With Mike Johnston’s teacher evaluation bill headed towards a vote later today, the heightened rhetoric has now eclipsed the likely impact. For while I wholeheartedly support this bill, I also think the fevered opinion has given it a prominence that overshadows its relative ability to produce significant change.
With the rising antagonism between supporters and opponents, both sides went for the jugular: CEA publicly attacking Commissioner Dwight Jones and flexing its substantial lobbying muscle, while supporters enlisted the cumulative wisdom of the past 36 years of Colorado governors as well as district superintendents from Mapleton, Harrison, Denver and Aurora. In order to pass/block the bill, both sides must argue to its greatest possible impact. The end result is to inflate SB 191 to an elevated importance that no single proposal could possibly merit.
For if the bill passes (without too much change), it is both unlikely to be either a panacea leading to better educational outcomes for students, or the sudden arrival of nuclear winter for teachers. In truth, SB 10-191 is only one part of the institutional changes we need concerning teachers in public education, and in my view is probably of lesser importance than some related areas. If this is the only evolutionary step we make for education reform, we are unlikely to crawl out of our current muck and rise to our feet.
To improve the quality of teaching, we need three primary changes (and a lot of secondary ones): First, find a way to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Second, retain the outstanding teachers who voluntarily leave the profession. And third, widen the pool of potential hires so that we can recruit the best possible candidates into the classroom. Now don’t misunderstand, there are a lot of other tasks — many of these district-related policies that prevent current teachers from being able to do their best work (I have long believed that we have better teachers than we have teaching, due to various impediments). But at a macro level, we need to address these three issues first.
Even rough numbers should help us gauge relative importance. Colorado hires between 6,500 and 7,000 new teachers annually. Of these, roughly 50 percent do not progress beyond their 5th year. In contrast, the number of teachers who are likely to be “evaluated” out of the classroom is far smaller than the number of either better candidates that we might attract, or retaining the best teachers who leave. For without the ability to replace bad teachers with better ones, evaluating teachers out of the classroom will accomplish virtually nothing. While SB 191 may be a substantial change to the teaching profession, by itself it is unlikely to have significant change on educational outcomes for students.
SB 10-191 — laudable and important as it is — only directly tackles the problem of removing bad teachers (although it might help marginally with retention). Now we all know there are teachers who should not be teaching, but in comparison to recruitment and retention, I think these numbers are fairly small. My guess is that even if this bill is applied as aggressively as possible, the percentage of teachers affected will be in the small single digits. The impact of SB 10-191, by itself, is unlikely to move the needle of student achievement across the State.
What else should we do? I’d posit two approaches.
To retain the outstanding teachers who leave the profession, we need to start by abolishing the collective bargaining agreement’s single salary schedule. In no other profession are the best performers in an industry confined to being compensated at the same rate as their average (or below-average) peers. Most of the people testifying in support or against 191 have achieved professional distinction, and are both recognized and compensated for their accomplishments. We need to extend to our best teachers the same respect. SB 10-191 may help us better recognize these top performers, but they are unlikely to remain in the profession without accompanying incentives (and this should start with, but not be limited to salaries).
In addition, we need to phase out teacher certification, which serves primarily as an artificial barrier that discourages potential teachers and diverts resources that could be better applied. Programs like Teach For America and the New Teacher Project have shown no substantive difference between traditional teacher certification and alternative (and usually far less extensive and expensive) methods.
Other avenues of preparation should be offered – both TFA and NTP programs, and expanded teacher residencies, which provide hands-on experience and mentoring. The requirement for teacher certification, and the related increase in pay for advanced degrees with no correlation with teacher quality, primary results in tuition dollars and a transfer of wealth to schools of education that provide little to no value to K-12 students. While it has been a few years since Art Levine’s seminal report on teacher education, little has changed.
Funding these changes will be hard, but not impossible. Districts spend considerable amounts on new hires; reducing attrition will eventually have a positive impact on budgets. But to start, redeploy the salary dollars we have away from fixed raises for seniority and professional certification to instead recognize outstanding teachers as determined by school leadership (which would incorporate, but not be limited by the evaluation procedures in SB 10-191).
Secondly, pursue policies that shift the substantial dollars provided to schools of education into residency and alternative training programs. Meaningless academic educational programs – most at private universities — suck millions of dollars in tuition and valuable time directly from teachers. This is a billion-dollar industry that provides limited value — a remarkable waste of resources in the struggle to improve public education.
Prospective teachers should be given a choice between paying for these programs – often highly expensive, particularly given teacher starting salaries – and contributing to residency and other programs (which would also provide jobs upon successful program completion).
So, in the heightened shadow of SB 10-191, here is a modest proposal: migrate teacher preparation from mandatory certification to alternative and residency programs, shifting tuition dollars that enrich private universities to public school systems. Abolish the single salary structure, using the premium formerly paid for advanced degrees to reward outstanding teachers for the achievements in the classroom.
And in the wake of what I think will be the successful passage of a mostly-whole SB 10-191, do not, for one minute, think that the effort to improve public education in Colorado has taken more than a small step forward, with a long distance still to travel.