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David B. Cohen

Looking ahead to the next legislative session, it appears likely we’ll have a replay of some of the education policy debates of 2012. Here are my recommendations for how the Legislature might avoid pitfalls and advance positive changes in education policy next year.

First, do no harm. In the name of accountability, some legislators will be tempted to make laws that increase pressure on schools and teachers. We all want better results from the public school system, but “get-tough” measures dropped on an already overstressed system and workforce won’t get us there. Over a period of years when communities, families and students have experienced greater need for support, we’ve dramatically decreased the capacity of schools to serve these needs. This is not the time to rally around an adversarial approach to school improvement or teaching quality.

Focus evaluations on professional development. Teacher evaluations have become a favorite topic of education reform. If legislators want to support better teaching through evaluations, it is vital they see evaluation as a process integral to professional development and growth rather than as tool for supervision and quality control. I have already advocated for what I think would be a rational, progressive, consensus-driven approach: give up on test scores and build on everything else where compromise and agreements are well within reach.

Table the “value-added” fight. It is reasonable to engage in a substantive discussion of how better evidence of student learning could be meaningfully incorporated into teacher evaluations aimed at improving instruction. But it is unreasonable to expect teachers to accept evaluations based on invalid and unreliable use of student test data – especially when those assessments, which are now being developed for the new Common Core standards, have not yet been seen or piloted in schools. This part of the debate needs to be suspended.

Build capacity. Such a refocusing and expansion of evaluation activity will require increasing the capacity of schools and districts to engage in the work. Both the volume of the work and our ability to do it well can be addressed through a focus on improving the teaching profession. The state’s Educator Excellence Task Force issued recommendations back in September 2012, many of which are aligned with suggestions generated by Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) in our report on teacher compensation and career pathways. In short, if the Legislature wants proactive means of promoting teaching quality without doing any harm, these two reports offer suggestions for expanding the roles and responsibilities of teachers to improve schools and promote better teaching practices.

There’s no single, best way for a state as large and diverse as California to pursue this agenda. Solutions for our largest urban unified districts and smaller rural districts, elementary districts or high school districts will all require local flexibility. However, there are plenty of examples of innovative and effective school reforms that depend upon and promote teacher leadership. Here are a few:

  • In Poway Unified and San Juan Unified, qualified teachers come out of the classroom for multiyear assignments as peer evaluators for new teachers and teachers needing extra support. Detailed observations and documented research have shown these practices improve teacher evaluation and promote better labor-management relations.
  • Many schools and districts have used National Board Certification as a school improvement and professional development strategy, in some cases producing dramatic results. Multiple large-scale studies have also found that National Board Certified Teachers are more effective on average.
  • San Mateo Union High School District has handed over professional development planning and activities to professional learning communities under the direction of teachers with part-time assignments as leaders of that work.
  • Twin Rivers Unified School District, in partnership with CTA and UC Davis, has developed Algebra Success Academy, a math program that depends on teachers taking on additional responsibilities in training each other and administering a program in multiple schools.

Expanding the capacity of teacher leaders to take on critical work outside the classroom will keep good teachers in schools, relieve some of the excessive burdens on our overworked administrators, and ensure that classroom perspectives inform policy implementation.

This last point is essential for California if we are to manage a successful transition to the Common Core standards. It should be an obvious management strategy to make sure that the people doing the work understand it, buy into it, and have the opportunity to improve it along the way. Setting aside some legitimate concerns about whether or not the Common Core standards are the right policy for California’s students, I’d argue that Common Core advocates’ only hope for success is to put as much of the work as possible in the hands of teachers. Along with that, it is essential to ensure that teachers have the resources and flexibility commensurate with the accountability policymakers will expect.

The ACT report on teacher career pathways goes so far as to suggest that the state examine ways to create a third-tier teacher license. Currently, teachers have a couple years in probationary status, and then if they continue to teach, it’s generally with the designation “permanent status” (or colloquially, “tenure”). From that point on, the teacher career trajectory is rather flat, drawing many teacher leaders out of the classroom. But as our colleagues in the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative point out, the teaching profession needs to develop “Many Ways Up; No Reason to Move Out.” With the creation of a third-tier license, California could establish high standards and formal roles for teacher as leaders in schools and districts, without precipitating these teachers’ complete departure from the classroom.

The Legislature can support the long-term improvement of teaching by working with the State Board of Education and relevant agencies to study various proposals, review existing models, support pilot programs, and pave the way for a gradual and necessary modernization of the teaching profession.

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David B. Cohen is associate director of Accomplished California Teachers, and a National Board Certified Teacher currently teaching English part-time at Palo Alto High School. He writes an education blog at InterACT.


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  1. Jay Powell says:

    What is Effective Education Anyway?
    Let’s stop the talk and start the action to improve educational effectiveness!
    The problem is so simple that the roar of gabbing is drowning it out. Students show where they are having troubles by the mistakes they make, but we ignore these mistakes when we score tests “right/wrong!”
    Test do not measure what students know; they measure students; ability to interpret questions. The interpretations they give are indicated by the answers they provide or select! This fact from more than a half-century of research renders total-correct scores invalid measures of success both mathematically and psychologically.
    They are invalid mathematically because learning is non-linear. It occurs in leaps of insight, but the way we score tests forces linearity upon test data, destroying its integrity.
    They are invalid psychologically because tests do not measure what the users of test scores assume they measure. Total-correct scores misclassify more than two students in three.
    We cannot improve educational effectiveness with a feedback system that is so faulty. Encouraging students to memorize what we want them to tell us instead of helping them to think their way into knowledge actually turns off their minds and makes mental slaves out of them.
    My book, “Making Peasants into Kings” (ISBN: 978-1-4490-0634-1) not only tells my story of this discovery, it gives many example of effective teaching, showing how teachers can provoke learning.
    It is so simple! Start with a thought problem that contains the essence of what we want them to learn and then let them figure it out got themselves.
    When we tell a student, “You’re wrong!” we load self-damaging attitudes into them. The question, “Why did you say that?” followed by careful listening by teachers and fellow students gets a discussion going about interpretations, exposes misconceptions and leads to leaps of insight.
    Such teaching becomes an exciting experience for all participants. It is a false presumption to assume that teachers “know and students don’t.”
    The assembly-line model for producing wisdom does not work because human diversity is too great to be forced into a box. Outside the box thinking that converges on truth is the only way to wisdom.
    Try this problem. Combine these two sentences into a single sentence in three ways:
    1. John hit the ball.
    2. It went through the window.
    If one of your sentences is not:
    “John hit the ball AFTER it went through the window,” you have closed your mind to possible correct options. By not considering such variations in our teaching we are closing the minds of our students! What might a “right” answer be? It is always conditionally specific and does not exist in the general case. Therefore education that pushes for culturally expected “right” answers and does not consider thoughtfully considering the range of possibilities is miseducation. Every answer contains error. This is the “Uncertainty Principle,“ now nearly 100 years old.
    Science tries to find ways to make answers as error-free as possible. Teaching should do the same. But to do this we must observe errors and teach to them and not force on students answers we already know contain errors, even if we do not yet know where and what these errors might be.
    When we assume that a person needs knowledge before the can think, we are ignoring how preschool children learn. This is our hidden error. School can be a place where people can try out ideas in the safety of simulation, to see how they work. This approach requires gathering observations first and forming theories later. It is full of the delight of discovery. John Dewey advocated this approach 150 years ago, but, for the most part, we are still not using it. Shame on us!