Eric Jansson is a Senior Education Policy Manager at SMART Technologies. He has spent his career in development, implementation and research into educational technology, at both K-12 and higher education levels. He is an advisory board member and Affiliated Fellow at NITLE (http://nitle.org) and a doctoral candidate at UT Austin.
Teacher quality is arguably the largest policy shift in education today and will have a lasting impact on our public education system. Legislatures across the country are hammering out systems intended to improve, reward, and redistribute quality instruction – including teacher evaluation systems and systems to differentiate compensation.
In the 2011 Yearbook, the National Council on Teacher Quality cites growth in the number of states requiring annual evaluations from 15 to 22 over the 2009-2011 time period, and the growth of states for which “evidence of student learning is the preponderant criterion in teacher evaluations” from 4 to 12 over that same period. While the action is principally at the state level, some of the momentum was federal.
The Race to the Top program drove state policy in teacher effectiveness through its scoring mechanisms; and teacher quality reappeared with even greater priority in the recent No Child Left Behind waivers. The current ESEA Title II drafts circulating in Washington D.C. focus on this area as well. What’s more, the parents’ version of this message found its voice in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman.
While these teacher quality programs bear the promise of improving instruction, we need to be careful that they do not derail other priorities. One risk behind these initiatives is that they will serve to constrain the development and spread of innovative instructional practice at a time when – fueled by rapid technology change – our classroom capabilities are expanding. The core of the problem is that measurement policies tend to force standardization, and standardization can constrain innovation.
Why is this? On one hand, standards create system efficiency and make room for new actors and ideas. Standards allow us to define technological or behavioral expectations, and therefore tend to increase the number of providers and options in technological marketplaces, or allow us to benchmark and measure with increased accuracy in social contexts.
On the other hand, standards can slow innovation. Structured requirements encode understandings about current best practices, and partly as a result, can be tough to change. Standards become part of a system, one that players in the ecosystem come to rely upon. That can make innovation more difficult, particularly large innovation. It turns out that setting standards is both science and art: You want to set a bar neither too early nor too late that you curtail innovation.
For example of the staying power of standards, consider your television. The transitions in home video technology have been dominated by a tiny number of formats who each held sway for a decade or longer: from VHS (1974) to DVD (1995) to Blu-ray (2006). Standards tend to stick.
So, do we have evidence that teacher evaluation initiatives will result in teaching standards? Most teacher evaluation systems in place or under way tend to have two principal parts: the so-called “value-add” measure generated from state assessments and an observation part, generated through classroom observations of actual teaching practice. The need to systematize teacher evaluations to ensure fairness and balance the high stakes of such evaluations – compensation and careers hang on the results – leads predictably to definitions of what good teaching looks like. In other words, the need to measure “good teaching” leads to a metric for measuring. It leads to a standard.
The District of Columbia IMPACT system, the teacher evaluation system put in place under Michelle Rhee in District of Columbia Schools, is probably the clearest exemplar. It uses value-add metrics based on student performance on federally-mandated assessments. Furthermore, it uses a 9-item checklist — the Teaching and Learning Framework or TLF — to define effective instructional practice. As teachers are observed on each of five occasions in D.C. each year, their evaluators (the school principal on three occasions and a “master educator” on the other two) use the checklist as the rubric for teacher evaluation. (For untested grades the evaluations are weighted towards observations, and all evaluations contain other smaller elements, like cohort scores.)
In a time of rapid technological innovation, the concern such checklists raise is how we balance the need to ensure best instructional practice with our ongoing efforts to drive innovation in the public school classroom. Much of the innovation we see is made possible by technology that enables the reconfiguration of classroom practice. In the past decade we have seen new models and practices emerge – project-based learning, blended learning, online learning, “flipping the classroom” – and we find ourselves at the beginnings of others we understand less well, among them mobile learning and educational gaming. Given the pace of past technological development and the tenacity of Moore’s Law, there is little reason to expect that the future holds anything less than even more possibilities for enabling and enhancing human communication as well as new modes of human interaction with information.
Would a classroom driven by any of the models listed above survive the 9-item lesson-plan checklist in the D.C. IMPACT system? This is not to argue that we should scuttle plans for teacher evaluation and teacher quality but that we should be wary of the ways in which systems and standards may encourage conservative practice. While the new instructional practices listed above have each seen impressive growth, they collectively still guide only a small part of what happens in K-12 classrooms every school day across our country. Nurturing creative new practices may be our best hope of building systems that recognize and prepare students for a dramatically different world than the one in place when our current system evolved.
As we work to improve the foundations of today’s current system through programs to ensure teacher quality, we need to be careful that we preserve room for innovation, particularly innovation that taps into new instructional possibilities afforded us by technology. Innovation is a moving target, and as we define expectations for teachers we should consider what kinds of system flexibility we need in order to foster it.