Education Opinion

What Defines Teacher Competency?

By Michelle Rhee — April 28, 2014 4 min read
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Last week, Michelle and Jack kicked off their blog by discussing standardized testing. This week they continue their conversation with a discussion of teacher retention and development.

Rhee: Last week I think we got a good conversation rolling when we discussed the use and value of standardized tests. In that conversation we talked about the role of those tests in evaluating teachers. And I’d like to pick up on that thread and talk about how we develop and retain great teachers.

Schneider: The main question I have for you, Michelle, is about what you mean when you talk about teacher development. What are the things you think teachers need to be good at? How do you envision policy helping improve teacher performance? And what kinds of policies do you think will keep good teachers in the classroom?

Rhee: There are many things that teachers need to be good at. They range from things like communicating clearly with students, to being able to plan lessons that are developmentally appropriate, to differentiating instruction for the needs of different types of learners.

The most important thing, however, is that districts lay out exactly what those expectations are. Teachers want to know very clearly what administrators are looking for and they want those things to be aligned with what they know good teaching practices look like and what will ensure their students are learning.

Development for existing teachers, not new ones, should be targeted toward the specific needs of those educators. The top down, one-size-fits-all professional development that is usually implemented doesn’t do much for teachers.

Schneider: I think most people would agree with the competencies you listed. I certainly do. But I’m wondering if you think that anything not directly related to student achievement should also be articulated as a value—competencies like collegiality, caring, creativity, etc. Because you’re right, districts should be laying out expectations for teachers. But if those expectations are narrow, teachers will respond to sanctions and incentives, and they will engage in a narrower sort of work.

My fear is that this will further de-professionalize teaching and, consequently, drive out great educators.

Rhee: I have no problem with those competencies being taken into account in a teacher’s evaluation. When we developed DC IMPACT in Washington, DC public schools, we called those competencies “Contributions to School Community.” But we also have to be able to clearly spell out how we are observing and measuring teachers. How do we measure caring? For example, some of the best teachers I’ve seen are not particularly touchy-feely people; they are the ones kids say are “hard” on them. The students know they care because they have very high expectations of them. So I think we can include and grow those kinds of skills we just need to acknowledge that they might be observed in really different ways.

Schneider: But there currently isn’t much acknowledgment of how different great teaching looks across different classrooms.

Rhee: That’s completely right. I’ve seen great teachers who are very high energy and bouncing around the room but some are very low key, and not excitable at all. Both types of teachers can be incredibly effective with kids.

Schneider: And yet I hear very little from policy leaders about the need to recognize how diverse great teaching can look.

Don’t we have to stop infantilizing teachers by trying to script what they’re doing in the classroom? Education, after all, is in many ways more complex than more prestigious lines of work like medicine or the law. Those professions have relatively singular aims, whereas the aims of education are many. And professionals in those fields work with one client at a time, whereas in education teachers really never see fewer than 20 at once.

Being a teacher calls for an ability to think on one’s feet, to be creative, to respond to different kinds of situations and different kinds of students, to make professional judgments. I want to know how we’re building capacity towards that aim. Because what I see, instead, are a lot of policies designed to produce generic and, in my opinion, pretty simplistic outcomes.

Rhee: I think that teachers who are known to be effective should have a lot of latitude in how they teach and should be given room to be innovative and creative. However, if teachers are not effective, I don’t think that we can leave them to try to come up with their own solutions for how they get better. I think those teachers need more guidance and help. That assistance should be tailored toward their specific needs.

Schneider: But that’s the whole problem, right there. You say that if teacher freedom and autonomy are contingent upon effectiveness. But how is effectiveness being determined?

Because if it’s being determined narrowly, or in error—or some combination of the two—you’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those educators who lack the freedom and autonomy to do their jobs will become worse teachers as a result. They’ll be teaching with their hands tied. And they’ll be teaching resentfully, wondering what happened to the profession they once loved.

Rhee: Again, I think that we can define effectiveness more broadly as long as we can be specific about what we’re expecting to see and how we know if we’re seeing it. For struggling teachers, I don’t think their problem is about not having enough freedom and autonomy.

Schneider: I don’t think that real classroom ineffectiveness is the product of inhibited autonomy. I do believe that there are weak teachers out there; and teachers believe that, too.

Instead, my point is that if we define teacher competencies narrowly—and it seems to me like you’re agreeing with me that this is a problem—we will curtail the abilities of talented educators to do their jobs. And we will make the profession less attractive to them, as well as to those currently contemplating careers in the classroom.

To be continued...

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