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Feedback as Professional Development

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A recent report about the US Department of Education's 50 State Strategy, Education Week reported said there would be a higher emphasis on the equitable placement of highly qualified teachers.  The intent is to be sure that "poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective or unqualified teachers at a higher rate than their peers."  NCLB defined a highly qualified teacher as "having a bachelor's degree, full state certification as defined by the state, and a demonstrated competency as defined by the state, in each core academic subject he or she teaches."  Highly qualified in these terms, means academically prepared to enter the classroom.  It does not mean highly effective.  That's where the APPR* kicks in.

Stating a goal for all students, in all districts, to have teachers adequately prepared to teach is certainly missing a piece of our reality...no superintendent, human resource director or principal we know sets their sights on hiring unqualified teachers.  However, in wealthy and middle class suburban districts, the applicant pool of qualified teachers is much larger than in poorer urban and rural districts. Most of those in teacher preparation programs aspire to teach in those districts where they may eventually live and raise their own families. These are mostly young graduates who also consider lifestyle when applying for jobs. 247wallst.com's report on America's richest and poorest school districts holds no surprises.

Nearly all of the wealthiest school districts are within a short distance of one of the richest cities in the country. Other than one suburb of Portland, Ore., all of the wealthiest school districts are commuter towns of New York City, located in either Fairfield County, Conn., or Westchester County, N.Y. The poorest districts are rural communities scattered all over the country, from Ohio and Kentucky to Texas and Mississippi.

What are the chances that a rural Kentucky district, for example, in need of a highly qualified kindergarten teacher or physics teacher can be guaranteed to find one?  And, in dedication to providing the best education possible, they are left with these choices: increase class sizes in Kindergarten so all students have highly qualified teachers OR hire the best available candidate, who can provide the best possible education to those students while completing certification requirements and maintaining the district's desire for a particular class size in Kindergarten. In the case of the physics teacher, the choice may be hiring a certified chemistry teacher who had some physics courses and continue to be able to offer physics to their students, while the teacher worked toward completion of their certification in physics, or deny their students the opportunity to take physics. Technology and distance learning may open up another possibility or a partnership with a business or finding the right retiree. For some of us, hiring involves a bit of creativity. These are difficult choices that have to be made in schools in which affluence and geography are not in their favor. Whether given time for implementation, or not, these factors are not likely to change.

What might be a better requirement for schools is to guarantee that no matter where a student goes to school, no matter the SES of the district, all students are guaranteed that their teachers have access to high quality professional development.  The NCLB definition remains clear but very broad and, in Common Core terms, needs a close reading, followed by a discussion and agreement as to how it is being read across districts and states. In the meantime, across the nation, funding is shrinking, faculties reduced, and increasingly opportunities for students are threatened.  So how can we guarantee that teachers receive professional development that will most certainly fit in their classrooms and be developed and monitored over time?  And, how do we include professional development to augment our knowledge of the human beings involved in the learning process:  student and teacher?

This is truly a call on leaders to attend to the work of continuous improvement of instruction through the supervision process even in the face of dwindling professional development funding. The best resource for professional development is ongoing professional feedback... not criticism, but skilled meaningful, targeted feedback. In this we can learn from the current technology. A "Like" on Facebook is an example as is eBay and Amazon feedback and ratings.  There are differences between them, but they are valued and have an effect that can change behavior. When posting on Facebook, if something is "Liked" it most often either means it is appreciated or is acknowledged in agreement. It is simple, clear, easy, and most often, valued by the person receiving it. It serves to encourage the one who posted that the content as well.  However, imagine the diminished value of a "Like" if everything was "Liked" equally.  The value of receiving a "Like" is in knowing someone took the time to note what was posted and to indicate their feeling about it. eBay and Amazon feedback and ratings are appreciated as well.  The expectations are clear...was the seller prompt, reliable, and easy to contact? Did the seller respond to questions quickly? Did the product come when promised?  Was the product as described? If you had to return the product, was it handled easily or as promised? Simple, clear expectations and opportunities for numbers, stars, and comments abound. It works. It is quantifiable and unsolicited. Students of all ages could offer that feedback about every lesson if we wanted it. Maybe parents would do it too. How risky (or courageous) would that be? But it is something all leaders can provide to teachers and, done with a well focused plan, can result in professional growth.

We may or may not be able to hire highly qualified faculty.  If we do have what is considered highly qualified faculties, we want them to grow into highly effective teachers who lead their students through rigorous, motivating, and successful classroom experiences. We may or may not be able to offer what we understand to be high quality professional development to our faculty. But there is something that every leader can offer every teacher and that is high quality and frequent feedback. Whether in the style of Facebook, eBay, Amazon, or some other system of our own creation, focusing on important learning goals and valuing feedback is possible. Offering it frequently with the understanding that criticism does not promote growth and that attention and encouragement do, we can develop and reinforce professional development that is purposeful and results in teachers who continue to grow and change in order to meet the needs of all students, always. That is what a highly qualified highly effective leader does - develop highly qualified, highly effective teachers.  It is leadership in action.

*In NYS APPR is the Annual Professional Performance Review.  It is the way in which teachers and principals are evaluated annually.

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