Bad Proxies for Good Teachers

Read Rotherham’s Atlantic article on Teach For America (TFA) and what it takes to be a good teacher. It’s a great summary of what the field, TFA in particular, has learned recently about the attributes of good teachers.  However, it’s frustrating that we remain so unsophisticated about the predictive elements.  Certification doesn’t seem to matter much, but things like leadership activities at a selective college appear to be a predictor of teaching potential.
NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) was an attempt to fulfill the ‘good teacher promise’—every student deserves an effective teacher.  But its reliance on certification was obviously a bad proxy good teaching.  NCLB also required efforts to promote equitable distribution of teaching talent, but a bad proxy and bad politics prevented much progress toward equity.
As congress begins to consider reauthorization, it’s frustratingly difficult to improve on HQT at least in the short term.  RttT requires that states adopt value-added measures as part of teacher evaluation, but the truth is most states are a few years away from doing that reliably.  It’s a gnarly problem that even the most well informed wonks are wrestling with.
My half-baked solution to a dilemma in a dynamic situation is to build a flexible framework.  As Terry Grier in Houston proposed, states should use ‘all available information’ to evaluate teaching effectiveness.  The framework should include observations, growth in student achievement, experience, certification, collaboration, and college record.  As indicators of performance are refined the elements and the weighting could be modified every year or two.
We can do better than HQT in the quest for equitable teaching quality.  It’s complicated and will remain dynamic for years to come, but that’s no excuse for not setting a high bar and pushing for equity in the reauthorization of ESEA.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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