In her widely read Washington Post article of August 9, fourth-year teacher Sarah Fine makes a compelling case for researchers and reformers to include working conditions in estimating the effects of teachers on student achievement.
As Sarah relates in an essay titled "Schools Need Teachers Like Me; I Just Can't Stay," she recently resigned from her teaching post at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington DC — citing burnout as the primary factor. Why? She paints a poignant portrait of administrators “steadily expand(ing) the workload and workday” while “more and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported.”
Teaching in a high-needs school is often a frenetic experience. Many teachers need to put in well over 60 hours a week to manage multiple interventions, meet the social and emotional needs of their students, mediate conflicts when out-of-school turmoil spills over into the classroom, cope with the complexity of teaching highly mobile students, and deal with the constant pressure to prepare for high-stakes tests.
In the large-scale reform experiments of the past decade, the potential power of policies that promote effective teaching as a major driver of school improvement has been mostly ignored. The focus instead has been on marginalizing teachers and/or “teacher-proofing” curriculum and instruction — rather than recognizing that teachers, with the right policy supports, are the ideal agents of meaningful and sustainable change.
At the federal level, teacher policy is now shifting rapidly toward well-funded initiatives that will link student achievement test scores to teachers in an effort to determine who is effective or not. Investing in research and pilot projects so that we can do a better job of identifying effective teachers makes sense — using rigorous measures and tools that keep a tight focus on the critical dimensions of student learning.
But judging teacher performance without paying attention to the conditions under which qualified teachers can teach effectively will not give America the answers we need to create a New Millennium teaching force that will move all children ahead.