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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Debunking the myths associated with teaching

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

By Barnett Berry

There’s a lot of talk today about making our schools better and our teachers more effective. Researchers confirm that the right teachers can make a big difference in how much students learn, even in the most challenging schools. But scholars, educators, union leaders and policy wonks still disagree, sometimes vehemently, over what good teaching looks like. And it’s a high-stakes question. Political leaders at every level are demanding we evaluate and pay teachers based on student test scores and value-added statistical formulas. If that turns out to be a bad strategy, the long-term ramifications for the nation could be staggering.

Incredible as it seems, 11 years into the new millennium decision makers are still opting for a patchwork teaching policy that often lowers entry standards to keep salaries and preparation costs down.

We spend too much time debating 20th century arguments — e.g., whether or not Teach for America or university-based certification programs are the best ways to recruit and train teachers. What we need instead are millions of well-prepared, highly savvy teachers who know how to teach the iGeneration and work successfully in teams in order to serve diverse public school populations that include large numbers of English language learners and students from poverty.

Teaching in the 21st century is complex, challenging work, and the fiction that “anyone can be a teacher” threatens our future. We have entered an era of rapid and inexorable change, where the real “high stakes” must be measured at a global level. We don’t have time for myths. Here are five that often distract policymakers from creating the results-oriented teaching profession students deserve.

Myth #1: Teacher preparation matters little for student achievement.

Research Realities: Some research suggests that new recruits from Teach for America and other fast-entry programs perform about as well as those from traditional, university-based teacher training – leading many to assume that in-depth teacher preparation matters little for student achievement. But what if neither approach is giving us the teachers we need? The National Bureau of Economic Research found that beginning teachers with more extensive clinical training (including a full-year internship – like doctors get) actually produce higher student achievement gains than those from either traditional university programs or alternative pathways. Recent research also tells us that teacher who enter with too little preparation are likely to leave the profession much sooner than those who have a thorough grasp of the fundamentals – and they’re less likely to be effective over time.

Myth #2: Teaching experience matters little for student achievement.

We keep hearing that teaching experience beyond the initial three years or so does not necessarily produce higher student test scores. But recent studies say that more experience does matter (up to 20 years) for student achievement when the conditions are ripe – that is, when teachers teach the same subjects and grade levels consistently, especially during their first five years of teaching. Other researchers have shown that experienced, expert teachers know more than novices and organize their knowledge of content, teaching strategies, and students more effectively, retrieve it more readily, and can apply it in novel and creative ways. More seasoned experts are also better prepared to overcome some of the stressful working conditions found in many high-needs schools. Experience does not guarantee effective teaching, but when schools are organize to draw on its best teachers, it matters a lot.

Myth #3: Removing incompetent teachers will fix our schools.

Research Realities: In any professional workplace, dismissing ineffective employees makes common sense. But the best evidence indicates that the percentage of ineffective teachers in American public schools is far lower than media reports might suggest. For example, the Teacher Advancement Program, which includes many thousands of teachers across the United States, uses both student test results and observational methods to assess teaching effectiveness. Only a very small fraction of TAP teachers are rated ineffective. Over 85 percent have been deemed proficient (with a score of 3 or above) and almost one-third earn a score of 4 or above on a 5-point scale. There’s ample evidence that we are obsessing on a small problem while we give short shrift to professional development strategies that could move large numbers of teachers from satisfactory to excellent.

Myth #4: Teacher tenure rules make it impossible to get rid of poor teachers.

Research Realities: A recent study by The New Teacher Project clearly shows that the difficulty in removing ineffective teachers has much more to do with ill-trained and supported administrators than tenure rules. Another report from the Center for American Progress concluded that poor evaluation procedures – not tenure – are most likely to account for a school district’s inability to fire poor performers. Teacher tenure is prevalent in “high achievement” nations like Finland. In America, poor teacher evaluation is common (epidemic, in fact) in school districts with or without unions and tenure. Tenure reform is necessary, but the bigger issue is eliminating the widespread educational malpractice associated with broken evaluation systems, which not only stymie teacher development but student achievement.

Myth #5: Merit pay will motivate teachers to teach more effectively.

Research Realities: In the most rigorous study to date, scholars from Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation plainly conclude that “rewarding teachers with bonus pay, in the absence of any other support programs, does not raise student test scores.” Performance pay plans can make a difference for student achievement when they are designed to improve the school climate and encourage teacher collaboration. Studies of effective performance pay systems tell us that: (1) teachers must be involved in the design and implementation; (2) costs need to be known and made public prior to program launch; (3) the system cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach – districts and schools need to be able to adapt based on local contexts; and (4) one or two direct measures of student learning (like standardized test scores) cannot be the only basis for rewards.

These myths drive today’s teaching policies and continue to ground solutions in yesterday’s challenges. They distract us from the demands that teachers already face today and that will only intensify tomorrow. We need to identify our most effective teachers, using fair, rigorous and valid measures, and let them lead the way in removing ineffective colleagues. Most important, we need to invest far more in teacher education and school redesign policies reflective of 21st century demands on our public schools. More than anything else today’s policy focus must spread the expertise our best teachers, in and out of cyberspace.

In TEACHING 2030, a new book I’ve authored with 12 outstanding teachers, we build a compelling case that for teachers to be effective now and in the future, they must know how to:

(1) teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on smartphones and virtual reality games and can find information (if not understanding) with a few taps of the finger;

(2) work with a student body that’s increasingly diverse (by 2030, 40 percent or more will be second-language learners);

(3) prepare students to compete for jobs in a global marketplace where communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative problem solving are the “new basics”;

(4) help students monitor their own learning – using sophisticated tools to assess whether students meet high academic standards and fine-tuning instruction when they don’t; and

(5) connect teaching to the needs of communities as economic churn creates family and societal instability, pushing schools to integrate health and social services with academic learning.

As described in TEACHING 2030, far too preparation programs, including both alternative and traditional ones, cultivate teachers with these skills. Even fewer schools are organized to create opportunities for our best teachers — or teacherpreneurs — to teach students regularly as well as lead pedagogical and policy reforms outside their classrooms. Now’s the time to transcend the usual debates over how to make our schools better and our teachers more effective – and break free of the myths that keep us fighting 20th century battles. Instead we need to look hard at the realities, framed by research evidence as well as the challenges teachers face everyday, in pointing the way toward a 21st century teaching profession demanded by our nation’s public schools.

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