Monday, October 11, 2010

The Meaning and Measure of Teacher Quality

By: Aleta Margolis

Current events and movie releases have raised public awareness about education to a level we haven’t seen for some time. And talk about teacher effectiveness is front and center in the current debate. But we are mired in a circular argument regarding teacher quality, retention, and evaluation. The logic goes: if we hire good teachers, and get rid of the bad ones, education problems and inequities in our public education system will disappear.

Quality teachers are more important than anything else in ensuring student achievement and we certainly need good people to make that happen. However, we not only need smart, engaging teachers, we must also change what we ask of them and how we train them. This is what is often missing in the debate – that all-important connection between teacher training and quality teachers. Isn’t it also about the difference between what the teachers produce and what children experience as they work toward that product? For example, an Inspired Teacher can get the same high test scores as an uninspired drill sergeant – what differs is what that teacher did with students to achieve those scores.

At a U.S. House Education and Labor Committee hearing earlier this year scholars and senators alike wrestled with what it means to be a quality teacher, and that age old question: Are good teachers born or made?

In her testimony, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers pointed out that students cannot do their best unless they have well-prepared and engaged teachers, and that we cannot expect new teachers to enter classrooms ready to work miracles when we know that the complex art of teaching requires thoughtful training and preparation. It is teacher training, “both initial and continuing, and not sanctions, rewards, or other incentives” which is key in getting there, as Dr. Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education pointed out in her Congressional testimony, while lamenting that we are failing to adequately prepare teachers in this country. A “highly qualified” credential label does not guarantee good teaching or equate to high achieving students. A diploma is not a sure-fire ticket to ensure that teachers-to-be will be instigators of thought, or facilitators of life-long learning.

The heated debates that surround us today are sure to put pressure on lawmakers to turn the quest for teacher effectiveness into policy. They must be careful to define what it means to be a highly qualified teacher in terms which echo how students learn in the classroom and beyond, not just what one single measure of a multiple choice standardized test can tell us.

A wholesale cast change isn't going to fix education, we'll just end up with a new batch of perhaps well-intentioned, but inadequately prepared players in a flawed system, unless we change what we ask teachers to do and the way we train them to do it.

In my 15 years experience working with teachers, I have observed that a high quality, exemplary teacher demonstrates:

  • high expectations for all students and a belief in their desire to learn;
  • the ability to build a positive, safe, and respectful classroom;
  • many ways to assess student learning and use assessment data to improve instruction;
  • a commitment to ongoing professional growth, and
  • instruction that fully engages learners; An exemplary teacher is not just a provider of information, but is an instigator of thought.
Becoming this kind of teacher requires ongoing training, support and reflection which challenges teachers to evaluate their teaching practice. It is a constantly engaging, 100% participatory, ongoing process (just like learning!) which allows teachers to collaborate with their colleagues, and use their own expertise and experience in building their practice going forward. Indeed, proper training is the missing ingredient from many attempts to improve teacher quality.

We must push for quality teaching and quality teachers to be defined in a way that is good for children. We cannot turn away from tackling the complex and vital practice of teaching, making it possible not only for our students to achieve high scores on tests, but also for them to thrive for the long term. In supporting our nation’s educators, we must bring quality teacher preparation, from before they enter the classroom and on through the entirety of their careers, to the forefront of the teacher quality debate.

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