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Why I Still Care About Teacher-Quality Reform

This week, you'll be hearing from guest blogger, and longtime reader favorite, Heather Harding. Heather is the director of policy and public understanding at the Schusterman Foundation. Previously, she worked in various senior roles for Teach for America and the Gates Foundation. She'll be discussing how to improve teacher quality as a tool for equitydrawing on her experiences as a scholar, reformer, and parent.

It's been at least a decade since "human capital" and teacher-quality reforms took center stage in education reform. In the mid-2000s, evidence was building, and thanks to Chetty's pivotal study, the field began to embrace the importance of teachers. The theory went something like this: Since the empirical evidence finally proved that teacher quality was the single best predictor of long-term student outcomes, reforms should aim to identify the best teachers, weed out the low performers, and ensure that those entering the profession were as strong as possible.

When it came to identifying the best teachers, teacher recruitment gave way to complex operations focused on building pipelines of promising candidates. Organizations such as Teach for America and TNTP built a science around recruiting and selecting great teachers for "hard-to-staff" or "low-performing" schools, and their practices had major influence on the human-resource practices of school districts across the country.

For weeding out the low performers, districts were aggressively launching teacher evaluation systems using business principles from performance management theory that insisted on using measures of student learning as the key variable in teacher ratings. In many cases, these systems utilized tools in ways that they were not originally intended. The best example is the use of value-added formulas using standardized tests scores as the major indicator in teacher evaluation. Significant pushback on this has halted many teacher-quality reforms because of concerns about over-testing and whether or not standardized tests are the best and most important measure of student learning.

While I'm not a fan of the term "human capital" (given its reduction of real-life human beings to capital—as assets in some abstract market system), and much prefer the term "teacher quality"—I do agree with the tenet that in education, it's the people who matter. As a person who came of age during this era, and is a product of Teach for America, I probably drank from the Kool-Aid about how much talent matters. Assembling the best team and identifying people who have the right skills and mindset feels essential to doing anything well. Teaching is a high-touch profession, and the capacity of individuals to get the work done efficiently and efficaciously is very important. In other words, I was down for teacher-quality efforts and vowed to learn through the experiments of teacher-evaluation systems—especially those that rewarded performance via financial incentives. Why? Because teachers have long deserved better compensation.

I've also always believed in accountability, and never found the calls for teacher evaluation to include student learning outcomes outrageous. However, how well a standardized test score informs a teachers' instructional effectiveness is a challenging proposition, given that we also see correlations between student characteristics like socioeconomic status and performance on standardized tests. Many policies and practices in this last era were boldly implemented without careful attention to how to help teachers improve, and the research on the curricular and instructional supports that even the most talented teachers need was largely ignored as the "human capital" train gained steam. In our work at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, we are investing in high-quality teacher preparation and professional learning throughout the career. This part of the work feels left undone.

So it concerns me that we've stopped talking about teacher quality. To my mind, teacher-quality debates are not just about recruitment, selection, and evaluation, but extend beyond to include issues of fit and ongoing development. Knowing who will thrive in what type of school environment feels very much a part of the "secret sauce" of the teacher-quality equation. Our reforms up to this point have fallen short of exploring this, and it's never been sexy to dig deep into how to ensure that educators have access to high-quality learning that's job-embedded, despite that's what we've all learned from the research.

With the exception of the a few researchers and brave districts that explored teacher distribution and incentives for accepting challenging placements, school environment, working conditions, and what I'll call "cultural fit" have failed to be places where innovation and deep policy work have been taken up. I yearn for the day when we not only hold high standards for preparation for entering and continuing in the profession, but also consider the nuances of matching individual skills of educators with the school-based roles we design. 

You might ask, "What are you really talking about here, Heather?" This week, I'm going to try to unpack these issues, while also allowing myself some space to dream and muse about what school could be if we were really trying to transform it.

—Heather Harding

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