Teacher Effectiveness and Educational Change
Posted on: 2/23/2010
There is good reason to characterize these first years of the Obama administration as ones focused on educational reform. In the last year, almost $100 million was directed to education under the ARRA Act, popularly known as the stimulus. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a vocal, activist leader who has more money at his discretion than any other occupant of the office since it was created.
And yet, most of the stimulus money went without notable conditions to teachers’ and administrators’ salaries, to prevent widespread teacher layoffs due to state budget deficits. This is not to say that Secretary Duncan is not pursuing major reforms. It’s that he does so within constraints and largely outside of the stimulus. The vehicle for Duncan’s reforms is a grant-based competition called Race to the Top.
Within Duncan’s speeches and the outlines for qualification for the Race to the Top, teachers are a major policy focus. The Obama administration wants a return on its stimulus investment. This raises one of the major current themes of education reform: teacher effectiveness. The government wants to measure it, tie teacher pay to it, and reward states for increasing it. The Department of Education has explained the importance of teaching effectiveness:
“Teacher effectiveness is a major influence on students’ academic success. Districts and school leaders can improve teacher effectiveness and address inequitable teacher distribution through how they recruit, hire, induct, develop, evaluate, advance, and compensate teachers. Moreover, they can create the school conditions that foster teacher effectiveness and retention such as excellent school leadership, time for collaboration, and a culture of continuous improvement.”
It is no wonder that tying student performance data has been a top policy priority for Secretary Duncan, so much so that restrictions on linking student data to teacher performance was made a disqualifying factor in qualifying for the $5 billion in money available from the Race to the Top competition and indeed several states passed legislation to allow such linkages in order to participate. Teacher accountability is inextricably linked to teacher effectiveness and student performance in the eyes of many. Seeking to link student data to teacher performance is being touted by the administration is a key measure of teacher effectives.
Why has teacher effectiveness become such a focal point of reform discussions today? After all, the goal of raising teacher effectiveness is not primarily to raise their self-esteem and well-being. There are two points to consider. One is that the three levels of government want their investment in teachers’ salaries to yield greater payback. Second, a “major research finding is that student achievement is related to teacher competence in teaching.”  Given the direct linkage found in research between teacher competence and student achievement it is not surprising that the education establishment seeks to increase student achievement by raising teacher effectiveness. It appears at the moment to be the great driver of ROI in education.
Since the measurement of teacher effectiveness is data driven – the data of student achievement on test scores – it is seen as a more objective measure than teacher qualifications. This has led to tensions with teachers’ unions, for whom qualifications have long since been a part of how they have helped define teacher quality in education policy. Many teachers, too, feel that they will unjustly judged as ineffective teachers if the metric for performance is test scores, arguing that if they are in underperforming schools with large class sizes and poor facilities, they face unfair disadvantages. Another point of contention from teachers are plans to link teacher effectiveness to pay.
Nonetheless, others have joined the teacher effectiveness focus: notably the Gates Foundation. In November 2009, Gates Foundation gave $335 million to raise teacher effectiveness, funding experiments in tenure, evaluation, compensation, training and mentoring in three large school systems and a cluster of charter schools. The grants amount to one of the largest privately sponsored school improvement initiatives in recent years. Through them, the foundation hopes to influence policymakers to put more weight on teacher performance than qualifications. 
All of this can come off as having a negative attitude towards teachers but in fact teacher effectiveness is based on an acknowledgement of just how much teachers matter.  One vivid acknowledgement of this is forthcoming in data to be published by Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit known for putting recent college graduates in low-income public schools for two-year teaching stints. TFA has been tracking the performance of the students taught by its teachers. The data has convinced the organization of the importance of teacher effectiveness and has gone so far as to categorize elements of what makes a great teacher: they set big goals for their students, constantly seek to improve their own effectiveness, actively involve students and their families, stay focused, plan extensively by working backwards from their desired outcome, and work relentlessly. 
1. “Doing What Works: Research Based Education Practices Online,” U.S. Department of Education
2. “Teacher effectiveness,” Pathways to School Improvement
3. “Gates Foundation gives $335 million to raise teacher effectiveness,” Washington Post, 11/19/09
4. “Quantifying Teacher Effectiveness,” Freakonomics Blog, 1/8/10
5. “What Makes a Good Teacher,” Amanda Ripley, The Atlantic Monthly
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