Viewpoint

Right target, wrong tool

April 10, 2013 

The commentary by Edward Glaeser on testing teachers (Voices, April 4) targets the right topic but presents the wrong tool.

Ensuring teaching quality for all students is the most important thing we can do to improve student success in our schools. The research that Dr. Glaeser cites is compelling and reinforces what parents and students know about the impact of quality teaching. However, I disagree with his solution of national testing of teachers as the way to provide effective teachers for all students.

His underlying premise seems to be that what is needed to ensure quality teaching is to “fire the bottom tenth” of a school’s teachers each year, as determined by scores on a national test. I believe there is a much more effective and efficient way of achieving the goal.

First, let’s deal with the small percentage of incompetent or unprofessional teachers now. Certainly teachers in this category need to be dismissed or helped to find another job. We don’t need a national test to do this. In California, state law gives school administrators the explicit right to dismiss teachers who are underperforming. It is a myth that public school teachers in California cannot be dismissed.

Does it take time? Yes. Does it take documentation? Yes. Does it require due process? Yes. Should it include references to student progress? Yes. Does it take courage from the principal? Yes. But it can be done. And it is worth it. The process is probably too cumbersome and time consuming, and we need to work on fixing those impediments. In the meantime, principals can still confront incompetence and unprofessional behavior leading to dismissal.

My point is to use our existing system to deal with a small number of teachers and spend most of our time and resources on the great majority of dedicated teachers who want to do their best for our students.

So what do we do to nurture excellence from our teachers? Teaching, as with most professions, is part art and part science. Think about the stellar teachers you have had. Certainly they knew their subject, but often what made them effective was a bit more intangible. Perhaps it was their expectations, their interest in you, their skill in involving students, their ability to differentiate their teaching, their excitement for what they were teaching. These are not so easy to test.

The task of school leaders is to enhance both the art and the science of teachers. Teachers are no different than the rest of us. We want to improve our craft, and we respond positively to sincere efforts to help us do that. A score on a national test will not do this.

Here is what will work: First, there needs to be an agreed-upon set of standards/rubric of what constitutes effective teaching to promote student achievement.

Second, clear and regular feedback to the teacher on his/her performance in meeting these standards. This feedback should be done from observations by the principal, by observations from fellow teachers or by the review of video, as Dr. Glaeser suggests. I would also suggest feedback from students, who observe the teacher more than anyone else.

Next, professional conversations are needed between the teacher and the observers reviewing and discussing the data from the observations.

Finally, an intentional professional development program designed to improve teaching skills based on the results of the observations. Locally, the Lucia Mar Unified School District is engaged in a systematic implementation of these elements in their TAP program.

I believe that these essential elements used by skilled principals stand a much better chance of improving teaching quality than a national test.

Julian Crocker is county superintendent of schools.

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