Ben Kafoglis: Improving Teacher Quality

Any consideration of the success of education inevitably turns to the success of teachers. It is a teacher’s job to educate, therefore a failure in an education can supposedly be linked directly to educator failure, and any process to improve education must be grounded in the improvement of teachers. While low teacher quality is most certainly not the sole culprit in a failing system, improving teacher’s abilities to connect with and help their students will improve problems in education at every level. Problems like dropout rates and large achievement gaps aren’t necessarily the product of low teacher quality, and it’s unrealistic to think improving teachers will fix them completely, but higher teacher ability will help even if on a marginal level.

Much of the effort to improve teacher quality can be done without large changes to pedagogy, but instead significant reforms with teacher contracts. There are clear steps we can make in how we hire and treat teachers—as well as expectations of them—that can improve the abilities and performance of all our educators.

An unavoidable truth is that teacher tenure must be altered if we are to increase the overall quality of teachers. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to generate a system of high quality teachers if we cannot displace failing teachers. A failing teacher who cannot be improved only exacerbates problems, and departments of education need to be able to remove these problems.

However, this must be the last in a series of other steps to help teachers inprove. First, an environment that fosters an ability to teach is absolutely necessary in every school. A teacher cannot be blamed for poor performance of their students if they have 40 students in their class, lack proper supplies, or suffer from harassment by coworkers, administrators, or the students themselves. Many of these rights are already included in union contracts and must be kept.

Additionally, it’s far more effective to improve a current teacher than to hire new in the hopes of higher quality. Teacher education programs come far from fully preparing teachers for the job, and experience can be just as if not more valuable than any previous training. Increases in professional development as well as peer tutor programs are ways to continue training on the job, and continuously improve.

Ultimately though, if a teacher is continuously underperforming, they should be let go. While this is something many unions have fought against, it’s not unheard of for quality-based dismissals to be included in teacher contracts. New Haven teachers recently—and overwhelmingly—voted for a new contract where teachers would be evaluated and possibly dismissed if found to be underperforming, a highly uncommon feature for a union contract. What was the key to this willing loss of teacher rights and job security? Increased teacher salaries. New Haven teachers were more than willing to accept higher job standards in exchange for increased pay.

If we are to truly invest in creating a high-quality teacher workforce, we must be paying them more. The simplest reason could be that teachers will not be willing to give up their job security without a return of higher pay, so without a plan for higher educator salaries, it’s difficult to change teacher tenure. The larger point though is that larger salaries won’t just allow policies to be implemented to improve teacher ability, they themselves will directly contribute to better teachers. Higher salaries attract wider pools of qualified candidates, so we can be more selective in our hiring. Teachers will more and more come from top colleges, and from the top of their class.

. Additionally, well-paid workers are willing to work to high standards because they are rewarded. High quality teachers deserve to be rewarded for their hard work, as it is with most professions. This should never, of course, take the form of rewarding teachers after they have, say, had students perform well on standardized tests. In this situation there is the immediate problem of teaching to test, but additionally any form of rewarding specific teachers has the result of creating hostility between teachers and ultimately worse performance. Instead, higher salaries themselves encourage hard work, if there is a certain level of accountability.

Methods of accountability are a crucial factor in the success of a system designed to develop and maintain strong teachers; we need precise methods of evaluating them. Teacher evaluations must be fair and accurate, not just for the extreme case of dismissing a teacher, but also to identify areas for improvement. The key steps to helping teachers can only come into play when we have acceptable evaluations.

The recent education reform bill in Connecticut included a design for weighting different factors in teacher evaluations, with almost half being weighted to student performance (half of which could be based off of testing), a similarly large weighted towards supervisor evaluations, and a small portion allocated to student and parent evaluations. Discussing what breakdown works the best isn’t completely in the scope of this paper, but what should happen is a flexible, open system of evaluation. The process itself needs to be evaluated, and it should be easy to tell when there are inconsistencies. A supervisor evaluating a teacher highly whilst their students are failing is a red flag that either the methods for evaluating the students is off or the supervisor is.

Most important in the development of a new contract and system with teachers is to include teachers themselves in the process. It makes zero sense to place the burden of fixing education on the shoulders of teachers, but then not trust their insight when creating policy. Teachers would have to be involved in every step of creating the contract, but more importantly teachers would serve on every panel discussing education in government, and there should but put into place active forums within schools and districts for teachers to voice opinions and offer up new ideas. Education reform is an ongoing effort, so having a high quality teacher workforce that can keep it moving forward is the best option to improve all our schools.

Low quality of teaching was never the sole issue in education reform. Teachers have other factors to battle with lack of resources, impoverished children coming to school hungry and unfocused, children coming to school in kindergarten with already vastly different experiences and abilities, if they had the resources to be in early childhood education or have supportive parents at home. These are all issues that need to be looked at and helped. However, having a teacher force that is strong and constantly growing is the first major step to combat these issues. A great teacher isn’t everything we need, but it’s certainly something.

References:

“Summary of SB 458 – An Act Concerning Educational Reform.” New Haven Federation of Teacher Local 933. AFT Connecticut. Web. 6 Dec 2012. <nhft.ct.aft.org/summary-sb-458-act-concerning-educational-reform>.

“Summary of SB 458 – An Act Concerning Educational Reform.” New Haven Federation of Teacher Local 933. AFT Connecticut. Web. 6 Dec 2012. <nhft.ct.aft.org/summary-sb-458-act-concerning-educational-reform>.

Kafoglis, Chris. Discussion at Wesleyan Univeristy, 10/23/12.

Kristof, Nicholas. “The New Haven Experiment.” New York Times 15 02 2012, Opinion Pages. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.

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