Amid the current flurry of state policy reform activity around teaching, I’ve been thinking about what’s missing. My conclusion: A focus on teachers as learners.
Too many state policy efforts to strengthen educator effectiveness focus narrowly on identifying and removing poorly performing teachers. Where that gets us is largely dependent on who replaces them. But teachers feel under attack as a result of particular reform rhetoric and the “gotcha” focus of such policy changes.
Some advocates point to this too-narrow approach to measuring and sorting teachers as a silver-bullet solution to improving educator effectiveness. A recent high-profile study about the long-term impact of teachers finds that having an effective teacher matters – during school years and beyond. When offering conclusions and recommendations in this page one article from the New York Times, however, one of the authors promoted a singular method of identifying and removing poorly performing teachers (“fire people sooner rather than later”) – rather than suggesting a more comprehensive or nuanced solution.
Even the critical work of building educator evaluation systems sometimes appears to prioritize grading and ranking teachers over improving teaching performance. Let’s be clear. Designing and implementing evaluation must include two distinct components: (1) measuring teacher performance and (2) implementing systems to develop and, as needed, improve teacher performance.
Policymakers should make teacher development a more central focus of their current efforts. Teaching policy cannot become a set of solely accountability-focused or punitive measures. This is a point underscored in a recent Center for American Progress paper (Movin’ It and Improvin’ It!). Indeed, a comprehensive performance management system for teachers should not only measure performance, but also provide systemic opportunities for teachers to develop their practice and continuously learn and improve. Providing support and feedback to teachers only after they’ve failed an evaluation is shortsighted. But this is exactly how many state teacher evaluation systems are being designed.
New teachers, in particular, need special attention, both in schools and within state policy. Beginning educators have distinct needs and an initial learning curve. Research shows that comprehensive, high-quality teacher induction accelerates new teacher effectiveness, improves student learning, and reduces teacher attrition. That’s why, at New Teacher Center, we believe that every state should require all first- and second-year educators to receive the support they need to thrive in the classroom and improve student achievement.
California, historically, has been a beacon in terms of its state policies on new teacher induction and mentoring. The Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) program is one of the longest standing teacher induction programs in the nation, and California’s induction program standards are a national model. However, the state is in danger of sacrificing its historic position by eliminating dedicated state funding for induction and allowing districts to opt out of providing induction support by redirecting that funding toward “any educational purpose.”
Harmful state cutbacks
This is an unfortunate national trend. While states demand more accountability from educators, some are simultaneously reducing or zeroing out dedicated appropriations for teacher induction and suspending programs entirely. Most never provided such funding to begin with. As NTC’s Review of State Policies on Teacher Induction shows, most state policies lack a strong commitment to high-quality teacher induction and mentoring. Few envision teacher induction as a vehicle for instructional improvement, few have established quality induction program standards, few identify and train effective mentors, and almost none give local programs the needed resources to provide comprehensive support for new teachers.
For state teaching reforms to actually strengthen classroom effectiveness, they will need to attend to teachers as learners. To accomplish this, policy must chart a balanced and comprehensive course toward teaching excellence. Especially given that today the typical classroom teacher is a first-year teacher, state policy must include the provision of high-quality induction, on-the job professional development, and supportive teaching conditions to enable all educators to maximize their effectiveness.
If we don’t help all teachers to succeed, we will diminish their potential impact on student learning and likely make the teaching profession a less attractive option for the current and future generations.
Liam Goldrick is Director of Policy at New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders. Mr. Goldrick leads a range of initiatives designed to strengthen new educator induction and mentoring policies at the state and national levels. Most recently, he served as project lead on the NTC Review of State Policies on Teacher Induction, which includes a policy paper and individual policy summaries for all 50 states.