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Good Teachers, Or Great Teaching?

The public dialogue on teacher effectiveness leaves me with conflicting feelings. On one hand, I am pleased to see that the public finally recognizes what we've always known and that research continues to confirm--teacher effectiveness is the most important factor in raising student achievement. This fact, backed up by rigorous research, gives me hope that our nation can overcome our history of persistent achievement gaps that exist along socio-economic lines.

I'm discouraged, however, by how the focus on this issue has turned to the firing of ineffective teachers. While I fully support efforts to streamline employment policies and practices to remove persistently ineffective teachers, I strongly believe that putting all of our energy and focus on this narrow goal will fail to pay off for our students.

What makes me especially nervous is that the simplistic nostrum of firing ineffective teachers is gaining traction at the local level. In a recent meeting with school board members of a small, impoverished, isolated community I heard them mimic the national dialogue--"let's get rid of our bad teachers." They had specific individuals in mind, and were ready to call them by name. They were caught up in the false promise of firing your way to a better school system.

During our conversation, I asked them to identify what they really wanted and what their students really needed. The answer was great teaching. I reminded them that great teaching doesn't happen by accident. It's a skill to be developed throughout a professional career. I assured them that the majority of their teachers were engaged and wanted to help their students achieve success, and that many needed to improve and were looking for help to do it.

At the close of the meeting, I asked the board members if they were ready to set high expectations for their teachers and students, and develop a culture of learning in their school system. I warned that this would require teachers to be expected to learn, grow, and improve every day. By doing so, the school system would be on its way to giving students what they need and deserve--great teaching. They accepted this challenge. How many others will?

M. René Islas
Director, Learning Forward Center for Results

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