Education-Stimulus Priority: Develop Effective Teachers in Every Classroom

Defining what makes a good educator is only the first step in improving teacher quality.

August 3, 2009

Defining what it means to be an effective teacher remains a major hurdle for the Obama administration, which wants states to help teachers improve their skills, get rid of ineffective teachers, and identify and train effective teachers. Part of that solution may include allocating more money for teachers who work in low-income schools or in in-demand subjects, such as science, and rewarding top-performing teachers.

A New Definition of Good Teaching

U.S. Department of Education spokesperson Sandra Abreyava notes that as states receive stimulus money, the department hopes to see the investments immediately save jobs and drive reform. The administration understands, however, that many reforms, once addressed and implemented, will take time to show results.

Highly qualified teachers, according to the No Child Left Behind Act, include those who are certified, have competency in the subjects they teach, and hold a bachelor's degree. But many educators believe those standards say little about how well teachers actually perform in the classroom -- in short, how effective they are. The Obama administration uses the term effective rather than qualified -- a noteworthy departure from the Bush administration's education rhetoric.

The Debate Over Evaluating Teachers

Education-industry experts paint a bleak picture of states' efforts to measure teachers' achievements, which has been a hot-button issue for decades. "We're really working with stones, knives, and bearskin -- a truly rudimentary system," says Dan Weisberg, vice president for policy at the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization based in New York City. To start, many states haven't yet defined what it means to be "effective," a major hurdle, because teachers, administrators, unions, and, possibly, lawmakers will debate the criteria.

Determining whether teachers are effective also means measuring the results of what they do in the classroom (as opposed to being highly qualified, which is more a résumé of certifications and degrees). Using student data to assess teachers raises a number of thorny objections, as unions and individual teachers balk at using student test scores alone to drive decisions on teacher effectiveness.

Local Action

In the St. Francis Independent School District 15, north of Minneapolis, teachers get paid to take 32 hours of professional-development courses, either after school, on the weekend, in the summer, or on special workshop days. Teachers also receive evaluations from a team of three observers -- two peers and an administrator -- rather than just one person.

The annual review is based on four classroom observations as well as student performance and a portfolio of the teacher's work. That portfolio illustrates how the teacher improved students' skills, offering details of where a student was at the beginning of the year compared with the end.

Measuring Up

Some districts and states already are using students' achievement in an attempt to measure teacher effectiveness. In Louisiana, the Value Added Teacher Preparation Assessment Model uses student-assessment data to give feedback to teacher-preparation programs.

Teacher training is another way states can help teachers improve. In some Minnesota districts, where pay is based on performance, aggressive professional-development programs help ensure all teachers have the chance to earn the extra pay.

What It All Means

Ultimately, the administration hopes states will improve their approach to professional development and create ways of measuring teacher effectiveness. Arne Duncan believes that some of the best work in teacher effectiveness is happening at the local level and hopes to scale these results to a national level. The ideal assessment will be more nuanced, gathering student data over time but also looking at the small, yet significant improvements in achievement, such as higher grades or increased participation in class, which might not be immediately reflected in students' test scores.

It's also possible that with extra money available in the stimulus package for innovation, states or large school districts will figure out better ways to evaluate teachers that fairly reflects what they do in the classroom. "Today, there's no way to tell which are your greatest teachers or your worst teachers," Dan Weisberg says.

Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

This article is the second of four that outlines key steps to improving public education. Next, read about efforts to codify what high school students should know by the time they graduate.

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