As 2011 winds to a close, we are about to turn the page on a year that saw new evidence suggesting that the education reform policies du jour aren't really working. Most charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools (at least in Chicago); value-added modeling does not produce consistent, reliable measures of teacher effectiveness; and the school curriculum is narrowing, in part because of the pressures of state tests (according to teachers).
Student performance on standardized assessments has remained stubbornly flat during the past few years (though much more progress has been made in math than reading). And despite all our efforts over the past decade to dictate down school improvement through governance and accountability policy, the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their middle- and upper-class peers is actually growing. We must be doing something wrong.
In looking ahead to the education agenda of 2012, I hope that we can learn from what hasn't worked in school improvement over the past few years, as well as what has worked.
Focus on Instruction
A recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools and the American Institutes for Research found key differences between the instructional practices of three urban districts that performed well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and one that showed lower performance and weaker gains. The higher-performing/higher-improving districts all had stable leadership and staff focused on improving teaching and learning; a common, high-quality curriculum that created a coherent instructional program; and quality professional development that helped staff meet instructional priorities, among other commonalities. The study also indicated, as have so many that have come before, that structural reforms of urban school systems are not likely to improve student achievement unless they are directly tied to instructional program.
A Vision for the Teaching Profession
To improve instruction on a wide scale, we must strengthen the teaching profession. And do that, we must have a clear vision for what the teaching profession should look like.
The Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (CETT), made up of 21 accomplished teachers and educational leaders from around the country, has recently provided one. Their vision puts student learning at the center of everything a teacher does. It requires that teachers take primary responsibility for student learning and that effective teachers share in the responsibility for teacher selection, evaluation, and dismissal.
From this report emerge several areas in which policymakers and educators can work together to support the teaching profession. For example, by developing high standards for entry into the teaching profession -- perhaps by requiring teacher candidates to complete teacher residency programs and rigorous classroom-based performance assessments prior to becoming fully certified. Or by developing evaluation policies that comprehensively examine teacher practice, perhaps though Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), where master teachers help other teachers improve their practice and, when necessary, aid in dismissal.
To be sure, many in the education community have supported these and similar policies for years. Both of the national teachers unions -- the National Education Association (the NEA, which initially convened and supported CETT) and the American Federation of Teachers -- have committed to such ideas. So have the institutions that govern teacher education -- NCATE and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Perhaps in 2012, policymakers will recognize the importance of these policies, too.
For too long, teachers and classrooms have been ignored in policies that have resulted in large-scale (and often negative) changes to the educational system. Hopefully in 2012 the ghosts of education reform past are dismissed, and a focus on what really matters for improving student achievement begins.