Both pieces raise important issues related to the role of teacher education as well as student test scores in developing and identifying effective teachers. But in addressing those issues, the journalist-authors actually embellish current myths rather than dispel them — and may send us down the wrong policy road.
Myth: Teacher tenure rules make it impossible to get rid of poor teachers.
Fact: A recent study by the New Teacher Project clearly shows that the difficulty in removing ineffective teachers has much more to do with poorly trained administrators who have few skills and inadequate tools to distinguish between excellent, average, and poor teaching. Another report, from the Center for American Progress also concluded that poor evaluation procedures, not tenure, are most likely to account for a school district’s inability to fire poor performers.
Myth: Teach for America, a rapid-entry alternative certification program designed to recruit bright young people into teaching, produces more effective teachers than traditional university-based programs.
Fact: Nationally, the Teach for America program produced about 4000 new teachers this school year, a very small contribution given that U.S. public schools need to hire about 250,000 new teachers annually. Studies show that TFA recruits tend to produce student achievement gains only slightly better than comparison teachers — and only in math, not in reading. Most importantly, the comparison groups in these studies tend to be teachers in the same or similar schools who have even less formal pedagogical preparation than TFA recruits. Why? Because the high needs schools in which TFA’ers teach often have to rely on substitutes and other poorly qualified individuals. Studies also show that more than 80 percent of Teach for America recruits, much like other recruits who enter with little formal training, leave the classroom by their third year of teaching, becoming part of the revolving door of novices who pass quickly through high-needs classrooms. This does not mean that tradtional teacher education has it right. It doesn’t. But less is not more in preparing teachers for high needs schools.
Myth: Standardized tests now in place are always the most accurate means of assessing student progress and teacher effectiveness. Scores from these tests should be the primary metric for evaluating teachers and increasing accountability.
Fact: Today’s “value-added” systems for measuring teacher effects can provide useful information, but the data are not always reliable for making high-stakes decisions. Assessments based solely on scores from tests currently in use are not designed to help teachers become more effective. Also, recent studies show that most value-added student academic gains are attributed to teacher teams, not individuals. Drawing on very sophisticated analyses, these studies reveal that the most powerful predictor of student achievement over time seems to be whether small groups of teachers are learning from each other as they teach. This suggests that policymakers should not just focus on replacing the “bottom 6-10%” of ineffective teachers, but devise strategies so that “teachers raise their games when the quality of their colleagues improves.”
Policymakers and practitioners do need to think much differently about assessing teachers and transforming teacher education. But that new thinking will not be productive if we cling to the educational equivalent of urban legends about what makes for effective teachers and successful students.