The Great White Whale of Teacher Quality

At the heart of EdSec Arne Duncan’s remarks at Teachers College last week has his new never-ending pursuit of the illusive “teacher quality.”  Clearly, the search means more than the “highly qualified teacher” definition currently found in NCLB.  More than the qualities that currently win one additional monies through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF).  And even more than the plans floated more than two years ago by Sen. Joe Lieberman et al to redefine HQT as “highly qualified and effective teacher.”

So with states and school districts across the nation scrambling to demand effective teachers and pledge policy and funding to support new efforts under expected Race to the Top, i3, and such funds to implement teacher quality efforts, what exactly are we using as our benchmark for such actions.  Surely, how students perform on their standardized test scores is an important piece to the equation.  But is there more to effective teaching outcomes than simply student achievement?  And are there key inputs that need to be factored into the process as well, recognizing that quality teachers come as the result of both effective preparation and effective teaching?
While nailing Duncan’s latest teacher quality demands to the schoolhouse door up at Columbia was THE story last week, we’ve also had two new reports designed to support, enhance, or rethink the efforts moved by the EdSec and his Brad Jupp-led teacher quality team.  Earlier this week, Hope Street Group released its study on Using Open Innovation to Improve Teacher Evaluation Systems.  This follows on the heels of the Forum for Education and Democracy’s Rethinking Learning Now campaign’s Effective Teachers, High Achievers report. 
As part of its new phase of education reform dialogue, the Hope Street Group released a series of eight recommendations around how to measure effective teaching, including:
* Objective measures of student achievement gains must be a major component of teacher evaluation
* Clearly defined standards of quality instruction should be used to assess a teacher’s classroom performance
* Teachers, teacher groups, and unions should be included in developing and implementing teacher evaluation systems
* Teacher evaluation systems themselves must be periodically evaluated and refined
* Teacher evaluation systems should reflect the importance of supportive administrators and school environment to effective teaching
* Components of teacher evaluation that rely on observation and discussion must be in the hands of instructional leaders who have sufficient expertise, training, and capacity.
* Evaluations must differentiate levels of teaching efficacy to identify opportunities for professional growth and drive rewards and consequences
* Information from teacher evaluations should be comparable across schools and districts, and should be used to address equity in the distribution of teaching talent 
Hope Street’s full report, shaped by actual teachers (a novel concept in education policy), can be found here.   The group is clearly building on the accountability recommendations released earlier this year from the Education Equality Project (EEP), while looking to provide some additional support to Duncan and his teacher quality efforts.  Focused primarily on outcomes, Hope Street is all about results and who is the final arbiter of said results.
And what of the Forum?  No surprise, but the education policy minds at the Forum take a decidedly different world view of teacher quality, focusing primarily on the inputs that go into effective teaching.  The Forum first focuses on the current obstacles to true teacher quality, emphasizing dramatically different levels of training (with those least prepared teaching the most educational vulnerable students); disparate salaries; radically different teaching conditions across districts, schools, and classrooms; and little mentoring or on-the-job coaching to help teachers improve their skills.  And they look to international models (those found in Singapore, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and others) for inspiration, seeking a system that requires high-quality teacher education for all candidates, completely at government expense; a year of practice teaching in a clinical school; mentoring for all beginning teachers; equitable salaries; and ongoing professional development embedded in 15-25 hours a week of planning and PD time.  The full policy brief can be found here.
The Forum limited its demands of the federal government to seven, including:
* Create incentives for recruiting teachers to high-need fields and locations
* Strengthen teacher preparation
* Make teacher education performance-based
* Support mentoring for all beginning teachers
* Create sustained, practice-based collegial learning opportunities for teachers
* Develop teaching careers that reward, develop, and share expertise
* Mount a major initiative to prepare and support expert school leaders
Two different paths.  Two different perspectives.  Two different rubrics.  So which direction are we headed?  Clearly, Hope Street is more closely aligned with the priorities, objectives, and goals of the U.S. Department of Education and reform-minded school leaders such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee.  And the emphasis on results — recognizing that talks of teacher quality are relatively hollow if they don’t translate into improved achievement and performance in the classroom — are key if we are to turn around our nation’s low-performing schools and improve overall student achievement while closing the persistent learning gaps our school districts have struggled with for decades.
But can we achieve that vision without first addressing the ideas and issues laid out by the Forum?  Can we achieve results-based improvement in teacher quality if we do not first address those inputs that go into building and supporting an effective teacher?  In an era where results are king, how important is the process that gets us there?
From the cheap seats, it seems clear that this should not and cannot be an either/or approach.  If we want to see the tangible results (as advocated by Hope Street and others) we need to invest in the systems and structures that build and support effective teachers (as called for by the Forum).  If we don’t, teacher quality will remain that great white whale for the EdSec and policy voices across the country, always top of mind, but always out of reach.  If we are going to catch our Moby Dick, we need to find those areas of agreement between the inputs advocates and the outcomes champions and find the common ground to build comprehensive expectations and rubrics for real teacher quality.  It may be the only way to have the true impact so many are now looking to have on what happens in the classroom.

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