Teachers

  • Defined benefit pension packages: Love ‘em if they’re sending you a check each month, hate ‘em if you have to think too hard about their consequences. That’s probably the reason we just don’t give them much consideration (well, part of the reason; they’re also slightly less gripping than you may have been led to believe). Good thing the National Council on Teacher Quality put together an informative, concise fact sheet on the realities of our teacher retirement processes. The short version isn’t pretty—backloaded plans with lengthy vesting periods typically penalize teachers who leave the profession early, enter it late, or move to a different state mid-profession. Their escalating costs are also threatening to overwhelm cash-strapped districts. Painful though it may be, we may have to start dedicating more thought to the subject.
  • The Foundation for Excellence in Education has released a fantastic tool that accomplishes two purposes: explaining what we actually mean when we talk about student “proficiency” and clarifying which jurisdictions actually measure anything close to it. Users can see how students are performing in their states, and whether those states’ reporting practices give a picture that resembles reality—or just an illusion.
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In the last four years, thirty states have transformed their teacher evaluation systems to improve student outcomes—and fourteen more are expected to follow suit by 2017. Too often, however, states focus more on the design of the systems than on how schools will and should implement them. This report from Education First argues that this is a mistake. We ought to also provide teachers the feedback and support they need to succeed. The report identifies five districts (Aldine, Texas; Greene County, Tennessee; Salem-Keizer, Oregon; Fulton County, Georgia; and St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana) that seem to be doing this right—a collection that’s diverse enough in location, racial makeup, and student body size to be applicable to myriad locales across the country.

The authors pinpoint a handful of essential teacher evaluation practices that hold the promise to improve student outcomes. First, schools need to make feedback and support a top priority and treat it as an ongoing process, including regular conversations centered on teachers’ professional development goals. Educators must be an integral part of the process, which creates an environment in which feedback is an expected and positive aspect of the job rather than a punitive one. For example, teachers and evaluators...

Although charter schools were created to be laboratories of innovation, regulations and policies often prevent them from reaching their full potential. Take, for instance, teacher education and certification requirements that can obstruct schools from training educators in the manner that best meets their unique missions, values, and goals. According to a new case study from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a few highly successful charter schools have overcome these obstacles by creating their own teacher certification and master’s degree programs. These schools include High Tech High in San Diego; Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First in New York; and Match Education in Boston.

Each of these schools began their forays into teacher credentialing because they had trouble finding teachers whose “philosophies and methods” aligned with their missions. In addition, they found that many of the teachers they hired lacked the skills to be immediately successful in the classroom. By creating their own teacher training programs, these schools were able to connect formal teacher education with what happens on the ground in actual classrooms. Each program focuses on its parent school’s innovative instructional approach: For High Tech High, it’s project-based learning; for Relay...

Teaching is hard. (Even if I weren’t a former high school teacher I would know that.) And it’s particularly hard when you feel like those who shape education policy are constantly changing the game for reasons that have nothing to do with what’s best for students. For instance, Ohio educators have discussed how Common Core is successful in their classrooms over and over and over and over and over  again. And yet here we are, facing yet another standards repeal bill in the House. Unfortunately, this new bill’s attempt to repeal standards that are working in Ohio classrooms is even more unfair to teachers than previous iterations.

Previous attempts to repeal Common Core have included ridiculous requirements, such as forcing teachers to teach three separate sets of standards in four years. Unsurprisingly, that one failed to gain much traction. Even without mandating three sets of standards, HB 212 found a way to be worse. It requires that the board adopt new standards “not later than June 30, 2015.” Think about the implications: With no date given for when these standards are to go into use other than the June...

I liked Grant Wiggins more than just about anyone with whom I disagreed so much. On several occasions, he’d write something about teaching or curriculum I vehemently disagreed with, or vice versa. A sharply worded blog comment or tweet would follow. Then, invariably, there would be an email. Often lots of them. Nothing remarkable there; arguments begun in one venue often spill over into others. But what I came to value about those exchanges with Wiggins, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last week at age 64, is that they weren’t an attempt to win an argument or a convert. If you disagreed with him—if you looked at the same evidence and came to a different conclusion—he had to know why. 

Wiggins, the author of the influential curriculum planning guide Understanding by Design, held to his beliefs tightly and argued them passionately. He would never have embraced the label of education reformer—far from it—but he resisted the facile view of the education world as an “us versus them” proposition. He was adamant that instructional practices he railed against—dry lectures; activities divorced from big ideas and important skills; dutiful marches through content to be covered—were not a product of “reform,” but...

  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s at it again, stumping in Brooklyn churches on behalf of a tax break aimed at kids attending private schools. The initiative would extend middle class families credits of up to $500 for each child enrolled in private schools, including parochial schools; donors to nonprofits funding scholarships to such institutions would also receive some relief. Unfortunately, it’s a great policy in search of a credible advocate: Cuomo’s recent tumble in the polls has been directly tied to his education policies, especially his insistence on chaining teacher evaluations and tenure even more closely to standardized tests. That’s really not a great idea (though it’s probably not as bad as interfering with your own ethics commission). The proposal now has Cardinal Timothy Dolan praying for it, which should help its prospects. But the governor’s approval ratings could need something even stronger than divine intervention.
  • So do the students of the Normandy Schools Collaborative, a Missouri district that demonstrates perfectly why some parents feel they have to desperately scrimp to help their children escape from public schools. A heartbreaking article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch details one diligent student’s lost year at
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Last week, Fordham hosted Robert Putnam for a discussion of his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which argues that a growing opportunity gap is leaving many American children behind. Watch the replay of the event, or read the transcript of the event below.

Michael Petrilli:              

Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon. My name is Mike Petrilli. I am the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. For those of you that don’t know us, we are an educational policy think tank. We are based here in Washington, D.C. but we also do on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio which also features prominently in Dr. Putnam’s book. You can shout out for Ohio, that’s okay. Yes, and just as long as it’s not Ohio State, that’s another story. But Thomas B. Fordham was an industrialist way back in the day in Dayton, Ohio, so we have a mission to do on-the-ground school reform work in Ohio. We push for educational reform out of Columbus and we are...

Much attention has been paid to why teachers quit. Statistics and studies get thrown around, and there are countless theories to explain the attrition rate. While recent reports indicate that the trend might not be as bad as we’ve thought, teacher attrition isn’t just about whole-population numbers—it’s about retaining the most effective teachers within those numbers. Indeed, a 2012 study from TNTP (formerly known as the New Teacher Project) notes that our failure to improve teacher retention is largely a matter of failing to retain the right teachers. A separate study suggests that retaining the best teachers is all about reducing barriers that make teachers feel powerless and isolated. The 2014 National Teacher of the Year recently pointed out that, among myriad other causes, lacking influence in their own schools and districts (let alone in state policy) is often at the root of teacher attrition.

Keeping high-performers in the classroom has long been a trouble spot for schools. “If you don’t offer leadership opportunities for teachers to excel in their profession, to grow, and still allow them to stay in the classroom,” says Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to Secretary of...

If you’re an aficionado of the Education Gadfly, there’s a fair chance you’ve read or heard me discussing my new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher.  It’s written wholly for educators and fueled by interviews and discussions with hundreds of teacher-leaders. In it, I observe that even terrific teachers routinely say they feel stymied, offer insights on how teachers can create the schools and systems where they can do their best work, and explain where practitioners tend to stumble on this count.

But what about policymakers and reformers? What does The Cage-Busting Teacher mean for them? How can they create the conditions whereby cage-busting teachers can thrive? Let me offer four suggestions.

First, policymakers and reformers need to keep in mind that they’re not the ones who educate kids. Heck, they’re only occasionally in classrooms—and they’re not the ones held accountable for how students are faring. From the teacher’s perspective, they—we—are backseat drivers. Everybody gets frustrated by backseat drivers, even when they have good advice to offer. Passengers can carefully study the GPS or old-fashioned roadmap while the driver focuses on the road. They can see signs that the driver missed, maybe even the truck out front making an unexpectedly fast stop.  But backseat drivers...

After the expectations-busting success of Cage-Busting Leadership two years ago, it’s no surprise that Rick Hess, head of the American Enterprise Institute’s education policy shop, is back with a sequel. The Cage-Busting Teacher has an arguably tougher goal than its predecessor, as there are millions more teachers than district leaders, and thousands more bars in teachers’ cages. Hess’s advice provides a road map for ambitious teachers. But his acknowledgement of critical, systemic issues highlights the fact that teachers can’t—and shouldn’t—have to go at it alone.

The book uses real-life anecdotes, peppered with references to everything from Say Anything to Aaron Sorkin, to illustrate cage busting and urge educators to take an active role in reforming the system to work for them. It’s an eminently readable work with deeply practical advice. Chapters focus on “managing up” with overworked administrators; identifying problems and selling solutions; becoming a savvy networker with district, union, and political leadership; and explaining common trip wires, like budgets and the policy cycle, in plainspoken English. High-placed leaders from TFA to the AFT weigh in on how teachers can develop greater agency and autonomy within the profession. As a former teacher who struggled with finding both during my two...

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