“Just Walk Away, Renee …”

What’s the measure of a “good” teacher?  It’s an age-old question whose answer has varied and changed over the years.  For the past five years — under the No Child Left Behind era — we’ve answered it with the formula developed by Congressman George Miller and his colleagues as part of their HQT provisions.  A highly qualified teacher was one who has a degree in the subject matter and who is certified. 

Yesterday, a group of California parents took issue with how the U.S. Department of Education was interpreting the HQT provision, specifically how it approved the Golden State’s effort to categorize alternative cert teachers and emergency hires as HQTs.  The case — Renee v. Spellings — is expected to have national implications on alternative teaching programs.  (Or at least that’s what Stephen Sawchuck and Education Daily tell us.)

Eduflack doesn’t take issue with the intent of Renee and parents across the country who want to ensure that their children get the very best instructors, the very best curriculum, and the very best of opportunities.  And I agree that, ideally, our best teachers should be in our most challenging teaching environments, working with the kids who need their experience, expertise, and knowledge the most.

But after five years, it is time to revise our definition of a good teacher.  The language is stale.  Highly qualified is fine … to an extent.  But is a teacher with a bona fide diploma from a teachers college guaranteed to be a good teacher, while another from Teach for America or Troops to Teachers is not?  Of course not.  The pedagogy one gets from a TC only takes you so far.  Success depends largely on the passion of the teacher, the pursuit of continued learning, the push to continue to improve practice, and one’s commitment to the classroom and the student.  And many would say alternative routes engender those qualities far more frequently than traditional routes.

Regardless, we need a new benchmark for a “good” teacher. And that benchmark is based on one simple word — effectiveness.  Our goal should be to have an effective teacher in every classroom.  A teacher committed to boosting student achievement.  A teacher that can be measured based on year-on-year gains in her classroom.  A teacher who leaves his students better off at the end of the year than they were when they showed up the previous September.  Good teachers should be effective teachers.  And that effectiveness can be measured, studied, and replicated in other classes and schools.

The words we choose to define “good” teaching are telling of our objectives.  “Highly qualified” measures the inputs.  “Effectiveness” measures the outputs.  And at the end of the day, we should be defining our teachers, our schools, and our kids on the outputs.  All the qualifications in the world can’t guarantee success.  Our focus is results.  The end game is achievement.
Slowly, this concept is making its way into our discussions on NCLB and HQT.  It was first offered by the Aspen Institute’s NCLB Commission, and was championed by its co-chair, Gov. Roy Barnes.  We’ve now seen it mentioned in a number of NCLB reauthorization bills on Capitol Hill.  But we have a long way to go.

Maybe the lawyers with Public Advocates can offer a settlement … all California teachers must demonstrate effectiveness in the classroom.  Now that would be a practice worth modeling in all 50 states.

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