There has been a lot of discussion on my blog about teachers, and as a parent with three kids in our public schools, I know how much a teacher can make (or break) a kid's year. And I'd like to state up-front that my kids have had great teachers at Fort River (and this includes some very experienced teachers in their last year or two before retirement as well as some in their first year or two of teaching), and that I believe most teachers in the Amherst schools are strong (in part because we are fortunate to attract great teachers who want to live in or near our community). So, I wanted to do this post to talk about great teaching -- how we get it, where it comes from, etc.
First, I strongly encourage my blog readers to check out this fascinating article from The New Yorker on predicting teachers' success (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all). Here's really the essential quote: "Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers." This research on effective teaching is new (and actually, Steve Rivkin has done some of this research, in collaboration with Eric Hanushek), and very interesting (you can google their names and read some of the original research).
A recent--and controversial--article in the LA Times actually presented an analysis in which both more effective and less effective 3rd to 5th grade teachers were named (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-teachers-value-20100815,0,2695044.story?page=1). Again, I encourage you to read the whole article, but here's a key quote: "Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year. There is a substantial gap at year's end between students whose teachers were in the top 10% in effectiveness and the bottom 10%. The fortunate students ranked 17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math."
So, we can probably all agree that good teaching really matters. However, the next issue then becomes how can you recruit/hire/train people to be good teachers. And the point made in the New Yorker article (and in lots of research) is that the things we might expect to be associated with good teaching (e.g., masters degree, quality of college attended, test scores) aren't ... which makes hiring good teachers harder. Their suggestion is two-fold: first, recruit a lot of people to teach, by increasing pay substantially, and second, make the tenure system very rigorous, so only those people who have demonstrated their success in the classroom are granted tenure.
I believe that increasing teacher pay is a good idea -- as Michelle Rhee (head of the DC public schools) is doing as part of an attempt to reform these historically troubled schools (see an article in Newsweek for a review of some of her efforts at http://www.newsweek.com/2008/08/22/an-unlikely-gambler.html). I look forward to seeing the results of her efforts -- and admire her courage and commitment to public education.
In addition, I believe that one of the most important thing principals should do is regularly (and rigorously) evaluate teachers, so that we help good teachers become great teachers, and so that, when necessary, we help less effective teachers find other careers (ideally prior to granting them tenure). This is why I really hope that all principals are conducting these evaluations ... and why I was surprised to learn (as reported by Dr. Barry Beers in his needs assessment of Amherst Regional Middle School) that "Non-tenured teachers (1-3 years of experience) receive one observation per semester. Tenured teachers receive one observation every two years. According to teachers and administrators, all teachers are meeting expectations although everyone can improve." It seems surprising to me both that non-tenured teachers are observed only twice a year, and that in a school with as many teachers as the middle school, all teachers are meeting expectations. In fact, I'd be surprised if at any school in Amherst, and indeed any school in the country, every single teacher is meeting expectations ... just as I'd be surprised if every professor at Amherst College (or indeed any college/university in the country) was meeting expectations. This suggests to me that we need to make sure that principals are setting high expectations for all teachers, just as teachers should set high expectations for all kids.
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.