Teachers

In just twenty-five short years—it’s scarcely older than most of its current recruits—Teach For America has gone from a grassroots edu-insurgency to the largest teacher pipeline in the country and a dominant voice in reform debates. How’d they do it? In this new white paper, Bellwether analysts Sara Mead, Carolyn Chuong, and Caroline Goodson use internal TFA documents and interviews with key past and present staff members to tease out how the organization was able to maintain high quality while scaling up for the last fifteen years. Turns out it’s not rocket science, just hard work. TFA relied on regular measurement of applicants, corps members, and students. They’ve been equally diligent in expansion planning, taking care to evaluate each new region’s need for teachers, potential funding base, and local politics—as well as TFA’s ability to attract talent to live and teach in a given area. Rigorous quality-control mechanisms during new-site development and deepening ties in the places they already serve have fueled an expansion from 1260 corps members in fifteen regions in 2000 to 10,500 in fifty regions in 2013. And much of this has been successful due to TFA’s operational agnosticism (there’s not a lot of, “We do it...

Editor's note: These remarks were delivered as an introduction to Doug Lemov's February 10 panel discussion at the Fordham Institute.

It is a genuine honor and pleasure to be here with you today and to have the opportunity to introduce Doug Lemov. Doug is a man whose humility knows no bounds—indeed, he attributes his own success with Teach Like a Champion to his own limitations as a teacher. I’ve heard him more than once explain—earnestly and sincerely—that the reason he started filming and analyzing videos of great teachers in action was because he was such an “average” teacher, and he wanted to learn the magic of the champion teachers around him.

And that humility courses through all of his work, including his writing.

Yet his achievements are remarkable. He and his colleagues at Uncommon Schools consistently achieve at the highest levels on state tests. And Doug’s work identifying what “champion” teachers do that drives their results has been nothing short of transformational.

You might even say the work Doug and his team does is magic.

And so I thought it was fitting, before we launched into the weeds of how to improve teacher practice—a subject that is near and dear to my heart—to talk about...

The biography of teacher evaluation’s time in federal policy might be titled Portentous, Polarizing, and Passing. It had gigantic ripple effects in the states—man, did it cause fights—and, with its all-but-certain termination via ESEA reauthorization, it stayed with us ever so briefly.

Some advocates are demoralized, worried that progress will at best stall and at worst be rolled back. Though I’m a little down that we’re unlikely to see many more states reform educator evaluation systems in the years ahead, I think the feds’ exit makes sense.

This has nothing to do with my general antipathy for this administration or my belief that its Department of Education deserves to have its meddling hands rapped. And while I think Tenth Amendment challenges are justified, I have a different primary motivation.

In short, I think the work of teaching is so extraordinarily complex and teachers are so tightly woven into the fabric of school communities that any attempt by faraway federal officials to tinker with evaluation systems is a fool’s errand. I think we may eventually come to view the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-flexibility requirements related to assessing teachers as the apotheosis of federal K–12 technocracy.

If you’ve never dug into the details of...

Student learning gains ought to be a component of teacher evaluations. Measures such as value added are a useful and important complement to classroom observations. But not all models are created equal, as illustrated by a new lawsuit in Tennessee that reveals a rather preposterous policy.

Last week, the Volunteer State’s largest teacher union sued the state in federal court over a law that ties student test scores to evaluations of educators who teach such non-core subjects as art, French, and gym. Teachers in Tennessee receive annual scores between one and five, with five being best. Those scores determine all manner of high-stakes administrative decisions affecting teachers, including bonuses, termination, and tenure. Approximately half of the metric is based on classroom observations, the rest on student test scores. For a teacher in a core subject such as math, and in a grade in which students are tested, this model makes sense. The bulk of the test-based portion of her rating is based on how well her students do on the math portions of the state’s standardized tests. That’s rational. A smaller portion, 15 percent, is based on “school-wide” performance—how well all the schools’ students do in all subjects tested....

Like Moses in the wilderness, state policymakers have to cope with incessant grumbling—in their case over standardized testing. Last year, Ohio legislators compromised on testing and accountability, including delaying the implementation of Ohio’s new school report cards, waiving the consequences for poor performance in the 2014–15 school year, ditching the Algebra II end-of-course exam, and tweaking the teacher evaluation system by allowing schools to reduce the weight of the test-based accountability measure.

As the new General Assembly gears up in 2015, lawmakers will face even greater pressure to water down testing and accountability. Already, two high-priority bills have been introduced with provisions that, if passed, would further weaken Ohio’s new testing and accountability framework. The first provision is a test-time cap; the second is a delay on the stakes associated with Ohio’s new high school tests. Both provisions, while politically popular and seemingly insignificant, are flawed and should be rejected.

Test-time caps

Senate Bill 3 is designed to identify areas ripe for deregulation in education—a needed and overdue endeavor. Some of the recommendations in the bill are sound, like eliminating the needless third-grade test given in the fall. But one recommendation is a hard cap...

Chances are, you’ve heard something in the past year about test mania. Everyone from superintendents to parents to retired educators has an opinion; even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested tests and test prep are dominating schools. Given all this attention, one might assume that students spend hundreds of hours each year taking tests—perhaps even more time than they spend actually learning. A recent report from Ohio Schools’ Superintendent Richard Ross paints a very different picture.

The report, required by state law, reveals that Ohio students spend, on average, almost twenty hours taking standardized tests during the school year. (This doesn’t include teacher-designed tests, but does include state tests.) Twenty hours is a good chunk of time, but when one considers that the school year in Ohio is about 1,080 hours total (it varies by district and grade level), that means testing only takes up about 2 percent of the year. (Report results show that students spend approximately fifteen additional hours practicing for tests, but this additional time only raises the total percentage to 3 percent).

Regardless of this small percentage, critics of standardized testing make some valid points. No one wants quality, in-depth learning...

Last week, Mike Petrilli issued a “stump speech challenge” asking his fellow education wonks to come up with talking points that members of Congress might use to bolster the case for annual testing.

Be careful what you wish for, Mike. Challenge accepted. Here’s my bid:

When you and I think back on our school days, we remember football games and school dances, the high school musical, and—if we’re lucky—that unforgettable teacher who put just the right book in our hands at just the right time. One who inspired us or opened our eyes to our own potential—and what was waiting for us in the world right outside the classroom window.

What will our children remember when they think back on their school days? I fear too many will just remember taking tests.  

And that’s not right.

At the same time, I hear an awful lot of cynicism about the efforts we’ve been making in the last few years to make our schools better. Some people say that all this testing is just a big game to label our schools a failure, privatize education, demonize teachers, and line the pockets of testing companies and textbook publishers. 

And that’s not...

Though hardly the only issue to be debated during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act, annual testing has taken center stage in discussions so far. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP committee, put forth a bill that leaves open the possibility of removing the federal requirement that states test students annually in reading and math from grades three through eight—a possibility that has thoroughly freaked out much of the education-reform community.

But as Alexander has explained, he is merely trying to respond to what he and every other member of Congress are hearing from their constituents: There’s too much damn testing in the schools.

But is that true? And if so, is it because of the federal requirements?

A new report from the Ohio Department of Education provides some timely answers, at least for one state. (A bellwether state, mind you.) State Superintendent Dick Ross charged his department with collecting information about the number of hours Buckeye State students spend preparing for and taking tests (not including tests developed by their own teachers). The findings are illuminating (most of this language is verbatim):

  • The average student spends approximately
  • ...

Over the course of 2014, a series of reports from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) spotlighted some serious issues with education schools in Ohio. The Buckeye State boasts performance reports that analyze teacher preparation programs, but these reports merely show how little is expected of candidates prior to their acceptance into a teacher preparation program. Furthermore, Ohio doesn’t have minimum standards or clear consequences for poor programs. NCTQ is right that our teacher preparation programs need to get better in two key ways: improving candidate selection and strengthening teacher training. Here’s how.

Candidate selection

Right now, Ohio sets a low bar for admission into ed schools. Countries with the highest scores on PISA[1]—like Singapore and Finland—restrict admissions into teacher preparation programs to only their best students. In fact, in Finland, becoming a teacher is such a competitive process that only about one in every ten applicants will be accepted to study to become a primary school teacher. This is similar to what Teach For America does: In 2014, more than 50,000 people applied to join TFA, and only 5,300 were admitted—an 11 percent acceptance rate.

The intense screening...

James R. Delisle took aim at differentiated instruction (DI) in his commentary in the latest issue of Education Week, noting the challenge of making this nice-sounding idea work with the reality of many of today’s classrooms.

As our own Mike Petrilli wrote in 2011: “[T]he enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom” is the greatest challenge facing America’s schools. The implication is that those teachers seeing success with differentiated instruction—however few they may be—simply have less variation in learning levels among their students and, therefore, have less differentiation to do. (Oh, and that they have the right training, full understanding, endless diligence, and loads of time.)

So what’s the answer? Delisle wants to bring back ability grouping to fully replace DI. It is hard to deny  that America’s classrooms have changed greatly over the last few decades, so perhaps it’s time to toss out “one or the other” thinking and go for something new—a hybrid of sorts.

How about curriculum-based mastery instead? A content sequence with multiple check points along the way (yes, that’s testing). Master it, move on. Don’t master it, remediate until you do. In such a case,...

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