In my past several columns, I’ve focused on the inordinate value of teachers and therefore methods in which we can attract high-quality graduates into the profession as well as how colleges of education can better prepare teachers to improve student learning. Effective teaching must be a central feature of any state-guided strategic plan, as high-quality teachers must be at the core of a Utah public education system whereby 2020 all Utah graduates will have demonstrated mastery of a defined set of 21st Century Knowledge and Skills and obtained a post-high school credential.
Subsequent to these recent columns, I’ve been approached by several individuals for whom I have high respect suggesting that the solution to more effective teaching is a process of merit pay and more rigorous teacher evaluations. The assumption behind merit pay is that most teachers already know how to teach effectively, but are simply choosing not to. A conversation with virtually any school teacher quickly dispels the hypothesis that motivation is the problem. The reality is that not all teachers teach effectively because not all know how.
Merit pay alone lacks the substance to fundamentally improve student outcomes. Similar to many common reforms including one-to-one technology, reducing class sizes, and increasing testing, merit pay fails to directly address teaching practice — the manner in which teachers engage students in meaningful lessons centered on the content they are expected to master. The degree to which any of these trendy education reforms will impact student outcomes is likely directly related to the extent to which the new efforts impact teaching in the classroom.
A focus on improving teacher effectiveness remains the greatest opportunity to profoundly impact student learning in every classroom across the country. The past two decades of education research have established the impact of the “teacher effect,” which demonstrates that several contiguous years of effective teachers in the early grades can bring most students to grade level, even those who started far behind their peers. This and related research confirms that effective school reform efforts must be laser-focused on improving instruction.
Despite a clearly identified objective, the path to increasing teacher effectiveness is not simple; it requires structural changes to the ways in which districts, schools and classrooms function. As currently conceived, teaching is a largely solitary endeavor that offers few opportunities for peer observation or focused collaboration, particularly on the topic of effective instruction. Feedback is infrequent and more focused on affirmation than improvement. In short, teachers spend most of their time in their individual classrooms and rarely have the opportunity to assess their effectiveness, explore best practices, or collaborate on areas of improvement. Effective reforms require a cultural shift that redefines how teachers work together and allows for best practices to be more readily shared within and across schools. Leveraging the effective teachers that already exist in every district is the logical starting point for this endeavor.
To support this reform, resources should be reallocated to share and model best instructional strategies in staff meetings instead of merely disseminating information, and to open up classrooms so peer observation becomes a mainstay and fundamental piece of every teacher’s professional development. Resources focused on teacher collaboration can be better leveraged to ensure that conversations are moving the needle on effective instruction, rather than simply adding prep or grading time. Additionally, college education departments have a largely unmet responsibility for providing preparation that places emphasis on best practices and the use of data (including student work and classroom observation) to inform instruction so that beginning teachers immediately utilize effective methods and know how to improve on those methods throughout their careers.
The energy of the debate, a testament to the passion stakeholders have for our children and their education, can be more fruitful if we use it as an opportunity to focus our attention on the desired outcome: improving student learning through more effective instruction. While merit pay has many positive attributes and may very well prove helpful in reaching that ultimate goal, it in and of itself is insufficient to facilitate wide-scale improvements in instruction. Rethinking teacher preparation programs to this end, systematically addressing the “closed classroom,” and improving the quantity and quality of collaboration that exists in the profession is required to profoundly improve instructional practices. A failure to do so shortchanges the professionalism of teaching and the education of our children.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.