Great Teachers, New Contracts, and Incentives, Oh My!

After a few days, the dust is finally settling on the supposed deal between Michelle Rhee and the teachers’ union in Washington, DC.  By now, we’ve all heard the Cliff Notes version — significantly increased teacher pay, performance bonuses, elimination of full protection of tenured teachers’ jobs from budget cuts, huge financial assistance from national philanthropies.

A year ago, we thought the deal was dead as a doornail.  Earlier this week, a tentative agreement was reached (the members of the DC union still have to vote.  As always, Bill Turque of The Washington Post has terrific coverage of the issue, starting with the announcement story from earlier this week here and a very interesting story this AM about how former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke served as consigliere to bring this final deal over the finish line.
Whether intentional or not, the trio of chairs for the Education Equality Project — NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, UNCF President/CEO Michael Lomax, and NCLR President/CEO Janet Murguia — weigh in on the general topic this morning’s Washington Post in a strongly worded commentary on the need for “great teachers” in historically disadvantaged schools.
The EEP trio offers up a three-point plan on great teachers and improved student outcomes:
* Attract teachers who performed well in college
* Create systems that reward excellence (including making it “easier to remove teachers who are shown to be ineffective”)
* Do more to attract teachers to high-needs students, schools, and subject areas (including ELL and special education)
Obviously, this is not the first time we have heard these tenets from EEP, but today’s treatise may be the clearest and most direct explanation of the EEP platform.  It also becomes clear, when you look at the reports of the DCPS teacher deal, that Rhee was calling plays directly from the EEP playbook (or would that be from Chancellor Klein’s), seeking to model after some of the more successful policy and rhetoric on the issue of teacher quality and the incentivization of effective teaching.
It is also incredibly difficult to quibble with these three points.  Who is opposed to attracting successful students into the teaching profession?  Who doesn’t believe we should reward excellence, regardless of field?  And who doesn’t see the need to get our best teachers in the areas that need them the most, including historically disadvantaged schools and subject areas that have long been neglected.
But the devil remains in the details.  How do we sustain — over the long term — incentives for teachers, knowing that philanthropic and government support for teacher quality efforts may wane in a year or five?  When the outside support dries up, are our states and school systems positioned, financially, to continue to support those systems that are rewarding excellence?
How do we transfer that recognized excellence to the schools, classes, and students that need them the most?  For decades, many have talked about National Board Certification and how National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) were the best of the best.  Through federal dollars and private supports, NBCTs were financially incentivized to seek seek certification and stand as an NBCT back in their schools.  But there is still much disagreement on the impact of NBCTs, both as to whether they increase student performance AFTER teachers have gone through the certification process and if NBCTs are more or less likely to relocate to the schools that may need them the most.
But the real head scratcher is the issue of attracting teachers who performed well in college.  Based on the rhetoric, we are clearly looking at the Teach for America model, believing that academic superstars will make the best K-12 teachers.  EEP even offers up the urban legend that most teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates (Eduflack has heard the statement time and again, but has yet to see the research that actually proves it).
Without question, we need smart teachers in our classrooms, particularly in those classes that have been struggling for far too long.  But good teaching requires both book smarts and “street” smarts.  Good teaching requires educators who know the subject matter (their math, science, history, or English) but also know the pedagogy behind it.  Good teaching requires educators who can pivot off the “script” when faced with a challenging student or a challenging classroom.  Good teaching requires educators who understand what good teaching is, moving beyond the content knowledge and making those connections between teacher and student that can last a lifetime.  Such qualities cannot necessarily be taught through a textbook, an online course, or a pedagological bootcamp.  But they are qualities that are non-negotiable when it comes to good teaching.
As DCPS heads down the strongest path to date on teacher quality and teacher incentivization, and as EEP and others continue to spotlight the need to recruit and reward great teachers, we can’t lose sight of what comprises great teaching.  Test scores are, and always should be, an important part of how we identify effective instruction.  But there are other elements — both inputs and outcomes — that need to be factored in as well.
The EEP trio is absolutely right, schools and teachers are the differentiators between a good education and a lousy one.  And they couldn’t be more right when they say:

Different teachers get very different results with similar students. So as reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is considered, we should look closely at those whom we attract and retain to teach, with regard to their quality and to ensuring that they are distributed equally across our school districts. If we can do those things, we could at least make Detroit students perform like those in Boston, and make Boston students do a lot better.

Different teachers do get different results with similar students.  Our goal should be identifying why those teachers in Boston are doing a better job than those in other cities.  And then we need to replicate, replicate, replicate both the inputs and the outcomes.  It isn’t just about how Boston attracts those teachers, it is about the training and support those teachers receive.

4 thoughts on “Great Teachers, New Contracts, and Incentives, Oh My!

  1. “…many have talked about National Board Certification and how National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) were the best of the best. Through federal dollars and private supports, NBCTs were financially incentivized to seek seek certification and stand as an NBCT back in their schools. But there is still much disagreement on the impact of NBCTs, both as to whether they increase student performance AFTER teachers have gone through the certification process and if NBCTs are more or less likely to relocate to the schools that may need them the most.”You’re missing the boat here on National Board Certification, Eduflak. The point of professional certification is not identifying the “best”–not in teaching, and not in any other professional field. We certify occupations to guarantee a benchmarked knowledge/performance standard, not to sort and select. And so it is with NB Certification–those who make the cut are not necessarily the top performers, because the “best” teachers would depend on the context and the pool. They do, however, meet a standard of accomplished practice.And just as doctors are still good doctors if they’re doing plastic surgery in Beverly Hills (and rightfully get to choose where/how they practice), so good teachers have the right to select their own preferred schools. The fact that 1/3 of NBCTs teach in Title I schools, and want to serve the kids who need them most is a credit to their professionalism. We can certainly reward them for choosing challenging schools–that’s a great idea–but we shouldn’t question the value of certification simply because some NBCTs want to stay in a place where they’re happy and effective.Further–NB Certification is an assessment, not professional development. It’s supposed to measure existing practice, not improve teaching. Over 90% of candidates say that they’re better teachers after going through the process (including those who fail to certify, incidentally) but it should not be considered a way to make teachers better. It’s an assessment. So I’m not sure why we should expect it to improve practice, and claim that it’s not valuable if it doesn’t. Do we expect the bar exam to make lawyers better?

  2. I understand and agree with you on many of the points here.  But many in the field believe that NBCT was meant to do just that — identify the best teachers.  And the thought was once they were IDed, states and districts could move them to those classes that could benefit from their expertise the most.

    But there is a bit of a red herring in your argument.  Doctors and lawyers have to pass their respective exams in order to work in the field, as most teachers have to do with licensure/general certification.  One takes NBCT assessment for the professional recognition and for the promise of additional dollars in reimbursement (not sure if lawyers would do the same, I suppose).  So if a state or district is providing a teacher additional money for earning the NCBT designation, what would be wrong with the district saying that the bonus requires one to teach in a Title I school?  

  3. Thanks for the good discussion, EF.”Many in the field” have misconstrued the clearly stated aims of NB Cert: creating standards for professional practice, assessing practice using the standards, and using the identified teaching experts to improve policy decisions. I do agree that it’s up to NBPTS and NBCTs to make clear what their value to improving schools is– and they have not made a convincing case that their expertise could greatly inform policy creation. But–look at your words: “states and districts could move them?” NBPTS has co-sponsored “NBCT Summits” around the country, where NBCTs tell them that lone NBCTs in a high-needs schools will do little good. They say they’re willing to go to hard-to-staff schools, but not unless there’s good leadership in place and they’re not isolated. Imagine “states and cities” moving accomplished prosecutors to counties where they could do more good. Or the AMA insisting that skilled surgeons practice in rural Appalachia, rather than Scarsdale, because they could do so much more good there. There are initial licensure exams and there are advanced certifications, and I agree that they do not perfectly align as analogous to NBC. However, I made certain that my pediatrician was board-certified in pediatrics, beyond her initial M.D., her license to practice. I wanted a board-certified specialist–and NB Cert fulfills the same “advanced” function for teachers, over and above mere licensure.Your comment that NBCTs go through the assessment for additional money is not true, either. I paid my own certification fee and never got a dime in salary incentives–there are plenty of teacher who pursue certification because it professionalizes their work.Some states and districts offer bonuses, but many do not–and some don’t even accept the small amount of federal dollars designed to pay half the certification fee (you can guess which states those are, BTW). And really–annual bonuses for NBCTs tend to be very modest, state to state. It’s a lot of work and, frankly, a professional and personal risk, for the promise of an extra $2000/year. I do agree that states & districts paying bonuses could use that leverage to move NBCTs to Title I schools–as long as NBCTs were told in advance that that might happen, if they had the willingness and disposition to work in those schools, and assurance that they were moving into a situation where all parties were genuinely interested in making things better.Thanks for the dialogue.

  4. I agree with some of the stated points. I agree that we should have the best professional teachers educating our children. I reside in NYC. There is a shortage of teachers who want to teacher in the lower income school because of the lack of support, funding and emotional toll. So, there are programs offered by the city or colleges that help New Yorkers who want to make a difference become a certified teacher. Yes, there is an application process and interviews but sometimes that is not enough. Those teachers who go through a program normally have to give back a certain amount of years working in the lower income schools. Then when their time has expired, most of the time leave for the suburban schools. Some how we need to get those teachers to stay put.

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