Far-reaching plan to strengthen teaching in California

September 11, 2012

To reinvigorate its force of teachers and principals, California doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It could start by fixing the one that’s bent and broken because of years of neglect.

That’s one of the messages from Greatness by Design, an extensive report from Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s 48-member Task Force on Educator Excellence, cochaired by Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond and Long Beach Unified superintendent Christopher Steinhauser. On Monday, the task force released its 90-page report on how the state should overhaul how it attracts, prepares, trains and develops, evaluates, and retains its educator workforce.

Some of the ideas are bold and will be controversial:

Others will sound familiar. Having Darling-Hammond, who’s vice chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and Steinhauser leading the effort increases the chances that some of the work may actually get done.

Linda Darling-Hammond reviews findings of State Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Educator Excellence, which she co-chaired, during a press conference Monday in Sacramento. Photo by the state Department of Education (click to enlarge).

California was once the laboratory for the nation in creating programs to build a force of effective teachers and administrators. They include:

In the good years, the state invested in educator preparation and development. The report described the present status as follows:

“Teacher education is uneven in duration and quality. … In California, principals may skip preparation altogether by taking a paper-and-pencil test for a license – the only state in the nation to allow this.”

“Professional development time and opportunities are sorely underfunded. The 10 days per year that California once funded for professional development time have long since disappeared.”

“Evaluation is frequently spotty.”

“Leadership pathways are, in most districts, poorly defined and poorly supported.”

“Salaries are highly inequitable, with those in the most well-heeled districts paid considerably more and supported with better working conditions.”

Bigger investment, right priorities

Improvements will require investments, although the report says they can be targeted, such as paying stipends to National Board Certified teachers to teach in needy schools, as Los Angeles Unified has done, and offering subsidies to attract teachers to high-needs specialties, such as special education.

Less experienced, less trained teachers tend to concentrate in high-poverty districts. Source: Greatness By Design (click to enlarge).

But adopting a weighted student funding formula, redistributing more money to schools with heavy populations of disadvantaged students, and truly enforcing federal Title I funding rules, requiring comparable spending between a district’s poor and wealthy schools, will demand the will of the state Department of Education and district leaders, not just money, to create equity in the allocation of experienced teachers.

In the area of education preparation, the challenge will be to set priorities, which the Commission on Teaching Credentialing may begin to do when it meets later this month. The report includes some of the ideas Darling-Hammond has sought for years:

Collaboration time

The task force called for strengthening mentoring of new teachers under BTSA and setting aside more time for collaborative planning among teachers – a practice extensively done in higher-performing nations like Finland and Singapore. Contrary to the move toward giving districts more flexibility over spending, the report recommends requiring a portion of state funding be spent on training and development, with districts given latitude over choices.

There was no enthusiasm for merit pay approach, Darling-Hammond said in an interview. What the task force advocates is a career ladder for teachers, with job opportunities and pay differentials, reflecting expertise and classroom accomplishment: content specialist, master teacher, PAR evaluator, mentor.  The scale and levels would be determined locally, with the state providing models and sponsoring regional labor-management conferences to promote the concept.

The idea, Darling-Hammond said, is to “reward people for sharing knowledge and improving the quality of teaching, not just based on a good rating from the principal,” she said.

The task force report also devoted a long chapter with multiple recommendations on teacher and principal evaluations. The report is critical of using value-added metrics for individual teacher evaluations;  value-added systems attempt to account for differences in student demographics in test scores. The report also is down on relying on state standardized tests and recommends instead multiple measures of student achievement, including scored essays or projects, created by teachers, schools or districts; results on AP tests and tests directly tied to the curriculum being taught.

Coming two weeks after a bitter battle and standoff on a bill rewriting the state law on teacher evaluations, the report endorses negotiating major aspects of teacher evaluations – a chief point of contention leading to the defeat of AB 5. But the report lays out an approach to build a consensus among teachers, administrators and the district that offers an alternative to conflict.

“The focus of any evaluation system should be to improve practice, to close achievement gaps among various groups of students and to prepare more students for success in college and careers,” the report says. “Any evaluation system that strays from this basic tenet also strays from the basic mission of serving all students.”

Steinhauser co-chaired the evaluation subcommittee for the task force, and the report drew upon the collaborative approach in Long Beach. Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Assn., State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, and Merrill Vargo, executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, were among the subcommittee members.


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