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Teacher Training, Licensure, Evaluation, Pay: Fix ‘Em All (and Do It Right)

It’s been more than a week now since I thankfully resisted the urge to “blow up” education schools. In the meantime, my remarks about teacher preparation have been vindicated — both the tone of urgency and the “moderate” but serious approach to addressing the issue.

Let’s start with the urgency. The National Council on Teacher Quality followed up its powerful indictment of the state of teacher preparation last week with compelling new evidence concerning the lack of rigor in education schools. How does it help students, particularly the neediest among us, to have most of these schools attract prospective teachers looking for easy As?

Now you may rightly label the headline as a “dog bites man” kind of story, but the findings deserve attention:

  • 44% of teacher candidates qualify for college honors, compared to 30% of other students
  • Teacher prep courses show a clear relationship between weak content and high grades
  • “Assignments that lead to higher grades overwhelmingly dominate in the field of teacher preparation, far more than in other academic disciplines”
  • About 1% (yes, that’s not a typo) of all grades assigned in these courses actually “are based on assignments that go to the heart of teaching” and evaluated using objective criteria

After teachers are trained, in nearly all cases they have to be licensed before entering the classroom. So it’s fitting that yesterday an interesting group called Third Way published a report called “Creating a Rigorous and Consistent Teacher Licensure Process.” A group that declares itself to be in the political center, rather than Left or Right, finds more than 600 different licensure tests among the 50 states, what they call a “jumbled mess.”

The flaming hoops and mazes limit the ability of quality instructors to move across state lines, they say. I certainly like their idea of bringing more rigor by requiring prospective teachers to demonstrate content knowledge to earn a provisional license, followed by gaining time to demonstrate a reasonable level of professional skill and practice before earning the official license. Where I get a bit nervous and skeptical is Third Way’s recommendation for federal involvement in creating a common process of “reciprocity” among states.

Once teachers are trained and licensed, they also ought to be evaluated. In recent years, Colorado — along with many other states — has stepped up the game of professional educator evaluations with SB 191. Most of the big ideas in that nearly five-year-old law are good and solid, though real and significant implementation challenges exist. The need for solid, instructive evidence as we move forward is great.

Enter a new study from Chicago by Matthew Steinberg and Lauren Sartain, featured in Education Next, which shows that an enhanced evaluation system (in this case part of the Excellence in Teaching Project) yields short-term learning gains for lower-poverty student populations on a modest scale.

It’s hard to say exactly what changed at the classroom level from the evaluation process that helped to effect the improvements, or whether the system just helped the already higher-performing principals and teachers to raise their game, but not their less capable peers.

All the more reason to find effective means of breaking the Cycle of Mediocrity in Teaching (thanks again, Third Way).

From my point of view, a key way to help is to make control more local, but keep the bar of accountability high. While no strong proof of cause and effect is available, the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs has been seeing better results for students, after overhauling culture and policy with a more rigorous system of evaluations.

Oh yeah, and pay for performance. Which the state of Ohio appears to be moving toward by breaking down barriers to empower more change locally. But that’s just the first step on a fairly long policy road, and definitely a topic for another day.