Teaching Profession

Teachers Recruited to Find Solutions to Vexing Policy Issues

By Bess Keller — July 11, 2006 8 min read
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That the 18 teachers gathered recently in a hotel meeting room here included 14 with national-board certification, members of state and national commissions and committees, eight winners of top awards from private funds, and six teachers of the year was surprising enough.

But almost unheard of was this: Amid the clutter of water pitchers, laptop computers, and thick binders, the teachers were single-mindedly focused on education policy.

Specifically, they were seeking to define better ways of paying those in the nation’s public school classrooms, a topic that this year has snagged the interest of almost half the nation’s governors and grabbed headlines as the Houston schools and then Florida and Texas very publicly unveiled new teacher-salary plans.

The stakes will be high if the Center for Teaching Quality, which has organized this teachers-take-on-compensation project with help mainly from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, gets the bounce it wants. Barnett Berry, the president of the research and advocacy center in Chapel Hill, N.C., envisions that the teachers will soon be spreading the recommendations they devise as a result of their work together among state lawmakers, district leaders, and influential national groups.

Mr. Berry refers to this as the “inaugural work” of TeacherSolutions, as the project is known, because he hopes more funding will allow additional teams of expert teachers to weigh in on a host of national policy debates in education. The project builds on the 3-year-old Teacher Leaders Network, also a project of the center, which electronically connects some 300 accomplished teachers with each other. The idea there is to help them become advocates for what they know to be effective practices for teaching and learning.

Honing Vignettes

Half the educators hand-picked for TeacherSolutions are members of the network. The 18 participants hail from 15 states and represent a diversity of teaching experiences and backgrounds. They were convened in Chicago in mid-June for their first face-to-face meeting after nearly a half year of prepping through online seminars, cyber messaging, and readings.

Consulting Teachers

Sarah Applegate is a teacher-librarian at River Ridge High School in Lacey, Wash.

Susan Bischoff is a 4th grade teacher at Ballard Elementary in Manatee County, Fla.

Anthony Cody is a consulting teacher in the Oakland, Calif., school district.

Bill Ferriter teaches 6th grade language arts and social studies at Salem Middle School in Wake County, N.C.

Nancy Flanagan recently retired as a music teacher from the Hartland, Mich., school district to become a full-time doctoral student at Michigan State University.

Theresa Killingsworth teaches 4th grade at Catalina Ventura School in Phoenix.

Becky Malone teaches 3rd grade math and science at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts in Tennessee’s Hamilton County Public Schools.

Valdine McLean teaches chemistry, physics, biology, and general unified science at Pershing County High School in Nevada.

Renee Moore served as a classroom teacher for 15 years before moving into the college ranks. She recently accepted a full-time position at Mississippi Delta Community College.

Ford Morishita teaches biology at Clackamas High School in suburban Portland, Ore.

Jennifer Morrison teaches 8th grade language arts at the Piedmont Open IB Middle School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district.

Carole Moyer is an early-childhood coordinator for the Columbus, Ohio, district.

Lori Nazareno is a teacher and teacher leader in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district.

Marsha Ratzel is a 6th grade math and science teacher at Leawood Middle School in the Blue Valley, Kan., school district.

Betsy Rogers is a curriculum leader and teacher coach at Brighton School (K-8) on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala.

Lisa Suarez-Caraballo teaches math in the bilingual program at Luis Muñoz Marin School in the Cleveland school district

Amy Treadwell teaches 2nd grade at the Newberry Math and Science Academy in Chicago.

Maria Uribe is a site coordinator at Goldrick Elementary School in Denver for a program supported by the University of Colorado, in which she supervises and coaches teachers and teacher-candidates.

SOURCE: Center for Teaching Quality

A complete list of profiles of the consultants for the TeacherSolutions project is available from Teacher Leaders Network.

The Chicago line-up challenged any lurking stereotype that members of their profession would rather be nice than be clear. And as four “teams” addressed different aspects of teacher pay, the participants and their coaches from the teaching-quality center kept each other honest about the complexities of the work.

The team led by Renee Moore, a Mississippi Teacher of the Year who serves on her state’s teacher- and administrator-licensure commission, tackled the most controversial approach to compensation reform: linking pay directly to student learning. The teachers insisted, among other points, that learning be measured using “multiple measures.”

Marsha Ratzel, a middle school teacher from Kansas who worked for more than a decade as a health-systems planner and administrator before coming to the classroom, wonders what that means.

“Do I have to prove this in multiple formats or over time?” she wants to know. “Does ‘multiple measures’ mean Teacher A can use a portfolio [of student work] and Teacher B can use [a] test?”

One test isn’t good enough, answers team member Becky Malone, who was judged a “highly effective” teacher in the Hamilton County, Tenn., schools on the basis of three years’ worth of her students’ test scores examined for growth in learning.

But determining who should get the credit for “value added” is itself difficult, Ms. Moore, the team leader, points out. For instance, she tells the group, in Mississippi a statewide English exam given in 10th grade covers grammar and composition, with the grammar representing nothing beyond the 8th grade curriculum. Should high school or middle school teachers get pay boosts if students do well?

Mr. Berry is delighted. “That’s a vignette,” he sings out. He wants the teachers to be thinking not only about how compensation can leverage better teaching and a better teaching corps, but also about how they use their real-life school experiences to put their recommendations over to policymakers.

“Be prepared to talk about how [changes] would affect your colleagues in your school,” urges Eric Hirsch, who works with Mr. Berry.

In some ways, suggests John Norton, a former journalist who helped guide the teachers’ online preparation, which included virtual seminars with teacher-compensation researchers and other experts, “the question before us is whether teachers who are teaching all the time can find their policy voices.”

Missing Voices

A growing chorus of thinkers and advocates believe that the widespread absence of “teacher voice” in policymaking leads to inferior policies and dooms their implementation.

“Unless you talk to the people who give policy its practical effectiveness, you are missing something important,” said Jacob E. Adams Jr. , an education professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, who has also worked in state and federal policy arenas. “Smart policymaking takes into account how teachers are going to react to and use new teacher policies.”

“You want teachers involved … because people support what they help create,” added S. Paul Reville, the president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Cambridge, Mass., which is considering its own project to tap into teachers’ views on policy matters.

Representatives of both national teachers’ unions applauded the venture. “We think the discussion may have to be broader at some point, but we think this is important,” said Bill J. Raabe, the head of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union. The teacher-pay group includes members of both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as two teachers who founded or head professional groups apart from their local unions.

The TeacherSolutions participants themselves, who are paid a $1,500 stipend plus expenses for being consultants, eagerly embrace their new role.

“A wider perspective keeps me energized, positive, and thinking outside the box,” wrote Jennifer Morrison in an e-mail to Education Week. Ms. Morrison, a Fulbright scholar who three years ago was named Outstanding Young Educator of the Year by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, added that, nonetheless, in her experience “teachers aren’t expected to think beyond their own students or buildings—in fact, leading or contributing to the profession as a whole is discouraged because it takes teachers out of the classroom.”

Culture Clash

Several teachers in the group warned that not only did they face obstacles in doing policy work, but they also would do well to tread lightly in education circles once they had recommendations in hand.

“All teachers are not doing the same job, [but] I can’t say that in a faculty meeting,” cautioned Susan Bischoff, a 4th grade teacher in Manatee County, Fla.

Ford Morishita, a biology teacher in Oregon who has won a fistful of awards, said after the Chicago meeting that the consultants would be fighting “a culture and a mind-set” that mistrusts any behavior that distinguishes one teacher from another.

Judged by their preliminary work, the teachers seem likely to ultimately endorse a pay framework that would reward teachers along the four dimensions they studied: the learning gains of their students, demonstrated and shared skills, new roles and responsibilities, and market value.

Standardized-test scores will likely play a part because, as Nancy Flanagan, a Michigan Teacher of the Year, told her colleagues, “No plan will fly if we don’t say we’ll use standardized tests.”

Yet even teachers with records of high achievement share the feeling widespread among educators that the debatable quality of many tests and the vagaries of testing don’t warrant an exclusive focus. Nor do they favor an approach that would simply pay teachers for more professional development.

“It’s important that teachers not only attend, but go and use what they learn,” said Lisa Suarez-Caraballo, who teaches middle-grades math in Cleveland and won a lucrative Milken educator award. “There are teachers who go to every professional-development opportunity in my district because they are paid for it, but it has no effect on what they do in their classroom.”

Rather, the participants see rewarding teachers for roles ranging from providing professional development to performing community outreach, and for specific skills that are in short supply, such as teaching physics or succeeding with students in high-poverty neighborhoods.

One of the fresh ideas that emerged from the group is finding a way to pay teachers not just for raising student test scores, but also for using assessment data to guide their work with students, a teacher practice that is widely thought to improve instruction.

Another is to consider paying relevant subsets of teachers for academic gains—all 3rd grade teachers in a school, for instance, or a middle school team of teachers that works with the same group of students. The current approaches are limited to providing rewards either to individual teachers or the faculty as a whole. The first discourages collaboration, and neither leverages the power of small groups of educators, the teachers suggested.

Mr. Berry, who has a longtime dream of building an “independent, nonpartisan voice of accomplished teachers,” expects the compensation-reform proposals to be ready in the fall, including components that can be spliced and edited so they best fit local circumstances.

“They are,” he says proudly, “finding a new way.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Teachers Recruited to Find Solutions to Vexing Policy Issues

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