What is an “Excellent” Teacher, Anyway?

On November 10, 2014, the U.S. Education Department sent a letter to all Chief State School Officers setting a deadline for them to submit plans to place excellent teachers in schools serving poor and minority students. This type of plan was actually required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, although, according to the Washington Post, most states have not bothered to submit their plans since 2006. The biggest problem with this letter – and in fact, with this part of the law – is that we do not have any good way to identify an “excellent” teacher. In fact, each state is supposed to identify “excellent” teachers using its own criteria and measures.

How do we determine a teacher’s level of accomplishment? Should we look at her students’ standardized test scores? A significant problem with that measure is that we don’t give pretests at the beginning of each school year. We know that all students lose ground over the summer, so we can’t simply look at the end-of-year scores from the previous year. And we shouldn’t examine the year-end scores in isolation; after all, what if a student started out well above grade level, or way below grade level? Clearly test scores cannot help us.

How about grades? Can we evaluate a teacher based on the grades earned by the students in his class? If we can remove all subjectivity from grading, then that might work. But that would mean that all assessments given in every subject would need to be the same from teacher to teacher, class to class, school to school, state to state. Grading essays and written work would be almost impossible, because that is an inherently subjective task on the part of the grader. We certainly don’t want to eliminate essays, since most colleges and employers say that good writing skills are critical for lifetime success. And what about creative assignments, such as presentations made in PowerPoint, videos, or display boards? No, obviously grades can’t help us identify an excellent teacher, either.

Think about the best teacher you ever had, someone who impacted your life in a positive way. Chances are, the lessons you learned from that teacher went far beyond the curriculum, probably even beyond the classroom. Maybe that teacher encouraged your inquisitiveness or your creativity. Perhaps he inspired you to work a little harder or to believe in yourself. She might have been the first adult to recognize a particular talent you didn’t even know you had. Because these are the things that excellent teachers do. They bring their love of their subjects, their love of learning, and their love of students into the classroom every day, and they impart that love to others. They welcome feedback from their students and their colleagues and they are continuously looking for ways to be even better at their jobs.

Can that excellence be measured? Perhaps it can, using a variety of methods. We could survey students, parents, and administrators about teacher performance at the end of each school year, using well-crafted questions that ask about the art of teaching. We could have a peer review program, encouraging teachers to work with and provide feedback to and for each other. We could ask teachers to maintain a portfolio of the work they are most proud of, showing their professional development and growth. We could administer pre- and post-tests at the beginning and end of each school year (although I am loathe to suggest that we devote any more class time to standardized assessments). Perhaps most importantly, though, we could change our teacher preparation programs to ensure that the people entering the teaching profession really are the best people to help our students be successful.

Teacher training programs vary widely from state to state and from college to college. Requirements for entrance and for graduation fluctuate. Some teachers enter the classroom with only a few weeks of training: Teach For America, a national program that places college graduates from more than 850 colleges in teaching positions in primarily urban and rural schools, provides approximately six weeks of training for their recruits. Some school districts have successful mentoring programs for new teachers, while others don’t. In March 2014, New America released an education policy brief outlining the problems with current teacher education programs and the ways that the federal government could promote better-prepared teachers. Suggestions include data collection and quality analysis of existing teacher education programs nationwide, among other things.

Finally, if we really want to attract quality teachers, we need to pay them a competitive wage and treat them like professionals. The best and brightest students will never choose teaching over software engineering, business, law or medicine if they cannot earn enough money to feed and house their families. Regardless of how committed he is to children or to her subject, no one wants to enter a profession in which he will be looked down upon. Let’s figure out a way to make sure that EVERY teacher is an “excellent” teacher.

This post was originally published at GoLocalProv.

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