Quality Counts 2008: A Discussion About the Teaching Profession

Margaret J. Gaston and Jason Kamras, both contributors to this year's report, took questions from our readers.
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January 16, 2008

Quality Counts 2008: A Discussion About the Teaching Profession

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s live chat. I’m Janelle Callahan, a research associate in the EPE Research Center, and I’ll be your moderator. Our guests Margaret J. Gaston and Jason Kamras will answer your questions on the teaching profession.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

We have lots of questions already. Let’s begin the discussion.

Question from Kristie Bowman, ELL teacher, TES:

How can I bring out the absolute best in myself so that I can bring out this and so much more out of my students? I have been a teacher for nine years and I feel that there is so much more to learn.

Jason Kamras:

I think you’ve hit on one of the most important keys to being a successful teacher - constant learning. Take some time to reflect on the specific skills you’d like to improve and seek out colleagues who excel in those areas. Ask them if they’d mind being observed, or observing you. I always found that I grew the most as an educator when I had a high-performing colleague constructively critique my practice.

Question from Reed Markham, Associate Professor, Daytona Beach College:

What qualities separate great teachers from those who are mediocre?

Jason Kamras:

Invariably, I find three qualities in the teachers I respect the most. First, they have extraordinarily high expectations for ALL of their students. They believe in the inherent greatness of all children, regardless of background, and work steadfastly to help them realize that greatness. Second, they are constant learners. They are never satisfied with their lessons or classroom systems. They’re always reflecting, seeking out new ideas, and revising. Third, they are undaunted. Teaching is the most challenging work in America. There are so many reasons why educators could throw up their hands and say, “We can’t do it.” But the best teachers refuse to do so. They find ways around the obstacles. They problem-solve. They’re creative. They simply refuse to be overwhelmed by the challenges.

Question from Ray Phelps teacher North hardin High School Radcliff, Ky.:

Money enhances student learning when it is applied to areas that are important to the future needs of the student. Money also enhances student learning when it gets the best student-oriented teachers available;those that give to the student what they need and care deeply about their success-money aside! Agree/disagree.

Margaret J. Gaston:

I agree that learning is enhanced when students get the best teachers available. However, simply allocating more dollars to education is not an adequate, nor politically salient solution. Recent research in California has demonstrated that education dollars are being used inefficiently and that any effort to give more money to education should be coupled with a redesign of how the funds are distributed to best serve students’ educational needs (Getting Down to Facts: School Finance and Governance in California, 2007). Further, a study on teacher retention in California found that “better compensation matters to teachers, but unless their classroom and school environment is conducive to good teaching, better compensation is not likely to improve teacher retention rates” (A Possible Dream: Retaining California Teachers So All Students Learn, 2007). In sum, adequate funding is a necessary first step to excellent education, but the key to success for teachers and students alike is how the money is spent.

Question from Bonnie Skolnik, teacher, Northrup Elementary:

Is it reasonable to expect classroom teachers to teach arts to the national and state standards, if the arts will not be tested?

Margaret J. Gaston:

Hi Bonnie. Thanks for asking this question. According to “Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era,” the way in which the standards movement has been implemented has narrowed the curriculum significantly (Center for Education Policy, 2007). But there are at least two major reasons to be hopeful about the role the arts will once again play in public education. The first is that polling data are starting to show parents pushing back against the narrow curriculum, expressing a desire for their children to learn art and music. The second is that use of the arts to deliver mathematics, English language arts, history, social science and science is flourishing. For example, the De Young Museum, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, has developed an interdisciplinary program tied to California’s student academic standards (“Get Smart with Art”).

Question from Gloria Bolton, Retired Educator, Tennessee:

How has expanded opportunities for women and minorities impacted the pool of candidates entering the teaching profession?

Margaret J. Gaston:

Thanks for raising this question as the recruitment and placement of teachers of color are important issues. There is evidence that the teaching force has in fact become more diverse in the last decade. Some California state data have shown that internship programs (an alternative route to the teaching profession) have recruited more diverse candidates into teaching. However, as you will see by the statistics presented below, the ethnic make-up of the teaching force does not adequately reflect the student population. We have a considerable distance to go before the workforce matches the ethnic and racial make-up of the student population. 71% of teachers are white, 15% are Latino, 5% are Asian and 4.5% are African-American. 29% of students are white, 48% are Latino, 8% are Asian, and 7.5% are African-American.

Question from Gregg Sinner, Program Planning Specialist, The Education Alliance @ Brown University:

Artists and scientists engage in inquiry as an essential aspect of their practice, by design. How do we create conditions for teachers-in-preparation and teachers everywhere to see themselves as engaged in a process of inquiry into their own practice?

Jason Kamras:

Great question. I think this starts with teacher preparation. Every teacher (and every principal) should be exposed to Understanding by Design or some similar method of instruction as a guide for how to orchestrate inquiry-based learning. Then district and school leaders must commit to creating schedules that facilitate this type of instruction. Finally, educators must demonstrate that inquiry-based pedagogy can, in fact, prepare students for standardized tests. I submit that rich instruction will do a far better job at this than any “drill-and-kill” or “test prep.”

Question from Rhonda Sousa, Recruiter, California Teacher Recruitment Program:

Having come from the private sector, I have worked with some very progressive organizations in regards to talent acquisition/development, employer branding, and performance management. What corporate best practices do you think are most easily (and realistically) adopted by education?

Jason Kamras:

I actually think there’s quite a bit education can learn from the private sector, particularly in the area of teacher recruitment and retention. The private sector rewards talent with money and I believe education ought to do the same. I don’t think it denigrates the teaching profession to admit that some educators are higher performing than others. If our nation is serious about retaining the very best teachers, and about creating incentives for them to teach in high need subject areas and high need school systems, then we must consider differentiating pay based on job assignment and performance.

Question from Erica Greenberg, Research Assistant, National Center for Children and Families, Teachers College, Columbia University:

What role do you think Toledo’s peer assistance and review model will play in future teacher quality enhancement efforts?

Jason Kamras:

While I’ve read about Toledo’s model, I’m not familiar with all the details. I do think that peer review, if rigorous, can play an important role in teacher evaluation. We, as educators, must hold ourselves accountable for excellence. To me, that’s what being a professional is all about. We shouldn’t wait for a principal or parent observation. Without prompting, we should ask ourselves every single day: “How can we get better?”

Question from Lenore Hoover, Teacher, Thomas Wootton HS:

I began teaching in California with the Teach for America program in 1991. (I believe Jason Kamras is also an alumnus of this organization.) Since then I’ve earned National Certification and participated in many professional development opportunities--continually striving to be a more reflective and capable teacher. In my years in the teaching profession I have noticed a disconnect between the training teachers are given in traditional education programs and what skills seem to most invaluable “on the job” itself. The analytical skills, creativity and perseverance I had going into TFA still helps me today as a more experienced teacher. What is the prevailing feeling these days about alternative teacher certification by public school systems? Is there still a feeling of distrust of these alternative routes to the classroom? Ultimately, it seems to me that different routes to the classroom may have common elements which will impact the success of a teacher in diverse settings.

Jason Kamras:

Yes, I came into teaching through Teach For America in 1996. I was placed as a 6th grade math teacher at John Philip Sousa Middle School is southeast Washington DC. I stayed there 3 years, then left for one year to earn my Master’s in Education, and then returned for 5 more years, teaching 7th and 8th grade math. I believe Teach For America provided me with an outstanding set of tools as I entered the classroom and that was over 10 years ago. The program has improved quite a bit over that time. “Alternative certification” is defined in so many different ways across the nation that it’s hard to comment about it broadly. I’ll say this about teacher preparation, though: whether it’s “alternative” or “traditional,” it needs to be rigorous, practicum-based, and aligned to the realities of teaching in America today. Sadly, many teacher education programs in this nation are woefully inadequate.

Question from Robert Santiago, Math Teacher, Rubidoux High School:

How will a data system record progress of students who so remedial that their yearly progress are not measurable by current state testing? Will not teachers flock to the best, most cooperative students if they are evaluated on student performance?

Margaret J. Gaston:

Hi Robert. This is a question that we have been turning over in our minds as well. Too often assessments are relegated to the position of sanction and reward when they could be used to strengthen practice. Our latest report, The Status of the Teaching Profession 2007, calls for the design and use of assessments within a teacher development system that collects meaningful data and then uses those data to adapt instruction for the benefit of the student’s learning, and to provide supports to teachers that will help them strengthen their practice. Also, assessments should be used to link the components of the teacher development system, be based on a common definition of teaching quality, promote reliable measures of teachers’ knowledge and skills, and support the development of high-quality teaching. A system of teacher development can continuously improve teaching quality and ultimately result in improved student outcomes.

Question from Cathy Owens, Director of Learning, NSDC:

To what extent, if any, do you believe our profession is threatened or jeopardized by alternative licensing programs and 6-week teacher prep crash courses?

Jason Kamras:

As I mentioned in a previous answer, I think it’s difficult to comment broadly about alternative licensing programs because they differ so significantly. I came into education through Teach For America, a so-called alternative path. I believe this program does an excellent job of preparing teachers to serve in very challenging schools. Some alternative programs do not, however. At the same many traditional programs do not adequately prepare teachers (though, of course, some do). I think what’s important is not the “category” of program (alternative, traditional, emergency, etc.), but rather the quality of preparation. Teacher education needs to be rigorous, practicum-based, and aligned to the unique challenges of teaching in public schools today. Furthermore, ALL programs ought to be held accountable for the performance of their graduates.

Question from Frank J. Hagen, Adjunct Professor - Wilmington University:

What is the role of the building principal as the instructional leader in unlocking teaching potential through the observation/evaluation process linked to individual and school-wide professional development needs?

Margaret J. Gaston:

This is a great question, the answer to which may better fit another format if justice is to be done to it. Briefly, here’s what we have been thinking in regard to the role of the principal in unlocking teaching potential. First, there is a case to be made that efforts to strengthen schooling must expand to include ensuring an adequate supply of well-prepared and effective administrators who are willing to take challenging assignments. According to “A Possible Dream: Retaining California Teachers So All Students Can Learn” (Futernick, 2007), 42 percent of those who leave teaching among their reasons for doing so an “unsupportive principal.” From another perspective, the role of the principal in strengthening teaching has room for expansion and refinement with regard to the use of data to monitor and improve instruction. In our most recent report, The Status of the Teaching Profession 2007, we asked SRI to look at the extent to which data is used by principals to strengthen teaching practice. They found that “performance reviews, which rely heavily on observations of teachers, do not measure teaching quality well, nor are they used to determine teachers’ professional development needs or to set professional goals.” However, local “processes in which whole faculties or groups of teachers assess teaching practices together for the purposes of school reform are valued highly and feed directly into improving practice.” And it goes without saying that there is some urgency attached to this matter. In California, as in other states across the U.S., the education leadership cohort is reaching retirement age ahead of the teacher workforce. Approximately 40 percent will be eligible for retirement in the next ten years. We are urging that attention be paid to the training, recruitment, induction and professional development of principals, district office personnel and superintendents, beginning with a clear picture of the status of education leadership. Without sound, reliable data on the status and quality of this portion of the education workforce, public and private resources are far more likely to miss their targets and be inadequately aligned with the very problems that we are trying to address. False starts in this area are already well known and education support organizations, including philanthropies, risk fatigue before positive outcomes for education leaders and the students they serve are realized.

Question from Robert Santiago, Math Teacher, Rubidoux High School:

How is it fair to evaluate teacher A who has a set of students who have met or nearly met the perquisites for a Pre-Calculus class while teacher B has a similar class with students who have difficulty with Algebra I skills? In other words, how do we measure a teacher’s performance when that teacher spends a significant amount of time teaching prerequisite skills?

Jason Kamras:

I think one of the best ways to measure a teacher’s performance is to look at student growth. Some of the work being done in the field of value-added measurement is very exciting because, in theory, it isolates the impact that an individual teacher has on a group of students taking into account the pupils’ respective “starting points.”

Question from Jennifer Christiansen, Special Educator, Northeastern Clinton CSD:

To what degree is constructivism addressed to improve instruction in elementary schools. There are still many teachers using “folder work” and text-book driven curriculum, the traditional “one size fits all” model. How important is professional development in this area?

Jason Kamras:

I agree that a rich, multi-faceted instructional approach that truly addresses the diversity of learning styles in a classroom is absolutely critical if we’re going to increase achievement in this country. I think quality professional development is very important here. Sadly, the vast majority of PD in this nation is woefully inadequate, as it is rarely long-term, job-embedded, or based in research. We need to hold schools of education, districts, unions, and ourselves more accountable for providing quality PD.

Question from Lara Ervin, BTSA Specialist, Milpitas Unified School District:

In many publications about teacher qualifications, the terms “Fully Qualified” and “Effective” are used in describing the ideal candidates for teaching positions. There is also evidence to support an increasing gap in the gender and ethnicity (and most likely SES, due to these factors) of teachers and the students they teach. My question is twofold: Firstly, what correlations are there between being fully “prepared” and actual rates of “effectiveness”? Secondly, how are teacher preparation programs navigating world-view issues (like a value on education, or understanding of the impact of poverty) between university students and the populations they will teach, in order to create effective teachers?

Jason Kamras:

In response to your first question, there is unfortunately not a high degree of correlation between traditional qualifications and effectiveness in the classroom. A great deal of research, for example, suggests that having a Master’s Degree or being licensed through traditional means does not necessarily equate to better performance in the classroom. As a result, I believe we need to shift our focus from “highly qualified” to “highly effective.” That is, we ought to be assessing the quality of our nation’s teachers not by their qualifications, but by their impact on student learning. As for your second question, I think teacher preparation programs must ensure that educators have respect for all children, regardless of background, and a belief in their inherent capacity for excellence.

Question from Miles Myers, Senior Researcher, ISCA:

Quality Counts recommendations focus on policy alignment, data collection on preparation, and credential programs. These are only a few of the features of a Profession, as you know. Why not focus more on the teacher’s working conditions---the teacher’s authority over the curriculum, the work load (and student needs), the way teachers are hired (it is a rare district that observes the teaching before hiring the teacher), the attention given to teacher leadership (grade level chairs, dept heads), the way professional development is designed. Why shouldn’t these features of professionalism be given a major share of our attention?

Jason Kamras:

I agree that these other factors are important as well. In particular, I think we need to pay much greater attention to the quality of professional development in this nation. In most school districts, very few dollars are dedicated to PD, and they’re often used for meaningless half-day workshops that focus on the latest education fad. What educators need (and children deserve!) is real professional development that is long-term, job-embedded, relevant, and teacher-directed.

Question from Sandie Gilliam, Instructional Coach, Academy School District (Colorado Springs):

How would your organization define “teaching quality”?

Margaret J. Gaston:

Last year, the Center convened a Forum of experts to explore the issue of teaching quality in California. The panel, composed of classroom teachers, principals, district administrators, local and state teacher association leaders, school board members, teacher support providers, schools of education faculty, and state officials, reviewed research, met with outside experts, and discussed the issue of teaching quality over a 4-month period. At the conclusion, they proposed this definition: “High-quality teaching occurs when teachers come into the classroom with a rich toolkit of craft knowledge and skills which they utilize following a set of effective practices, and which lead, over time, to student learning. High quality teaching occurs in a supportive environment where teachers work as part of a professional community within a workplace that fosters continuous learning on the part of children and adults.”

Question from Zakia Diggs-Parrish, Teacher, PECES:

Its hard to even toy with the idea of a human capital system (because NCLB.) Any thoughts on what we may see in the future with a new administration? It seems many like the idea of NCLB and just believe it needs a little tweaking.

Jason Kamras:

I actually think NCLB has been an incredibly positive force in American public education. I know many of my colleagues disagree with me on this. Let me tell you why I feel this way. As National Teacher of the Year, I had the opportunity to travel all over the nation for a year, visiting schools of every type in over 40 states. In nearly every school I visited, I saw teachers looking at subgroup data in an effort to revise their instruction so as to meet AYP. That’s an incredible development. I even had one principal tell me: “I used to place a warm body in our remedial math class, which was usually filled with our poor and minority children. Now I’ve got to put my best teacher in that class or we won’t meet AYP.” If that’s all that NCLB did, I think we ought to call it a success. Sure, it’s not perfect. There are many things that ought to be revised. But, on the whole, I believe it’s good for America’s children, particularly those on the losing end of the achievement gap.

Question from Margaret Sorensen, PhD Candidate, Walden University:

What things will we need to let go of (ie: internal barriers) in order to move to a more ideal human-capital system?

Jason Kamras:

I think the greatest internal barrier that we face is the belief that all teachers are equal. The painful truth is that some educators are not adequately serving their children. We ought not shy away from this fact. If we are to be a true profession, we ought to admit that there is variation within the teaching force, and we ought to act upon that variation. That means transitioning out those who are not serving students well, better supporting those who are making gains, but still struggling, and putting more money on the table for those who are producing significant gains in student achievement. I know this is an unpopular view in many education circles. But I believe that we must put children’s interests first in education. And that means ending the “all-teachers-are-unassailable” philosophy that stifles our profession.

Question from Carri Schneider, Ed.D. University of Cincinnati:

How do we connect colleges of education to K-12 schools so that both benefit from the relationship?

Margaret J. Gaston:

We believe that one of the most effective ways to connect colleges of education to the K-12 system is through the use of assessments. Research has found that all along the teaching continuum, from pre-service and recruitment through induction and professional development, teachers are assessed; but little is done with this information to strengthen practice over a career. In California we are trying to bridge that gap with the Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA). The TPA is intended to ensure that teachers have the skills necessary to be effective in the classroom. All of the TPAs are designed to measure a broad range of teaching skills and include a videotape and other evidence of teaching quality. By identifying teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, the TPA can more effectively inform new teachers’ induction and the teacher preparation program. In addition, aggregated TPA scores will be included in the accreditation process every other year, and inter-rater reliability scoring will be included every 6th year to measure and maintain program quality.

Question from Callie Kozlak, TFA:

I am going to begin Teach for America in DCPS in August. From your experience, how should a new teacher balance everything that needs to happen in the classroom, as well as try to be an advocate for larger systematic improvement?

Jason Kamras:

Congratulations and great question! I think your first priority for the next couple of years should be to focus on being an excellent teacher. That, alone, will occupy most of your waking hours. Once you’ve taught for a couple of years (and excelled!), I think you’ll have a deeper understanding of what YOU perceive to be the levers of change in education. At that point, you’ll be much better prepared to impact the larger system. You’ll be able to walk into any policy debate with the personal knowledge of what it takes to increase achievement in an urban school system. There is no substitute for that.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Our hour is up. Thank you to our readers for the great questions. And a very special thank you to our guests, Margaret J. Gaston and Jason Kamras, for sharing their expertise today. You’ll be able to find the transcript of this chat on www.edweek.org. It will be posted shortly.

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