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Why teachers need to learn at least as much as students this school year

Parents across the nation are sending their kids to back to school with big hopes for what students will learn this school year, and similarly, school and district leaders are planning ways to help teachers reach their potential. For teachers, “back to school” usually means “back to workshops.”

Yet professional development investments show no solid link to growth in teacher performance, according to a new, wave-making study by TNTP. The study surveyed teachers from three large districts and one charter network and found that, despite a yearly investment that averages $18,000 per teacher, seven out of 10 teachers showed no improvement on their evaluation ratings, and some even declined. TNTP found that only three out of 10 teachers improved their evaluation ratings — and even then, there was no direct tie to a specific training or professional development to account for the growth.

No one wants to bombard teachers with “help” that is actually not all that helpful. Yet making meaningful changes to teacher practices is actually proving to be quite challenging. And when 2 percent of a district’s basic revenue in Minnesota must be reserved for staff development activities [PDF], this is a problem worth exploring.

The tough questions

With the launch of a new school year, this is an urgent call to action for school districts across our nation. I don’t think I could find anyone who disagrees that it makes sense to have a system in place for good teachers to become great and for great teachers to get even better. Districts should not give up on current efforts for what excellent teaching looks like and how it can be achieved. Rather, it is time for district and school leaders to ask some tough questions as schools and districts reevaluate their current professional development programs: Does our professional development set a high bar for quality, relevancy and impact on student achievement? Does it tie directly to teacher evaluation measures so teachers can measurably improve instruction practices? And, are we creating school cultures that value continuous improvement?

Kristina Sexe
Kristina Sexe

To do this, districts must first take stock of their current efforts and be willing to try some fresh approaches. We know that teacher quality is the biggest in-school factor to student success, yet nationwide, districts are struggling to find high quality teachers to enter into and remain in the profession.

As a teacher of seven years, I agree with AFT President Randi Weingarten, who told the Wall Street Journal that a part of the solution is giving teachers a role in reforming professional development. Districts should give teachers like me the resources we need and the right conditions to improve, and then they should check to find out whether improvement is actually happening.

In order to implement this kind of organic teacher development model, we teachers need to be able to identify our own growth areas. But according to the TNTP study, less than half of teachers agree that they have “some weaknesses in their instruction.” This strikes me as puzzling because most teachers I know are very reflective practitioners. Yet in order to improve we teachers need crucial information in two important areas: having an understanding of our progress against a clear standard and then a clear plan for how to improve.

Q Comp model offers a platform

Fortunately, Minnesota’s Quality Compensation (Q Comp) model offers a platform to address some these issues, and during last session the Minnesota Legislature increased funding and access to this program that has proven to increase student achievement. In 2014, I was part of a team of teachers who submitted their ideas for improving Q Comp, and among our recommendations were that professional development needs to be tied to teacher evaluation data and that districts need to strategically leverage the skills of highly effective teachers and continue to develop their leadership skills through hybrid and site-determined roles. In Q Comp districts like mine, a strong teacher evaluation system should be the driver of growth, professional development, alternative salary schedules, and career ladders for effective teachers.

A new sense of hope sets in this time of August as we get ready for the start of a new school year. I am optimistic about the work that needs to be done, and now more than ever, the need for teacher voice is essential. I extend the invitation to all teachers and district leaders to shift the conversation from what was to what teacher development could be. Let us move this conversation forward to strengthen the outcomes for all our students.

Kristina Sexe teaches first- and second-grade students at Armatage Montessori School in the Minneapolis Public Schools and is a teacher leader for Educators 4 Excellence.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/17/2015 - 10:25 am.

    What a Nice Little Ad for Q-Comp!

    and what a complete failure on the part of Ms. Sexe to understand that the rewards of Q-Comp are only attractive to a certain group of teachers,…

    possessing a certain constellation of personality types,…

    and not attractive in the least to the vast majority of teachers.

    From my perspective as a former teacher in small town schools, the REAL issue involved in quality teaching involves personality types:

    Those who represent the rare combination of creativity and organizational skills,…

    with the ability to make strong interpersonal connections with each student,…

    without LOSING the ability to hold each student responsible for getting their work done,…

    and for behaving well enough not to interfere with the learning of other students,…

    or the teacher’s efforts to teach,…

    coupled with the ability to care about and appropriately motivate each and every student,,…

    even those very different from themselves,…

    is what it takes to be a truly excellent teacher.

    Of course the ability of such teachers to perform excellently is dependent on administrators who have personality types flexible enough to understand that excellent teaching can take many different shapes and forms,…

    and who are not so limited in their own personalities as to believe,…

    as Ms. Sexe seems to believe,…

    that excellent teaching can be universally accomplished by forcing all teachers to conform to a style that fits a particular personality type,…

    generally the type of that administrator,…

    and rewarding teachers for conformity to that type.

    The reality is that excellent teaching is an art form,…

    an art form in which the teacher must adapt to each new term’s (or class period’s) group of students,…

    and two equally-excellent classrooms which facilitate very high levels of student achievement can seem as different,…

    as works by Van Gogh are from Da Vinci,…

    or works by J.S. Bach are from those by Samuel Barber.

    Sadly, in my experience, there are far too few administrators, school board members, and parents,…

    (let alone business leaders or members of the legislature),…

    who are capable of realizing that this is the case.

    Most outside observers believe that teaching MUST be done (and measured) only according to the methods of which they themselves are most capable,…

    and all other approaches, seeming lacking, needing to be stamped out.

    Outside observers seem, far too commonly, to believe that there is one sure-fire set of methods and approaches that, if universally applied, will lead to universally high levels of performance,…

    while maximizing efficiency and minimizing cost,…

    as if education were an assembly line for building cars,…

    and each student nothing but a blank frame to which new widgets of knowledge and skill can be freely, speedily, and efficiently attached.

    There IS, of course, no such set of methods and approaches,…

    because each, individual student,…

    and the circumstances of his or her life external to the school day,…

    make such universal approaches completely inadequate and doom them to failure,…

    no matter what compensation schemes might be invented to seek to bribe teachers,…

    who generally knew better in the first place,…

    into using them.

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 08/18/2015 - 01:01 am.

      Great comment!

      Well stated.

    • Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 08/18/2015 - 09:53 pm.

      Teacher Evaluations and Compensation

      Yes, Of course.

      Regardless of that fact that virtually EVERY professional in every industry is subject to some sort of performance measurement and evaluation, it is IMPOSSIBLE to do this with teachers.

      So…we must preserve the Bismarckian model of education (and educating educators)…step and grade…educational attainment…etc., etc., etc.

      As they say–at least one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.

      I sure am glad that government is running our schools so we can be ASSURED of having a HIGH QUALITY product/service that is constanty evolving to meet the needs of new waves of new students that make their way to the doors of our schoolhouses.

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