Building A Better Teacher

December 2, 2010 | Blog

If you haven’t been reading the excellent “Building A Better Teacher” news series in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, you should be. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re from Wisconsin or not, or particularly interested in this state’s policy context. The series is taking an expansive look at the various issues related to human capital development, teacher effectiveness and teaching quality. And it’s not quoting the same overused Beltway prognosticators to drive its points home.

The fourth installment in the eight-part series, funded by Hechinger, ran this past Sunday and was entitled “Trying to steer strong teachers to weak schools.”

My main quibble with this particular article was that it gave short shrift to one of the most effective answers to the question posed: How do we steer strong teachers to weak schools? The answer: Improve the teaching conditions at those schools.

Here’s the extent of what the article offered on this issue:

So what else might be done, in hopes of having more impact? A few ideas in nutshells:

Make schools better places to work: This is both the simplest and most complex solution. The New Teacher Project report in 2007 said, “The best way to staff high need schools is to make them attractive to great teachers.” But how do you achieve that?

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: “A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them…. We’re also looking at schools that are safe.”

My suggestion would have been a much more robust treatment and discussion of the issue of teaching conditions. I have extrapolated on its importance in a series of blog posts, and the New Teacher Center (my employer) has unique national expertise in administering statewide Teaching and Learning Conditions surveys. The NTC has a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to administer a Teaching & Learning Conditions Survey as part of the foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. The Survey is being administered in select schools and districts participating in the MET project across the country.

Perhaps Wisconsin and Milwaukee, in particular, should consider administering such an anonymous full population survey to its educators — teachers, administrators and support staff — and see what they have to say. Why do they stay or leave a given school or district? What’s working and what isn’t? States and districts that have administered such surveys have used the data to improve principal preparation, rewrite professional standards for teachers and principals, and strengthen teacher mentoring and professional development. This is not data to be afraid of but data that can empower policymakers, school leaders and teachers alike.

Teaching and learning conditions are highly correlated with issues such as teacher retention and the presence of such conditions explain as much as 15 percent of the variance in student achievement between schools (Helen ‘Sunny’ Ladd, 2009). This stuff matters greatly in the current policy debates about teaching and student outcomes and it gets far too little attention as compared with value added, teacher evaluation and teacher pay.

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