Teacher-testing tool stokes optimism at school district

May 6, 2013 

Two prevailing views of teachers exist in our nation: teachers as business capital and teachers as professional capital.

If we view teachers as business capital, then our primary pursuit is to find inexpensive, qualified labor that can ensure optimum performance in the classroom. We can measure the effectiveness by simple means: test scores, graduation rates, general parent satisfaction. When teachers get restless, become “spent” or are deemed ineffective by these simple measures, replacing the teacher is the logical next step. This is the human widget image of the profession. This business capital view of teaching is an aggressive influence in American politics. It leads to debates about the tenure system , the influence of unions, and the “dumbing down” of public education.

We can also view teachers as professional capital. This view holds that a long-term investment must be made, from early childhood to adult life, in a system that develops teachers and teaching. Teachers are given opportunities to become distinguished in the art and science of their calling. The measurements of effectiveness are still linked to student achievement; but the goals are loftier, the stakes higher and the true measure of greatness is in producing thinking, creative, ethical Americans.

This view has been adopted by the world’s highest performing economies and educational systems as they regard this type of investment as having direct connections to economic productivity, vitality, and social cohesion in future generations. In Finland, Denmark, South Korea and Singapore, teachers are seen as nation builders. They are treated as indispensable national assets.

Given these two views of teachers and teaching, San Luis Coastal Unified School District embarked on an important conversation with our teachers regarding evaluation and professional feedback. Developing teachers and teaching as professional capital is our priority. We believe that providing great teaching for all learners requires teachers to be highly committed, thoroughly prepared, continuously trained, properly compensated, networked with each other to maximize their own improvement, and able to make the best decisions for students using their full capabilities and experiences.

As part of our collective bargaining efforts, the San Luis Coastal Teachers Association and the school district agreed to a new collaboratively designed teacher evaluation instrument. Teachers and administrators worked together on a system that does not merely rate teachers “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” but views the profession on many domains, and across a spectrum of competence. In all, 22 broad categories of professional practice are analyzed.

For example, through multiple observations and collected artifact evidence, a teacher may be relatively strong in designing good student assessments, but weaker in the domain of managing classroom procedures and behavior. This leads to a developmental focus on this more fragile area.

Simply being “satisfactory” is never the end-game. Becoming “distinguished” as a teaching professional is the career goal. This is accomplished through conversations, professional development, collaboration, and an intense focus on pedagogy (the science of effective teaching).

The teacher-administrator relationship, in looking together at evidence-based criteria and then agreeing on adjustments that must be made, is the hallmark of the system. Also, by using a developmental approach, those teachers who are truly “not making it” in significant areas will be given some opportunity to improve , but eventually recommended for termination. On the other hand, those who have “mastered” certain aspects of the teaching profession may be asked to mentor others.

We believe this effort is both practical and symbolic. It is practical because our students deserve the very best instruction in all of our classrooms in order to realize their full potential. It is symbolic because public education is under assault by influential groups that view teachers as business capital while we view teachers and teaching as a long-term investment — something sacred that deserves nourishment. We are optimistic that our collaboratively designed teacher evaluation tool will accomplish this important task.

Eric Prater is superintendent of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.

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