Amherst Bulletin - July 10, 2009
By STEVE RIVKIN and CATHERINE SANDERSON
As members of the School Committees, we hear frequently about the outstanding teachers we have in our schools and occasionally about teachers who fail to live up to expectations. As parents, we know first-hand how great it is when a child spends the year with a fabulous teacher who "gets" each of the children in the classroom. Research, including work conducted by Steve, supports the belief that there are substantial differences in teacher effectiveness, even among teachers in the same school.
The essential question, therefore, is how to ensure great teaching in every classroom in our district. The obvious first step is hiring well - and one of the greatest strengths of our schools is the abundant supply of prospective teachers who desire to work in Amherst. However, it is difficult to predict who is or will be a great teacher based on easily observed characteristics, including whether a teacher has a master's degree, the score on a licensing exam, or the type of college a teacher attended (a local college, state university or private school). In sum, it is simply very difficult to identify the great teacher on the basis of credentials and brief interviews.
Professional development for teachers provides another means to foster excellent instruction. Mentoring and other training programs have the potential to improve classroom management skills and expand knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy. Unfortunately, although research shows that strong programs can improve the quality of instruction, particularly for new teachers, the effects appear to be modest for most.
We believe these findings reflect the multi-dimensional nature of the skills required to be an excellent teacher. It is not enough to be very knowledgeable about mathematics, science, history or English, or even all four; it is not enough to understand theories of child development and pedagogy; it is not enough to understand and empathize with children with diverse backgrounds; it is not enough to be a supportive team player. A teacher must master each of these and other skills to excel in the classroom.
If outstanding teachers are difficult to identify at the time of hiring and the benefits of professional development are limited, rigorous evaluation prior to promotion with tenure becomes a crucial component to ensuring high quality instruction. However, recent research conducted by The New Teachers Project suggests that schools across the country fail to conduct rigorous performance-based evaluations, and that nearly three in four teachers report receiving no specific feedback on how to improve their teaching at their last evaluation. Moreover, almost no teachers (less than 1 percent) receive unsatisfactory evaluations, even in schools in which students repeatedly fail to meet academic standards. The absence of meaningful evaluation almost certainly diminishes the experience of children in those schools.
We have both participated in the tenure process as junior faculty seeking tenure, as outside reviewers of tenure cases at other institutions, and as department chairs involved in the evaluation of junior colleagues. It is a stressful process for untenured faculty - we have had our teaching observed by senior colleagues and received candid comments from both our students and our colleagues on our effectiveness (or lack there of) in the classroom. The evaluation of a junior colleague is particularly awkward as one moves from mentor and sometimes friend to supervisor. It is therefore tempting to overlook deficiencies to avoid the unpleasantness involved in the denial of tenure. Yet such a lowering of the bar reduces the quality of instruction and the likelihood of sitting in a room with that fabulous teacher.
We've already seen that shrinking budgets lead to program cuts and larger classes, and persistent budget shortfalls will likely lead to lower salary increases for teachers in the future. We believe that maintaining competitive salaries should remain a district priority. However, providing salaries that help make Amherst a desirable place to teach is not enough; we also need rigorous evaluation and high standards for tenure to ensure that those dollars translate into great teaching.
Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are members of the Amherst School Committee and Amherst College professors.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.