One of my resolutions for this new year is to think outside of silos and to start connecting the dots between the wide, disparate, and interwoven factors within education, among them teacher accountability, teacher preparation and teacher support. Even after 10 years in the classroom, I’m frequently accused of being anti-teacher. I’m not surprised, though. When you write about the need for teacher accountability, people tend to retreat to their bastions of pre-formulated opinion. Despite this, my beliefs haven’t changed. I believe that teachers who are effective ought to be rewarded and that teachers who are not ought to be supported, coached and, if need be, removed. Accountability is non-negotiable. We need to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness if we truly say we prioritize student achievement. But I should be clear, I also believe accountability needs to work in tandem with other practices that ensure teachers are empowered with the training and feedback they need to succeed. Specifically, I think the keys to implementing meaningful accountability for teachers depends on strong teacher prep programs, value-added student growth metrics, and video-based coaching that can help all teachers develop, hone their craft and become master educators.
Strong Prep Is KeyI’ll just come out and say it: A lot of our teacher prep just stinks. A perfect case study for the failure of these programs can be found in a recent startling report from American Public Media’s Emily Hanford: Most teachers have not been taught how children learn to read. One teacher spoke a truth that likely resonates with teachers all across the country. “I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career.” How can we hold teachers accountable for student learning when their preparation doesn’t include something as basic as reading instruction? Of course, teachers still need a strong foundation in the theoretical aspects of education—Piaget, Bloom, Skinner, Vygotsky and Montessori. But the practical aspects are just as important—those everyday teacher moves that too many teachers have to learn on the fly. How to stand and deliver instructions, how to set and reinforce expectations, how to use public and individual redirections, how to circulate the classroom and collect data, how to introduce new material and make lessons stick. Bottom line: It all starts with good teacher prep.
Value-Added Is Your FriendI know that test scores can be the third rail in talking about teacher evaluation. But here’s my take. Test scores are an essential measure of student learning, but they are only useful in gauging teaching effectiveness when viewed through the lens of student growth. That means using value-added metrics, not simply proficiency rates. At its most basic level, it means that rather than holding teachers accountable for all students earning at least a 75 percent on a standardized test for example, we hold teachers accountable for students showing significant growth on these assessments. Moving that 35 percent to 50 percent, or that 55 percent to 75 percent—or even that 75 percent up to an 85 percent. The emphasis must be on student growth, not passing a test. After all, teachers often are charged with educating students who arrive in their classrooms significantly below grade level. Indeed, I started every year in my Philadelphia classroom responsible for entire classrooms of students reading significantly below grade level. It is not fair, one could even say nearly impossible, for a teacher to raise an entire classroom of 30 students, more than half of whom are below grade level, up past proficient on a standardized assessment. But by analyzing these assessments with a value-added paradigm, we were able to zero in on individualized student growth. For me, that meant test scores weren’t the bogeyman. They were honest measures of where my students were and also a reflection of all the work I was doing to help them down the path to proficiency.
Video Doesn’t LieWhen I was teaching, one of my coaches insisted I film my lesson so we could reflect on it together. I was resistant. Actually, I was defiant. There is nothing more unsettling than teaching with a camera in the background. Why? Because video doesn’t lie. I was going to have to see the truth of my teaching practice, whether I liked it or not. As it turns out, I was not alone. In a recent piece in Edsurge, teachers recounted their experiences filming themselves while teaching. One teacher reflected that “the recordings provided an objective and accurate peek into [her] classroom’s goings on. It can be easy to dismiss the results of live observations as a reflection of the observer’s bias. It’s harder to dismiss them when video evidence is staring you in the face.” Much like how value-added framing can de-claw the impact of using test scores to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness, filming lessons can help insert objectivity and trust into the class observation process. Both teachers and principals can feel empowered and comforted by the fact that filming the lesson helps take away the possibility of subjective disagreements about what went down in an observed lesson. In addition, my coach filmed our observation debriefings. This was huge because it made accountability a two-way street. Not only was I accountable to my teaching practice, my coach was accountable for providing clear and practical feedback that would take my teaching to the next level. Our work felt less evaluative and more collaborative. I became a better teacher, and my coach become a better guide.
Putting It All TogetherAll of these pieces are needed. I had to be held accountable for my student learning. I, after all, was given the charge of educating other people’s children and there is nothing holier and more sacred than that. But holding teachers accountable without adequate teacher prep programs is a set up. Accountability aligned solely alongside proficiency-based assessments is a set up. Accountability without filmed observations and coaching debriefings is a set up. We need to connect the dots in our educational discourse, get out of our limited entrenchments, and do what’s best for kids.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...