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.
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.