A Sharper Focus on Teacher Effectiveness Produces Better Outcomes

May 03, 2016

The revealing statistics were cited by Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the Milken Family Foundation as he moderated a Global Conference panel examining the state of American public education. Improving educational opportunities requires focusing on teacher effectiveness and embracing technology, panelists said during the session “Progress Report: Education Leaders Sound Off.”

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, a reform program passed by Congress in 2002, was born out of bipartisan frustration that student achievement numbers remained stagnant, said Kristan Van Hook, senior vice president of public policy and development for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET). However, the act gave the federal government what some felt was too large a role in addressing underperforming areas. “You can require someone to do something, but you can’t require them to do it well,” Van Hook said.

The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states and local school districts more freedom to implement policies to improve student outcomes, but Milken pointed out a potential drawback. “It’s a positive change for states that have already begun to make changes, but states that have sat on their hands will have a lot less pressure from the federal government,” he said.

New teachers require more support than many districts provide, said Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, which runs 41 schools with 14,000 students in New York City. Fifty years ago, said Moskowitz, the traditional limits on women’s “appropriate” career options resulted in a high concentration of well-educated, talented women teaching in the classroom. Many of the candidates choosing careers in education today graduate without all of the skills the job requires. As a result, they still need to learn how to teach, and need support in their content areas.

“When I’m hiring a seventh-grade math teacher, I give them the fifth-grade math test during our interview,” Moskowitz said. “Sadly, they can’t always ace it.”

At Success Academy, teacher effectiveness begins with the principal, who functions as the school’s instructional leader, examining student work and leading teacher meetings, Moskowitz said. Success Academy principals receive extensive training. “Just because you know the classroom doesn’t mean you know how to manage teachers to get the outcomes you want,” she said.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said his school’s teacher training program has undergone an overhaul over the past 10 years. When Crow arrived in 2002, the education school was more of a theoretical organization; Crow and his colleagues remade it as a practical teachers college whose core objective is to produce a teacher ready for a long, successful career in the classroom. ASU raised $150 million, built teacher-tracking mechanisms and feedback loops to help assess how its graduates performed, added a psychological profile to its admissions requirements and built its own charter schools where ASU-trained teachers hone their skills. The school is currently developing an online “learning leadership network” to offer continuing education to its deployed graduates. “We see our teachers like the sensei in a dojo,” Crow said. “Everyone is a teacher, everyone is a learner.”

Both Crow and Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, described the challenge of successfully integrating large numbers of highly diverse students with varying levels of academic achievement. This fall ASU will matriculate 6,000 freshmen who had “A” grade averages in high school, 6,000 with “B” averages and 11,000 community college transfer students, said Crow. While statistics show that a significant percentage of college freshmen arrive needing at least one remedial course, Crow and Dirks talked about different ways their universities are addressing that need. ASU has created technology-driven, individualized learning platforms that have reduced the failure rate in gateway-level math and science classes from 50 percent to 15 percent or less.

Dirks noted that because some of UC Berkeley’s programs are so competitive — computer science, for example — students who haven’t had the opportunity to take calculus and other advanced math in high school get shut out. The school is working with high schools to try to level the playing field and give more students access to these advanced classes, but with only 13 percent of the school’s budget coming from state funds (versus 30 percent for Dirks’ predecessor) and one-third of all UC Berkeley students eligible for Pell Grants, funding remains a significant hurdle.

Despite the challenges, the panelists remain optimistic about improving education. “Americans are unbelievably innovative,” said Crow. “We bring people together, find the best ideas, and synthesize them to come up with solutions. … More innovation is going to lead to more and better educational opportunities.” Moskowitz added that she is inspired by kindergarteners. “They have a hunger to learn. To them, learning is like breathing. It’s in their DNA,” she said.

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