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Education Opinion

A Tale of Haves and Have Nots

By Celine Coggins — November 04, 2011 3 min read
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Note: Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, is guest blogging this week.

At Teach Plus, we run a selective eighteen-month training for experienced urban teachers called the Teaching Policy Fellows program. It is designed to break down barriers between teachers and the policy leaders who make decisions about their classrooms. The program is one part graduate-level course in the teacher quality research, one part speaker series where teachers meet with top education leaders in a small group, and one part action center with teachers advocating for ideas they believe will help their students. In short, our role in the Fellows program is to broker between the world of policy and the world of practice.

In my role as a broker between these two worlds, I often see how things get lost in translation. There is one example that I’d like to point out because it is central to the conversation on teacher effectiveness that is raging today.

As the body of research demonstrating that differences in the effectiveness of teachers impact student learning has grown, policy makers at all levels of government have responded. Over the past couple of years, spurred in part by Race to the Top, firewalls between student growth data and teacher accountability have been dismantled.

The dominant narrative about teachers’ response to all of these changes has been predictably negative. Both in traditional media and the blogosphere, teachers representing “the other side” of a divisive story have been well-represented. In our sound bite driven culture, there seems room only for teachers to say “no,” “hate tests,” and “accountability unfair.” I’m sure this narrative is accurate for a large swath of teachers, but I have heard something very different in conversations with teachers time and again.*

Here is the dialogue I have witnessed in several different cities before the start of a Fellows session. It typically occurs in late spring:

Teacher 1: I’m so pumped! My students had their final round of testing today and got back their scores online immediately. They cried; I cried. Some made as much as three years’ growth this year in reading. They worked so hard toward a clear set of goals and I’m so proud of them. They’ve learned to love reading and they have the confidence that they are good at it.

Teacher 2: I just had that same experience. It was the highlight of my year.

Teachers 3-25 in a frustrated chorus: Are you kidding?! I would kill for access to that kind of information. My experience with testing could not be more different. I’m administering the state test to my students next week. It has nothing to do with the curriculum I teach. It doesn’t help me learn anything about how my students are growing that could help me change how I teach. In fact, by the time these scores come back in the fall, I’ll have a different group of kids.

Yes, the majority of teachers in the room would resist being evaluated based on their current state test.

But, I’d argue that there is a common denominator across all of the teachers in the room that is far more important for policymakers to understand. Teachers want to know their impact on student learning. They want to see data, aligned to their curriculum, about the progress their students are making. They want good information that leads to opportunities to improve their practice. In broader polling we’ve done in three cities, 84% of teachers, on average, agree with the statement, “Growth in student learning should be a part of a teacher’s evaluation.” While they may hate their current state test, they are hungry for access to something better. And they have good ideas for what it should look like.

This is the critical message that is being missed. It matters because while new assessments will be rolled out in the coming years, in many states they will come after the roll out of new evaluation systems with new consequences for teachers. There is a high-risk in this sequencing. Teachers who might be enthusiastic about an overhauled student assessment and teacher evaluation system that gives them what they need to improve their work with students risk being alienated before that system is in place.

I share many reformers’ concerns that we must act with a sense of urgency to help teachers improve their work with students. Yet, I hope we proceed in a way that makes such improvement possible.

*As I pointed out earlier this week on the blog, we do not aim for a representative sample of teachers. We instead seek teachers in the second stage of their careers who can show some evidence that they are helping students learn at high levels.

--Celine Coggins

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.