Last week, my children joined the nation’s 50 million students in the annual back-to-school ritual: feeling those butterflies of excitement at seeing school friends after summer vacation, choosing a new backpack, restocking the pencil case. The annual back-to-school ritual for parents also includes the posting on the wall, or the letter, telling them who will be their child’s teacher(s) for the year. Some parents celebrate that their child got the “good” teacher. Others groan that they pulled the short straw.
As a former teacher, I often find that parents’ initial reactions lead me into long conversations about what it means for their child to have access to good teaching. Policymakers, too, are grappling with how to measure good teaching, driven in part by the new federal education law requiring every state to define the term “ineffective teacher” and ensure students have equal access to effective teaching. Whether I’m talking to a parent or a policymaker, here’s what I say:
Whether your child is going to learn and grow, feel safe and nurtured, love and succeed in school depends in part on their individual teacher(s), but perhaps even more on the environment in which that teacher is teaching.
Teachers — like other professionals — don’t work as sole operators; they are part of a team. While your child’s teacher certainly matters, parents should care at least as much about the whole team their child’s teacher is working with, including the principal. Two teachers, with similar skills and experience but in different school settings, will likely vary in their effectiveness based on the school environment and the level of support available.
So, what other factors should parents look at to determine whether their child has access to effective teaching? What makes for an effective teaching context where teachers can be their best?
- Consider the strength & stability of the school’s entire teaching staff. In schools with large concentrations of underprepared and/or inexperienced teachers, there are not enough expert, experienced teachers to mentor and support novice teachers. Research is clear that in schools with large proportions of teachers who have not had training to teach their content area, students do worse than those in schools with fewer underprepared teachers. Research also shows that as teachers gain experience, they become more effective, making the greatest gains early in their careers. Parents should also find out how many teachers left the school since the previous year, as high teacher turnover has a negative effect on student achievement. A stable teaching staff engenders a collegial culture in which teachers share ideas and collaborate, while high rates of teacher turnover — often a revolving door of underprepared and/or inexperienced teachers — diminish the chances of coherent instructional practice. High rates of teacher absenteeism, which can signal that teachers are overwhelmed or disheartened and lead to a lot of substitute teachers, are also a sign of challenges in the school.
- Look at the strength & stability of the school principal. After teachers, school principals are the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement. They set the vision for the school, lead instruction, hire and develop the school staff, engage families, and redesign the school where changes are needed. The quality of a principal is one of the most critical factors in a teacher’s decision whether to remain in a school. The stability of school leadership also matters. Research shows that high principal turnover reduces teacher retention and student achievement gains, particularly in high-poverty, low-achieving schools.
- Focus on the conditions for teaching and learning in the school. The conditions in which teachers work — and students learn — impact how well teachers can do their jobs. They include opportunities for teachers to plan together, observe and give feedback on each other’s classes, engage in professional learning and provide input into school decision making. The demands and workload teachers face matter also: How large are their classes? How many different courses do they teach? Are they assigned to teach the subject or grade level they’ve been trained for? Are adequate resources available, or is it a constant struggle to make copies or obtain supplies for a science lab or art project? These types of teaching conditions determine whether teachers feel effective in and satisfied with their work, and play a major role in teachers’ decisions whether to remain at their jobs.
Abundant research shows that positive school environments accelerate growth and effectiveness for all teachers at a school. Dysfunctional school contexts can sink even the most expert and dedicated teacher. And when a teacher is struggling, a strong teaching and administrative team supporting her and her students can ensure that the teacher quickly improves and that valuable learning time isn’t lost.
Fortunately, California’s State Board of Education has recently committed to report some of this information at the school and district levels, so parents can know what percentage of teachers at their school lack full credentials, are inexperienced, or are teaching out-of-field. But not all of the information that could be helpful to parents is readily available.
The State Board of Education could provide additional information that reflects whether or not students at a school have access to effective teaching and the contexts that support it. This includes the rate of teacher turnover and teacher absenteeism, the stability of the school principal, and regular surveys of school staff to provide data about the level of administrative support, opportunities to collaborate, and other essential working conditions to support effective teaching.
Parents are looking to the State of California to provide more robust measures to assess children’s access to effective teaching. Of course, this won’t guarantee that their child is taught by an effective teacher. But with these data in hand, parents can begin the school year not just asking who their child’s teacher is, but asking how their child’s school is supporting and providing effective teaching.
Tara Kini is the Director of State Policy at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization based in Palo Alto.
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