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teacher accountability reform

An educational earthquake aimed at improving the effectiveness of teachers is rumbling across the nation.

So far, the quake is only beginning to affect Wisconsin. But the tremors of change are already being felt here, and more are coming.

In the process, a new world of teaching is being built.

Nationwide, the federal government and giant philanthropies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into underwriting work in dozens of states and cities on better ways to select teachers, monitor their work and pay them.

President Barack Obama has taken on teachers unions – traditionally partisan allies – over teacher improvement issues, while many Republicans, including Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker, say they support reform in teachers’ pay.

National leaders of teachers unions, long opposed to change, are willing to talk about once-taboo subjects such as making it easier to get weak teachers out of classrooms.

Multiple factors have ushered in this new era. First, it is now widely understood that not only are teachers the most important school-related factor in student learning, but that teacher effectiveness varies drastically. Second, the recession – and the resulting stimulus package – gave Obama a chance to launch large programs focused on increasing teacher effectiveness. Third, data about students and teachers has improved greatly, providing better tools for figuring out the success of many teachers on an individual basis.

And, fourth, the idea of paying teachers based in part on how their students perform has gathered momentum.

teacher accountability reform
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In Pittsburgh, a new teachers contract overhauls the way teachers are hired, evaluated and paid, including paying more to teachers who get the best results.

In Washington, D.C., controversial schools chief Michele Rhee has departed, but a system of analyzing teachers’ work, with firings possible for those who do poorly, remains in use.

In Baltimore, teachers are considering a contract – supported by union leaders – that would replace the traditional system of pay based mostly on length of employment with a system in which involvement in school improvement plays a big role.

In Denver, a complex system that allows teachers to earn additional pay if they are rated highly or get strong results in the classroom has become the accepted norm.

Underlying the ferment around teachers is a broad sense of urgency about the overall performance of American students, especially low-income and minority children. At a time when higher education achievement is universally regarded as central to economic success both for individuals and communities, test scores nationwide have been flat. International analyses frequently show the achievement of American children well below that of nations such as Finland and Singapore. And for children particularly in urban districts such as Milwaukee, the results overall are dismal.

Common denominator

Why blame teachers? It is clear that a huge number of teachers feel they are being targeted.

But advocates for change insist they are focusing on an especially important and potentially powerful set of tools for improvement that have not really been used until recently.

Teachers are the common denominator of every school. Research has shown a wide variation in student achievement, even within the same school, that can be tied to the ability of their teachers. Students who have the most effective teachers make gains three times as large as those with less effective teachers, according to experts such as Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek, whose specialty is economic analysis of educational issues.

After so many reforms and initiatives in other areas of education have failed to have much impact, the spotlight has turned to trying to make the teacher-student relationship a more powerful force for achievement. It’s a simple equation: Improve teacher effectiveness and you improve outcomes, including, some supporters hope, narrowing the gaps between the haves and have-nots of educational good fortune.

The drive for change is not without setbacks. Plenty of lessons are being learned already about what doesn’t work. One prominent example: An experiment with providing teachers in Nashville, Tenn., bonuses based solely on whether students hit targets for achievement showed no significant impact, according to results released in September.

But the national momentum is clear.

“Every time I talk to people, I hear about another project designed to change teaching,” said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College at Columbia University. “Ultimately, it’s all going to change, and this is the period before we pick out what it is going to look like.”

Identifying great teachers

Traits of effective teachers

The teacher as a person: Teacher cares, shows fairness and respect, interacts positively with students, is enthusiastic and motivated, is dedicated, and reflects on his/her practice.

Classroom management and organization: Establishes routines, balances variety and challenge in student activities, anticipates potential problems, prepares materials in advance, interprets and responds to inappropriate behavior promptly, and reinforces and reiterates expectations for positive behavior.

Planning instruction: Focuses classroom time on teaching and learning, follows a consistent schedule, limits disruptions, stresses student responsibility and accountability, carefully links learning objectives and activities, and considers students’ attention-spans and learning styles when designing lessons.

Implementing instruction: Employs different techniques and instructional strategies, suits instruction to students’ achievement levels and needs, sets high expectations for improvement and growth, gives clear examples and offers guided practice.

Monitoring student progress and potential: Knows and understands students as individuals in terms of ability, achievement, learning styles and needs, monitors and assesses student progress, uses data to make instructional decisions, and gives clear, specific and timely feedback.

Source: adapted from Qualities of Effective Teachers, 2nd edition (Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2007).

Questions for parents

♦ Does my child enjoy classes with this teacher? What kinds of things is my child learning in the class? Is my child proud to show off what’s been learned?

♦ Is the teacher enthusiastic and knowledgeable about what he or she teaches? Does my child regularly have homework? Is the homework relevant?

♦ Does the teacher correct and return homework in a timely manner?

♦ At parent-teacher conferences, does the teacher know my child and how he or she is doing in class? Is the teacher able to cite specific areas of strength or weakness for my child?

♦ Is my child’s teacher responsive to my attempts at communication – a phone call, e-mail or visit to the school?

♦ Do I get a heads-up if my child is struggling?

♦ Do I have a way to know – through a password-protected website, for instance – what the teacher’s expectations are, when assignments are due, how my child is performing and whether my child has been late to or absent from class?

Compiled by Justin Snider.

“I think there is a lot of momentum for change right now, and it is welcome on our part,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said in an interview for this series. “We ought to be engaging in every possible way what we can do to remove student obstacles (to success).”

Resistance is high, in large part because change in deeply ingrained practices comes hard. But it is also high because teachers in large numbers think what is being pushed is unconstructive and unrealistic.

As Kaela Zielinski, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln Avenue Elementary on Milwaukee’s south side, said, “What makes teachers most upset about the issue is that no one wants to talk to teachers, and especially no one wants to come sit in our classrooms.”

She said many people with ideas on how to improve teaching know little about the realities of classrooms, especially where the impacts of factors such as poverty, high numbers of special-education students and unsupportive parents shape what is going on.

“We need good teachers, we need good administrators, and we need good parents,” Zielinski said.

Teachers feel like they are being singled out when all three areas need to be strengthened.

“I want to be accountable for what I’m doing,” Zielinski said.

But a major step toward doing that is having evaluation systems for teachers that go far beyond the superficial reviews given now by most principals.

On sidelines, so far

Wisconsin, with good but stagnant achievement levels overall and some of the worst results in the U.S. for minority children, has not been a player on teacher reform issues that have swept across the United States.

Wisconsin lost out in this year’s “Race to the Top” competition for federal dollars largely because its proposals on teacher development were rated as weak. There has been only tepid interest shown across the state in major change. With a system in which the governor and the state education chief have less power over school issues than their counterparts in almost any other state, initiative has been left to local school districts, and little has happened.

“You’re talking about a state in dire need of reform,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. In the organization’s annual report on state policies on teachers, Wisconsin got mostly D’s and D-minuses released in September (although a lot of other states fared about the same).

But that could well be changing. In a speech in September, Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, challenged school and union leaders across the state to come up with effective systems for improving teacher effectiveness.

“If we don’t get this done through collaboration, there is a strong possibility we will get something shallow, superficial, and politically motivated imposed on us.” Evers said.

Mary Bell, the president of the powerful Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, said, “Our response is, ‘We’re in.’ ” She said union leaders were prepared to talk about issues such as using student performance data in evaluating teachers.

Is this a time of change or just talk of change?

“I think it has to be a time of change,” Bell said.

As Evers indicated, a major motivator for education leaders to get moving themselves is the coming session of the Wisconsin Legislature, which is almost sure to include calls for action on teacher quality, or the growing possibility of strong requirements imposed from the federal level.

Statewide, new standards and tests coming in the next several years will create new energy around teaching issues, Evers said. Nationwide, changes in policies related to teachers would be especially likely if efforts under way elsewhere show signs of success.

“There’s really kind of a cool storm going on here,” he said.

The national scene

Across the country, action is occurring on at least seven fronts:

• Teacher training and licensing. Dissatisfaction with many traditional teacher-training programs has created a demand for overhauling programs so that people interested in teaching are better prepared for what they will actually deal with in classrooms. Some states, notably Louisiana, hold teacher-training programs accountable for the effectiveness of the teachers they produce. And alternative programs that train people who haven’t attended education schools are thriving in some places. Teach for America, in which high-performing college students who did not major in education teach for at least two years in high-need schools, has been enormously popular on campuses and in some districts.

• Data. Major advances in measuring student performance and what can be learned from such data are making it feasible to look at teachers’ success based on the progress of their students – at least for the teachers of subjects such as reading and math, where there is broad use of standardized tests. That is half or less of all teachers, experts estimate. Where does that leave all the other teachers? That’s one of the challenging questions on the table.

• Evaluation. A crucial element of any system that aims to advance good teachers and teaching is the ability to identify them in a reliable, fair way. Most evaluations that teachers get now are perfunctory and pretty much useless.

There is wide agreement that that needs to change dramatically if there are going to be ways to move teachers toward better practices – or separate out the weakest performers fairly. Major efforts are under way to come up with methods for doing that, many of them combining the use of data to measure student performance with other ways of measuring classroom performance, including more systematic evaluations by principals.

• Pay. Researchers have found some school systems in which as many as 99% of teachers rate “satisfactory.” And current pay systems often treat all teachers as if they differ only by experience and education credentials. Yet there is little evidence these factors affect student learning. The growing consensus: What teachers actually do in classrooms matters most; old pay measurements need to be overhauled; and smart compensation systems will recognize and reward effectiveness, however it is measured.

• Professional development. There is widespread agreement that teachers need more coaching and other assistance in improving their work as their careers evolve. Some school districts focus on providing that help within a school and on a regular basis throughout the year, rather than confining it largely to one-shot seminars or speeches that are widely regarded as ineffective.

• Tenure and firing. Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who is a highly regarded expert on policies related to developing teacher workforces, said that even three years ago he would have said it is impossible to change tenure, the practice of giving teachers an all-but-unbreakable lifetime hold on a job. “It’s now changing, despite everybody’s predictions,” Odden said.

Some contracts with teachers unions around the country are changing the last-hired, first-fired practices that have led to such things as the departure of about 200 young teachers who worked for MPS last year. Arizona ended the use of seniority as the determinant of which teachers are laid off. Rhee did the same in D.C. Agreements in Los Angeles and Indianapolis weaken but do not eliminate the connection between layoffs and longevity. Using merit as a factor in who stays is a growing trend. And some unions are moving to make it easier to end the employment of ineffective teachers.

• Placement. The students with the most needs often get the least experienced or weakest teachers because the flow of quality and experience among teachers is toward higher performing students and schools. Can anything be done to at least equalize the quality of teaching? The No Child Left Behind law enacted under the George W. Bush administration required states to develop plans for more equitable teacher assignments. But those have brought little real change. This subject is getting new attention, but many regard it as tough to solve until more high-need schools become more appealing places to work.

• School leadership reform. The roles of principals are crucial when it comes to making school environments better, improving the evaluation of teachers and helping teachers increase their skills. Principals have gotten much less attention than teachers in the current tumult, but improving the overall caliber of principals would do a great deal to drive progress.

Wisconsin in the back seat

While Odden and several other education researchers and advocates with significant national standing live in Wisconsin, they have done much of their work elsewhere in recent years.

“I have not heard the name Wisconsin mentioned in any conversations about any current issue in education,” said Andy Porter, dean of the College of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and formerly a professor at UW-Madison. “It’s not a bellwether state for any of these issues.”

Factors contributing to that include the power of the state teachers union and the education structure of the state, with its traditional emphasis on local, rather than state-level, decision-making.

“In general, Wisconsin has been pretty resistant to change,” Madison-based education consultant Sarah Archibald said. “We’re definitely behind the curve; I think it’s showing.”

But Evers argues the state is building carefully but firmly toward changes in teaching.

“I feel hopeful that within a year we’ll be in a place where we really know what effectiveness means” for teachers and principals, Evers said.

That will open the way for fair, reliable measures of assessing teachers, including the progress of their students, he said.

No easy answers

The issues around teachers are often reduced by some to simple phrases: Pay teachers based on their performance. Reward good teachers. Get rid of bad teachers.

Turning those from slogans to effective programs is far more complex.

Consider one anecdote:

At Milwaukee College Prep, an independent charter school with a strong record of student success, one criterion for giving teachers bonuses is if their students exceed national growth norms for the year. The school also puts extensive effort into working with teachers to evaluate them and improve their practices. But Principal Robb Rauh says that the list of teachers whose kids are exceeding the norms does not always match the list of those considered excellent through observations and coaching.

The lessons:

• Paying close attention to what can be learned from student scores is valuable, but few believe using scores alone as the basis for pay is a good idea. Standardized tests don’t capture everything students learn or teachers teach.

• Year-round efforts to develop teachers’ abilities and to coach them pay off, but not always in scores.

Perhaps Wisconsin’s slow pace in entering the fray over teaching will prove wise. The state may learn from mistakes made elsewhere. WEAC’s Bell said she’ll take a boring second place in the race to change if it means coming up with things that last and have a positive impact.

Voicing something on which there is wide agreement, the NEA’s Van Roekel said: “If someone asked me if I could change one thing, what would it be? And I would say, ‘Let’s get people to stop thinking it’s one thing.’”

Odden is hopeful that the pace of change in Wisconsin will pick up. He has no doubt about the need for change.


“We don’t have an effective teacher in every classroom, or an effective principal in all of our schools.”

The press is on to change that.

This story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 7, 2010.

About this series

For the series “Building a Better Teacher,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s education reporting team of Amy Hetzner, Erin Richards and Becky Vevea collaborated with staff of The Hechinger Report and Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School.

Over the next eight Sundays, the series will spotlight challenges to the way teachers are trained, evaluated, paid, promoted and dismissed – and how all of it comes to bear on student success.

Coming next Sunday: Performance evaluations: Most teachers say their reviews are perfunctory and of little value. Major efforts are under way around the country to change that.

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