Thursday, October 15, 2009

Children in Poverty Deserve Great Teachers

Children in Poverty Deserve Great Teachers
By Claus von Zastrow on September 3, 2009

"School reformers [should] begin working with teachers--rather than around them." This is the overarching theme of a new report by Barnett Berry. The product of collaboration between NEA and Berry's Center for Teaching Quality, the report examines how to get top teachers into the classrooms that need them most. Its title says it all: Children of Poverty Deserve Great Teachers.

The report offers welcome relief from the either/or thinking that mars so many education policy discussions. We spend so much time following the horse race between traditional and alternative routes into teaching, for example, that we miss the bigger question: How do we better prepare teachers to succeed in struggling schools, regardless of where they come from?

I can't possibly summarize the whole report here, but I can offer a few glimpses of what it has to offer.

The report "begins by rejecting several myths with compelling evidence." Myth number one: If you topple the "barriers" posed by traditional certification, effective teachers will simply flood into struggling schools. Myth number two: If you dismiss incompetent teachers--a laudable goal in itself--struggling schools will have all the great teachers they need. Myth number three: Teacher tenure is the biggest barrier to firing bad teachers. Myth number four: Financial incentives are enough to lure great teachers into the schools that need them most.

Fat chance.

After taking on these myths, the report turns to research on staffing struggling schools. One critical idea stands out: "Researchers have found that the same teacher may look more or less effective in different kinds of schools or with different supports." It's not enough to look for great teachers. We need teachers who have the training, support and conditions to succeed in challenging schools. Policymakers seldom understand this nuance.

The report also "argues that universities and school districts must do more to prepare teachers for success in our most challenging schools." Berry urges districts to grow their own effective teachers rather than rely solely on talented outsiders. He also sings the praises of teacher residency programs that increase the supply of teachers who can succeed in struggling schools. (Berry has tackled this issue before.)

The report concludes with four strategies that can cut through the either/or thinking about the future of teaching. Here, I quote directly from the report:

1. Recruit and prepare teachers for work in high-needs schools. One cannot be done well without the other.
2. Take a comprehensive approach to teacher incentives. Lessons from the private sector and voices of teachers indicate that performance pay makes the most diff erence when it focuses on “building a collaborative workplace culture” to improve practices and outcomes.
3. Improve the right working conditions. We need to fully identify the school conditions most likely to serve students by attracting, developing, retaining and inspiring effective and accomplished teachers.
4. Define teacher effectiveness broadly, in terms of student learning. We need new evaluation tools and processes to measure how teachers think about their practice as well as help students learn.

NEA has publicly committed $1 million per year over six years to advance these strategies.

Don't expect to find quick fixes in Berry's report. He repeats H.L Mencken's famous words: "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible and wrong."

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