As moderator Richard Lee Colvin, executive director of Education Sector, emphasized, "Education is at the heart of everything we do." Research has repeatedly proven that teachers are the most important in-school factor in the equation. Colvin also pointed out that there is a great variation in teacher effectiveness. The challenge then becomes how can we best identify good teaching and help every teacher become stronger?
What may be surprising is that teachers welcome observations and the complementary support to help them improve, "as long as it is fair and transparent," said Lowell Milken, founder of TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement, which has been implemented in schools across the U.S. for more than a decade. TAP offers educators an integrated system of shared leadership, ongoing daily applied professional development, teacher accountability and competitive compensation. Milken credits TAP's broad acceptance to its comprehensive scope.
"When we created TAP, we asked, 'What do teachers aspire to? What do teachers want?' " he said. "We found that to create an environment that teachers wanted, the system had to be integrated. Because TAP teachers view teacher evaluation as an extension of the professional development, they actually embrace teacher evaluation."
Adrian Fenty, former mayor of Washington, D.C., echoed this sentiment through his experience implementing the district's IMPACT teacher evaluation system. "Teacher candidates went up seven times during (former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor) Michelle Rhee's tenure because teachers wanted accountability. They wanted to go into an environment where they were appreciated, valued and where management was engaged."
Yvonne Chan, a California State Board of Education member and principal of Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, said she would welcome clear definitions of "highly qualified" teachers for a basis to certify her own teachers. Vaughn Next has been successfully implementing teacher evaluation and performance pay for teachers and administrators since 1997. She has seen a drastic improvement in teacher recruitment and retention as a result, so much so that many of her students are now teachers. "I'd be crazy to put all that money on a lemon," she said.
Getting teacher evaluation right is something the federal government is tackling through its new federal initiatives such as Race to the Top, as well as in the effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
"Our current system of teacher evaluation and professional development is broken," said Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to President Obama for education. "When we talk to teachers, many don't feel they are evaluated against a meaningful rubric. Three billion dollars is spent federally on professional development, and it isn't always tied to the skills and knowledge teachers need to succeed. We need a comprehensive approach."
Rodriguez cited the support of TAP and Washington, D.C.'s IMPACT evaluation system through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), as well as the "encouraging work" being done through Race to the Top. "When teachers are provided with the support," he said, "you begin to see transformation in these schools."
While the panelists were quick to point out that the road is not easy, they noted a climate ripe for change.
"As a nation, we have an opportunity more than ever before to improve K-12 education," Milken said.
"If we put in the right incentives for meaningful collaboration," said Rodriguez, "the reforms we institute today will see the test of time."