Alison Yin / EdSource
High school students participate in Art 1 at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif.,

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.

Tara Kini

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. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Deborah Green 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    As the teacher photographed to illustrate this article (ahem, without my knowledge!) I'll add my 2 cents. I know teachers are a hybrid of messenger/performer/coach/assessor/executive secretary/speech writer, etc. – and sometimes an uninspired or unenlightened teacher teaches. I think the profession is evolving, and the next generation of teachers will be using different tools than the last generation of teachers. It's not about "Why can't we fire the bad teachers?" The economic problems of this … Read More

    As the teacher photographed to illustrate this article (ahem, without my knowledge!) I’ll add my 2 cents. I know teachers are a hybrid of messenger/performer/coach/assessor/executive secretary/speech writer, etc. – and sometimes an uninspired or unenlightened teacher teaches. I think the profession is evolving, and the next generation of teachers will be using different tools than the last generation of teachers. It’s not about “Why can’t we fire the bad teachers?” The economic problems of this country are not separate from the social problems. There is a lot to say here, but I’ll stop – and ask: am I (pictured above) being used to illustrate a good teacher and dynamic classroom or the opposite?

    Replies

    • Smita Patel 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Dear Ms. Green – We chose that picture because it seemed to depict the kind of positive engagement we associate with effective teaching, so it was definitely the “good teacher/dynamic classroom” feel we were going for. Our photographer had permission to take pictures at the school that day, but we apologise if the photograph was taken without your consent.

    • FloydThursby 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      I think it is about that to some degree. There are some teachers who miss the maximum allowable days each year and aren't very good who last a long time. That being said, most teachers are good to very good. It's just, if you take any profession and make it too burdensome to fire bad members, people get hurt, and half the kids in schools are in poverty. They often have … Read More

      I think it is about that to some degree. There are some teachers who miss the maximum allowable days each year and aren’t very good who last a long time.

      That being said, most teachers are good to very good. It’s just, if you take any profession and make it too burdensome to fire bad members, people get hurt, and half the kids in schools are in poverty. They often have no father, a mother who doesn’t teach them to read or do math or do homework with them, a family which spends more time on social media, games or TV than reading or studying, so they can’t afford to get a bad teacher for a year or for a subject. It is a factor in our lack of class mobility, and many kids giving up on themselves and accepting poverty rather than fighting out of it. It’s not the whole shebang, but we can’t say we’re serious about education reform without making it easier than it is now to fire bad teachers and rewarding good ones, making it a more dynamic profession with more benefits for outstanding performance and consequences for lackluster performance.

      Every principal knows there are some teachers who are going to find a way to miss their 9 days and are just OK, not really pushing to do their best, and others who are amazing and sacrifice so much for their students and really improve their futures.

  2. Barbara Epstein 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    When I saw my grandson the other week, right after school started, I asked him how he liked his new teachers. I could tell he loved them. I was so happy for him, knowing that he would have a great year ahead. We went to his 5th grade Back To School Night last night. His two teachers team, each teaching in the areas they knew best. His Math/Science teacher clearly loves her subjects and is … Read More

    When I saw my grandson the other week, right after school started, I asked him how he liked his new teachers. I could tell he loved them. I was so happy for him, knowing that he would have a great year ahead.

    We went to his 5th grade Back To School Night last night. His two teachers team, each teaching in the areas they knew best. His Math/Science teacher clearly loves her subjects and is a comparative expert in them. Her passion for science matches my own, so I especially appreciated that our boy will have an exceptional experience as a beginning scientist this year.

    He had his other teacher in the third grade, and I was happy for their already warm established relationship.
    I came out of school last night on Cloud Nine.

    I was saddened by how shabbily these excellent teachers are being treated by labor negotiations with their district, however. Penny pinching the teachers in this district, while awarding administration with lavish salaries, has becoming a tradition here.

    I will be at the next school board meeting standing up for there amazing teachers. They deserve the royal treatment, but all they get is pea-brain “leadership.”

  3. Don 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    From a parent's perspective I don't think I can agree with the this point from the article: "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." My children have attended what I consider to be good public elementary, middle and high schools. Along the way there have … Read More

    From a parent’s perspective
    I don’t think I can agree with the this point from the article:
    “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.”
    My children have attended what I consider to be good public elementary, middle and high schools. Along the way there have been a few great teachers, more middling teachers and some truly terrible ones. In the case of the latter, the fact that the schools were good in general in no way mitigated the negative effects of those poor teachers on my kids. A school is only as good as its teachers. That is to say., as long as schools are strapped with a system that makes firing bad teachers expensive and impractical, students are subject to the roll of the dice year in and out.

    Replies

    • FloydThursby 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      I have to agree with Don. I see these arguments and they always seem to imply we should consider more factors, but it seems they don't want a harsh judgment of teachers who are failing. We absolutely must make it easier to fire bad teachers first and foremost. Also, value-added measures can compare teachers in a similar situation, with similar school levels, demographics, etc. In a bad school some teachers are … Read More

      I have to agree with Don. I see these arguments and they always seem to imply we should consider more factors, but it seems they don’t want a harsh judgment of teachers who are failing.

      We absolutely must make it easier to fire bad teachers first and foremost. Also, value-added measures can compare teachers in a similar situation, with similar school levels, demographics, etc. In a bad school some teachers are better than others and in a good school some teachers are better than others. We talk about school quality a lot but teacher effort and quality matter. A teacher who only calls in sick when sick and stays late and tutors kids and has talent will get better results and should have a career advantage and bonus pay over a teacher who calls in sick the maximum every year and isn’t trying as hard as they can.

      We have to err on the side of overjudgment rather than the status quo where some bad teachers last decades. It happens at good and bad schools. Kids have to come first.

      This is the type of article you read and 15 years later, you see teachers who lasted the whole time, and no one could check their reference, and they were known to be horrible the whole time by parents and principals, and they are still there. That kind of teacher needs to be fired quickly, and we need to ensure due process is reasonable but not so strong it keeps bad teachers on the job for decades as happens now. A teacher who is pushed out of one school should be ineligible to be hired at another school, and if a teacher has termination proceedings begun by one principal, and the principal leaves, the district should be required to continue the process to its conclusion, as some teachers are now saved by the bell. We’re erring on the side of protecting teachers too much, and that must change. Don is right.