To judge teacher effectiveness, parents must look at the whole school

September 6, 2017
High school students participate in Art 1 at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif.,

High school students participate in Art 1 at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif.,

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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?

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.

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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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