An overdue recognition that teachers must be partners in education reform

This much we know. Never before has there been so much attention focused on teachers and teaching. And, according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher report, teachers’ satisfaction with their profession is down. Way down. These findings are particularly worrying given that there is a need to recruit two million new teachers into the profession over the next 10 years, and attracting talented people to the teaching profession in sufficient numbers has become difficult in California.

Yet, I am more hopeful than ever before about the future of the teaching profession and the direction of education reform. Why such optimism?

I’ve seen a renewed focus on capturing the voices of educators and making sure their experience and expertise helps shape education policy and school improvement. And there is greater acknowledgment that teacher evaluation must be viewed as one facet of comprehensive talent management systems that need to also focus equally on hiring, supporting,  and advancing teachers.

Let me explain.

On Feb. 15, I was encouraged to hear U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invite teachers and principals across the country into a national conversation focused not on one silver bullet solution but on fixing many systemic issues in education. In his remarks about the RESPECT Project (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), Duncan said, “As we fight to strengthen our nation economically, as we fight for greater social justice through strong and genuine educational opportunity, the voice of teachers has never been more important.”

I couldn’t agree more. At New Teacher Center, we have surveyed more than one million educators about their perceptions of teaching and learning conditions in their schools and districts. This is part of our Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative, which captures the voices of educators as a means to provide policymakers at the state, district, and school level with broad and detailed insight into teaching and learning conditions – as well as the data and tools for data-driven decisions on policy and practice. Education leaders in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Metro Nashville, Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Indiana are working with us this spring to launch six Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative surveys to document and analyze the teaching and learning environments in schools, supporting the development of data-driven improvement plans aimed at advancing student learning.

Through this work, we learned that conditions for teaching and learning are key to increasing student achievement and creating a more stable teaching force, but that considerable gaps exist between the perceptions of teachers and administrators regarding whether key teaching conditions, like sufficient planning time and availability of resources, are present. Administrators are likely to view teaching and learning conditions in their schools more positively than the teachers in those same schools. It is critically important for policymakers and education leaders to actively seek teachers’ perspectives, and to initiate conversations that lead to meaningful change.

So I was thrilled when Duncan described a goal to engage directly with teachers and principals all across America to develop pioneering innovations in the way we recruit, select, prepare, credential, support, advance, and compensate teachers and school leaders. “We need mentor teachers, master teachers, and teacher leaders supporting younger colleagues, and driving school decisions around curriculum, scheduling, and staffing,” he said, making it clear that supporting new teachers is a critical piece of the RESPECT Project. I hope that, as we progress into a presidential election and explore reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Congress and the president allocate funding to support this powerful idea.

Just a week after the RESPECT Project launched, Bill Gates had an op-ed in the New York Times that decried publishing teachers’ individual performance assessments and emphasized instead the use of evaluations as a means for teachers to get specific feedback or training to help them improve. He highlighted the need for collaboration and for school leaders and teachers to work together to get better. Two Massachusetts teachers made the same case earlier this year on the Impatient Optimist blog in a post entitled “Teachers Want to Learn, Too: Evaluations We Believe In.”

I was happy to see New Teacher Center’s partnership with Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) to build a comprehensive talent management system (which was recently validated with funding from a federal SEED grant) referenced in this great Gates op-ed that concludes, “Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.”

It is so encouraging to think we may finally have turned a corner and put behind us oversimplistic ideas on how to improve education. So many others are now advocating for what New Teacher Center – and so many teacher leaders across the country — have long held to be true: We must focus on developing effective teachers in addition to recruiting, hiring, and evaluating them.

What makes you optimistic about the future of education?

Ellen Moir is founder and chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization that she created in 1998 to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, especially in underserved areas. Today this organization has a staff of over 150 who work closely with educators and policymakers across the country to ensure that the nation’s low-income, minority, and English language learners – those students most often taught by inexperienced teachers – have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.

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