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.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Great Teaching Really Matters

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 ( 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 (,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 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.


Ansel said...

An interesting post that touches the a tip of an ice berg. (I won’t comment on the quality of the Hanushek research.) Here are some of the topics that need discussion in the working out of a complete plan to recruit, train, and retain quality teachers: (a) what will the criteria be for evaluating the teachers? (b) how will those criteria be measured? What evidence will be used and how will that evidence be collected? (c) how will the various criteria be weighted? (d) Can solid performance on one criteria out-balance lack of success on another criteria, or are there to be absolute minimums that a teacher must realize on each criteria? What will those minimums be? (d) How should the fixed amount of money available for teachers’ salaries be allocated across the seniority ranks. Will high starting salaries be offered to induce many high quality applicants to apply for teaching jobs, with the unavoidable trade-off being that more senior teachers will be paid less and thus be harder to retain. Or should the salary structure be weighted toward retaining the senior and more accomplished teachers? [There are many options in how salaries should be structured.] (e) What kinds of processes should be in place to deal with teachers who have been found not to be performing up to expectations? (f) How much money and effort should be invested in attempting to “save” a teacher? (g) How aggressive should the board be in seeking the dismissal of underperforming teachers?

Unhappy Parent said...

I agree that is is largely about the teachers. My son had two years in a row of inadequate teaching and he changed from a kid who was excited about school to one who dreads going to school every day and who is now struggling academically. And at the elementary level, teachers are probably the most important since our children are in a classroom with that one teacher 90% of their school day. If we are going to invest heavily in professional development, I suggest we start by focusing on elementary school teachers. (By the way, my kids have also had very excellent elementary teachers here in our system so I am not criticizing all teachers.)

Anonymous said...

"My son had two years in a row of inadequate teaching and he changed from a kid who was excited about school to one who dreads going to school every day and who is now struggling academically."

That may or may not have to do with the quality of the teaching he's experienced (though a better teacher is certainly going to help a struggling child better).

If a child is struggling and doesn't like school, then it's really important to get to the bottom of it. I'm sure you are working to figure out what's wrong, but the past is past.

Amherst does have great teachers and they can help your child better if everyone knows what's going on and agrees to a plan of action.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...


Just wondering. Are you going to write a summary of the school committee meeting from last Wednesday night (the 25th). I know that the MS and HS offered their plans for the coming year and I'm wondering what the school committee thought of them.


Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 11:50 - yes, I'm working on that now! It should be posted on Tuesday sometime ... and I have lots of things to report, so stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in teacher evaluation should also know that the teachers agreed to an extensive revision to the evaluation process in the last negotiated contract. This revision was proposed by the school committee.

This represents a good faith effort on both parties to upgrade the evaluation process.

I looked for the document online but couldn't find it.

Increasing the frequency with which teachers are observed will cost some other part of an administrator's job to get lost.

Gavin Andresen said...

Great post, Catherine.

Measuring individual students' achievement from year to year is a great idea. If I were the National Education Dictator with unlimited resources, I'd evaluate teachers based on that, a yearly one-question survey of parental satisfaction, and a yearly one-question survey of students on how much they like school.

And MAYBE input on how easy/difficult the teacher is to work with from their colleagues/bosses, although I would much rather have a prickly teacher who rubs all her colleagues the wrong way but is very effective at teaching and creating motivated students rather than a mediocre-but-easy-to-manage teacher.

A couple of links relevant to this discussion: Is firing (a lot of) teachers the only way to improve public schools?

And on Sunday This Week had a pretty good discussion with Arne Duncan (US education secretary), Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers union) and Michelle Rhee (chancellor of Washington DC public schools).

Anonymous said...

Why not have student and parent evaluations part of the whole process? Not just how is your year going but what are the strengths and weaknesses of this teacher? Not asking students and parents what they think and know is leaving key information on the table that principals need to know in order to accurately evaluate. Sort of a 360 degree review process.

Anonymous said...

Having students as part of the evaluation process is a great idea.

Anonymous said...

Dear Unhappy Parent:

When you read commentators in the Bulletin and bloggers decrying the
"demoralizing" of our school employees, rest assured that other more private types in Amherst know the flip side of the coin that you've experienced.........there's nothing more demoralizing for a parent than to have a child come home from school bored out of his/her mind.

What can you say except "let's get through it"?

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:51, after two years of inadequate teaching, the child was a struggling student. That's the parent's point -- s/he had a happy motivated child, then two years later a struggling kid who now dreaded school.

The plan? Make sure other children don't have to go through the same experience with those inadequate teachers -- and get that first kid into a classroom with a great teacher to bring the child back as a happy strong learner.

Anonymous said...

These articles are deeply provoking and should be read by everyone involved in the education of children -- parents, teachers, school committee members and administrators. We need to re-focus our attention on what really matters -- teaching quality and it's profound effect on children.

Anonymous said...

If you read the teacher evaluation document, you will find that student input is part of the process.

Anonymous said...

Where is this document on teacher evaluation in the teachers contract? I can't find it on the arps website.