Talent Matters: Teacher Effectiveness Ignites Exciting Shift in Education

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Teachers have the most significant influence on student learning – especially for minority and low-income students. The evidence here is clear.

And recently a paradigm shift in the way the education industry evaluates teachers has been taking place.

This change aims to measure teachers by the success of their students, rather than predictors of quality such as credentials. Many believe –and hope– this change means teachers will soon be accepted as individual professionals rather than interchangeable pieces in the educational puzzle.

According to a recent study, part of the problem is systemic.

This summer, The New Teacher Project published a study that described the “Widget Effect,” which is the tendency of school districts to treat teachers as interchangeable parts or “widgets.”

The study states that the “Widget Effect” is ingrained in our education system in a fundamental way and determines the composition and quality of the nation’s teacher workforce.

“This decades-old fallacy fosters an environment in which teachers cease to be understood as individual professionals, but rather as interchangeable parts,” the study says. “In its denial of individual strengths and weaknesses, it is deeply disrespectful to teachers; in its indifference to instructional effectiveness, it gambles with the lives of students.”

As sobering as the “Widget Effect” concept is, it serves as a powerful motivator to those in the educational system.

“At the district level, (the study) is a hugely motivating tool because district leaders now see it as a widespread problem across the nation and have the opportunity to lead change,” says Andrew Garland ('06 Bay Area), Project Director Policy & Research, The New Teacher Project and EP Alumnus. “At the state and federal levels, we’re already seeing laws and policies re-written to put tea'cher effectiveness front and center.”

At the heart of the study’s recommendations to reverse this trend is the implementation of evaluation systems that fairly differentiates teachers based on how effective they are at improving student achievement.

A budding movement

Now a hot topic on the education reform scene, the nascent teacher effectiveness movement is being fueled by significant funding. President Obama’s $4.35 billion Race To The Top (RTTT) competition has pegged improving teacher and principal effectiveness as a top factor for RTTT applications. This fall, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced they would invest $290 million on teacher effectiveness as part of a $500 million strategy to study, define and promote effective teaching.
What is most surprising and delightful about this shift in focus is the fact that, for the first time ever, the education industry is attempting to evaluate the output, or results, of a teacher’s work rather than the input.

“This is definitely a move in the right direction,” says Alumnus Matt Lyons ('09 Chicago), Performance Management Consultant, Chicago Public Schools and contributor to recent legislation passed in Illinois to include student outcomes in teacher and principal evaluations. “Research has conclusively shown that inputs are only predictors and not really good ones. I think teaching is the only profession that has yet to use outcome data in an effective way.”

Over the past several years, we’ve seen evaluation of teachers move away from the age-old step-and-ladder approach, based largely on degree and years served, to a focus on highly qualified teachers under No Child Left Behind.

Teacher effectiveness seemed to evolve from teacher quality concepts and squarely positions school and school system leaders to evaluate the outputs, or results, of teachers.

“This shift in thinking about teacher effectiveness seemed like the natural next step,” says Alumna Sheri Frost Leo ('05 Boston), the Teacher Evaluation Project Manager for Chicago Public Schools. “Secretary of Education and my former boss at Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, saw the value of No Child Left Behind as well as the gaps. He knew what it looked like on the ground and was well positioned to build momentum and make necessary changes.”

The catalysts for change

Some theorize that the shift is, to some degree, the result of “outside agitators,” such as charter schools and Teach For America, on the field of education.

“Part of the impetus for change has been groups like Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools and other nonprofit talent groups,” says Leo, also a TFA alumna. “Years ago, TFA was talking nationally about making a year and a half to two years of gains in student growth in districts where conversations about student growth were not yet happening.”

The shift is also clearly a factor of the willingness of those inside the system to reflect deeply on what is not working and have the courage and persistence to make changes.

At Education Pioneers, we call that the power of multiple perspectives.

“We see the effect of multiple perspectives in our Fellowship Program that brings together graduate students from business, law, education, policy, and other disciplines,” says Scott Morgan, Founder and CEO of Education Pioneers. “When we convene talented leaders from different fields and coach them on learning from different perspectives, the productive thinking and innovative problem solving that result from those conversations is astounding.”

Twenty years from now, if education does in fact change as a result of current work, we’ll know more about the factors that contributed to this shift and we may look back at this period of time in education reform as nothing short of revolutionary.

From thinking to doing

But whether history pegs these years as a time of revolution or not, it won’t take away from the push legislators and proponents of teacher effectiveness are making.

In the case of recent legislation passed in Illinois, the impact of new laws will go into effect with or without an RTTT award – albeit more slowly.

“Everything has changed in the past month,” says Leo. “The new legislation on teacher evaluation gives Illinois the opportunity to redesign teacher evaluation from the bottom up and end up with a comprehensive, nuanced system that provides a more complete picture of what it means to be effective. We’ve never been this far before.”

And as theory and speculation on teacher effectiveness gives way to a realistic system of evaluation, those with a financial means to make it happen will be measuring results.

Gates carved out a $45 million study to evaluate and communicate the strengths of various measures of teacher effectiveness. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, the source for RTTT, “are subject to additional and more rigorous reporting requirements than normally apply to grant recipients,” according to information on the U.S. Department of Education website.

“Within the year, we will see many districts overhauling their evaluation systems to differentiate teachers based on their impact on student learning,” predicts Garland. “Many districts are already doing it. Changing the status quo – by actually making high-stakes decisions based on those evaluations – will probably take a bit longer, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Focus on human capital in education

The new dialogue around teacher effectiveness represents a shift in thinking about the talent and human capital needs for the largest workforce in education.

An outcome-based, results-focused approach to teaching will provide districts and states the information they need to design a human capital system that can recruit, retain and develop the best and brightest teachers to the field.

“What I hope, if all goes well, is that we start treating teachers as individuals the way we talk about treating students as individuals,” says Leo. “We will be able to differentiate supports and consequences for teachers based on how they are performing in the classroom and provide real opportunities for teachers who are good at their craft.”

While the teacher effectiveness shift will take many years to fully get off the ground, the education industry is finally empowered to tackle the most important factor that influences student progress rather than tinkering around the edges.

“A 1997 Dallas study found a 50 percentile point difference in math achievement (27% compared to 77%) between similar groups of students taught three years in a row by effective versus ineffective teachers,” says Garland. “50 points is a life-altering difference for most students – could be the difference between going to college and dropping out. If we can pull this off, think of all the brilliant students who can now go to college who were previously denied that opportunity. All the brainpower this country was ignoring up until now has a shot.”
This solution appears to be one that will truly benefit the kids.

And that’s what this work is all about!

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