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Teaching Profession Opinion

Safeguarding or Sandbagging Teaching Quality?

By Kate Walsh — March 02, 2009 5 min read
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In a quieter time, alleged Ponzi-schemer Bernard Madoff’s evasion of government regulators while ripping off a lot of rich people might have made a good plot for a Hollywood movie. But in the midst of a financial crisis and recriminations over other regulatory failures—not least, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s failure to avert the collapse of the largest investment banks it supervised—the Madoff case has only compounded the nation’s collective anger over the breakdowns in government.

We might attribute the government’s failure in this case to a low tolerance for regulation in booming markets and a fast-growing economy. But the fact is that the SEC was regulating plenty … just regulating the wrong stuff. While the agency was busy prosecuting Martha Stewart, it was paying scant attention to markets for speculative, complex financial instruments.

As we now must engage in some serious collective belt-tightening, it is an appropriate time to ask some hard questions of our government agencies, and certainly not just those charged with safeguarding the economy. In the area of education and, in particular, the teaching profession, much of our focus should be on the role played by state governments. States, not districts, bear the constitutional responsibility for schooling the nation’s children, and they are, as well, the single greatest authority over the teaching profession.

As President Barack Obama aptly noted in his inaugural address, the question is no longer “Is government big enough or small enough, but is it smart enough?” For state policies, the question should no longer be “Are states exerting too much control or too little?” but “What impact are states having on our greatest educational challenges?” and “Are states truly advancing teacher quality?” When we find laws and regulations that do not advance teacher quality, we must take a new direction.

Unfortunately, given states’ current policies, we should not be surprised to learn that they routinely invoke the educational equivalent of sending Martha Stewart to jail for six months while permitting the banks to run amok.

Each year, my organization, the National Council on Teacher Quality, examines the tremendous impact that states have on the teaching profession, analyzing their current practices against basic, common-sense standards designed to bring improvements to the profession. Our 52-volume, 4,300-page analysis released in January is exhaustive, peeling back the rhetoric to reveal the true implications of oftentimes arcane and quite technical policies that tend to make peoples’ eyes glaze over—except that they have a very real and substantive impact on teacher quality. With a goal of being productive, not merely critical, we make a point of highlighting states that have some great ideas, and we always offer alternative solutions to states’ existing policies that run counter to teacher-quality goals.

It is the tenure process that best illustrates how current state policies can have such a deleterious impact on teacher quality.

This year’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook has a more narrow focus than our last edition, concentrating on a particularly critical issue: the impact of state policies on new teachers.

States do not fare particularly well here, losing important opportunities to help districts retain promising new teachers and often making it harder for districts to move teachers who are not so promising out of the profession. Though the yearbook examines a whole spectrum of policies affecting teachers early in their careers, including compensation and benefits, it is the tenure process that best illustrates how current state policies can have such a deleterious impact on teacher quality.

In all but two states (Iowa and New Mexico), tenure is virtually automatic, a simple matter of punching the time clock for one, two, three, four, or five years, depending on the state law. Even in states that require teachers to earn a satisfactory rating to receive tenure, the evaluation systems are so broken and dysfunctional that they pose little obstacle.

What should tenure look like instead? It should be a significant milestone in a teacher’s early career. Tenure should be dependent on a record of strong evaluations over a number of years. Strong evaluations should only be possible if there is strong evidence of student learning. Yet none of that happens. Only four states (Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) insist that student learning constitute the preponderant criterion of a teacher’s evaluation. And not a single state recognizes the important achievement that tenure could represent, by using it as an opportunity to reward and invest in the greatest talent, working with their districts to link a big pay increase with the tenure decision.

State policies have a long way to go across a number of areas, such as shamefully low standards for entry into the profession; the far too many ineffective preparation programs that operate under their seals of approval; the structures states have set up under which teachers must be compensated; the state-run pension plans that offer little motivation to younger teachers and use up a disproportionate share of available benefits; the many arcane rules for licensure; and the state laws that dictate the process for dismissing teachers.

In our analysis, South Carolina was the only state to get a score higher than a C, earning a B-minus. Particularly noteworthy were its policies designed to move out ineffective teachers. Alabama, Ohio, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee also do better than most other states, though all earned only a C. The most frequent grade was a D, awarded to 30 states, followed by six (the District of Columbia, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) earning an F.

For too long, we’ve seen the regulations devised by states fail the teaching profession, teachers, and most importantly children, not unlike the way that the Securities and Exchange Commission has failed investors. Almost all states have quite a track record of inserting themselves aggressively into the governance of the teaching profession, yet in terms of their impact on teacher quality, the record is disappointing at best, an abject failure at worst.

It is time for states to alter their regulatory purpose, with one singular aim: providing a competent teacher to every classroom.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Safeguarding or Sandbagging Teaching Quality?

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