. This program confers the most senior credential in the teaching profession. (Over 60% board certification candidates fail their first attempt.) Once attained, however, students taught by board certified teachers enjoy a 7-14% learning gain.
All this recent attention on quality of teaching being the true key to student learning is anathema to teachers unions. They would like to preserve the status quo of more pay for more seniority and job security based on tenure rather than student outcomes. Of course, measuring student success and being able to statistically tie it to teacher performance are perennial dilemmas. There is broad support for great pay and benefits to retain and reward teachers. However, as the national crisis in education becomes more acute, (only 71% of kids graduate from high school) it is clear that cultivating and retaining only the exceptional teachers is imperative.
Here in Bellevue, Washington, we have a brand new superintendent of schools. Recently she said that if all the stakeholders invested in public education would simply focus on “student success,” there would be unity of purpose. Not sure how that will play out with the teachers, when for example, what’s best for the kids (only the most exceptional teachers) and what’s best for the teachers (job security) are mutually exclusive. Of course, in many occupations, even the less than competent linger around for years. Should teachers, as a profession, be held to a higher standard because of the critical nature of their work? What would that look like, in practice?