Help K-12 teachers excel, and everyone benefits
A quality education is critical to success in life. After decades of investments in improving education, how close are we to the goal of providing all students the opportunity to reach their potential?
“The good news,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, “is that we’ve made measurable learning gains in NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] in reading and math.”
Moderating a panel of education leaders on K-12 reform at the Milken Institute Global Conference, he noted that proficiency in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math has gone up. Graduation rates have also increased, including for African-American and Hispanic students. And yet, said Milken, “a significant number of students are still being left behind.”
Despite the $200 billion spent over the past half-century to advance progress for disadvantaged students, he said, test results show that half of African-American and Hispanic students can’t read proficiently and 30 percent perform below basic levels in math.
An effective way to turn the tide? Focus more on developing talented educators. Milken said that next to home and family, capable teachers represent the most important school-related factor to increasing student achievement.
At the Success Academy Charter Schools—the highest-performing charters in New York City—founder Eva Moskowitz and her instructors devote time to collaborate on how to best educate kids. Conversations among teachers can be as simple as determining which math problems would be most effective in helping students learn, said Moskowitz, who was one of the panelists.
Kristan Van Hook, senior vice president of public policy and development for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), centers her work on providing professional mentoring opportunities for teachers. NIET attracts, develops and retains effective educators through TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement and the Best Practices Center, which collectively reaches more than 200,000 educators and 2.5 million students. “We develop language around good teaching and how to move the needle for each student,” Van Hook said.
The benefits of this work are evident in states such as Tennessee, whose department of education has partnered with NIET on the state’s teacher evaluation system. Sara Heyburn, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, helped lead the effort to better train teachers. In 2013, the state recorded the largest growth on NAEP in the history of the assessment.
“If you do not give attention to teachers and students in the classroom,” Heyburn said, “you will never get the results to be globally competitive.”
But the path to success is paved with challenges.
“Change is hard,” noted Heyburn. “The first year [of implementing the new teacher-evaluation system] was difficult.”
Since that time, the state has assessed the system regularly and heard from teachers on ways to improve it. “It wasn’t a question of if we were going to evaluate teachers; it was a question of how we were going to do it better,” she said.
John Deasy, former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said he has pushed for transformation in the ways to hire, fire, promote and retain teachers to prevent the ramifications of “last in, first out”—a method that lays off teachers based solely on seniority versus effectiveness. The efforts were met with opposition from unions and others.
Deasy said this “deep fight” over ensuring effective educators in every classroom is “hard to comprehend.” It’s worrisome, he added, that the rolling back of a number of these policies will hinder Los Angeles students’ shot at the American dream.
When local barriers prevent progress, can the federal government help?
Competitive Teacher Incentive Fund grants from the U.S. Department of Education have allowed NIET to take its work to scale in states and districts, and have encouraged these places to set high bars. Moskowitz’s Success Academy charters have received useful start-up funds.
Rudolph Crew, president of CUNY’s Medgar Evers College and the former head of schools in New York City and Miami-Dade County, suggested that the federal government should “position itself as a convener of how teaching should be improved” and recommend strategies to places where low achievement persists.
In the near and long term, the panelists said, commitment at all levels is crucial to enacting change.
“It’s going to take us two centuries if we tinker at the margins,” said Moskowitz. “It takes just as much time to tinker than to implement bold change. Why not go for it?”