Spotlight on teachers

With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett putting “identify and reward great teachers and principals” at the top of their education reform agenda, it’s a good time to share some of what’s being said and written about the subject of teacher quality.

The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel, working in partnership with the New York-based Hechinger Report, is wrapping up a multi-part series titled “Building a Better Teacher.” Every Sunday since early November, the paper has included a story on the challenges to training, identifying and rewarding great teachers.

Topics have included teacher evaluations, merit pay, steering better teachers to high-need schools, teacher education, the role of unions and the importance of principals. The stories tend to focus on Wisconsin schools and issues. But they’re well reported and clearly written – a good overview of the questions that the Indiana Legislature will be considering.

Part Two, titled “Grading Teachers is No Easy Assignment,” and Part Three, “School Districts Evaluate Merits of Merit Pay,” report on the nationwide push to measure teacher effectiveness and use the results to determine how teachers should be evaluated, paid and retained in their jobs.

What does the public think?

According to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll reported this month, Americans think teachers should be paid more but that it should be easier to fire bad teachers.

The poll found that 78 percent of respondents think principals should be able to fire teachers whose performance isn’t up to snuff. At the same time, 57 percent think teachers are paid too little and only 7 percent think they are paid too much.

Only 35 percent said the number of bad teachers is a serious problem in American schools; and just 45 percent blamed teachers’ unions for the problem. Higher percentages were critical of parents and federal, state and local education officials.

A commission on teacher quality

The nation’s biggest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, announced recently that it will establish an independent panel on teacher quality, called the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

The commission will include 21 accomplished teachers, who will be supported by researchers, policy experts and academics, the NEA said. Their goal will be to “craft a new teacher-centered vision of teaching and the teaching profession.”

The commissioners will meet four to six times over the next year and hold public meetings to gather input on the topics they’re considering, according to the NEA.

School improvement the Finnish way

Hechinger Report has a Q-and-A with Pasi Sahlberg, an official with the Ministry of Education of Finland, which was once again among the top-scoring nations on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Here’s what Sahlberg says about using “value-added” data from test scores to evaluate teachers: “It’s very difficult to use this data to say anything about the effectiveness of teachers. If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away.”

Daniels and Bennett have said they want student achievement – measured by improvement in test scores – to count for at least half of the annual evaluation of Indiana teachers.

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Writing about ‘Waiting for “Superman”’

Whatever the merits of the new movie Waiting for “Superman,” it’s inspiring some good education journalism, including stories in publications that usually don’t devote much ink to schools. Here are a few examples:

Dana Goldstein’s long piece in The Nation is titled “Grading ‘Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and the article does fault the movie for its heroes-and-villains plot line, calling it “a moving but vastly oversimplified brief on American educational inequality.” But Goldstein goes further, writing a balanced and well researched story that examines the influence in the school-policy debate of billionaire Bill Gates and journalist Steven Brill and reports how teachers’ unions in Denver, Memphis and Los Angeles have taken the lead in pushing for reform.

Goldstein is spending the year writing about education as a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. At a time when some newspapers and magazines seem to be cutting back on education coverage, hats off to the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation for helping fill the gap.

In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann make a persuasive case that America’s education system, on the whole, is succeeding. “So it’s odd that a narrative of crisis, of a systemic failure, in American education is currently so persuasive,” he writes, citing Waiting for “Superman” as a leading example.

Lemann says we should be suspicious when “an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama” – and we should be wary of plans to reform large, complex systems. Continue reading