Under ESSA, each state must have a plan to ensure that low-income and minority students are not taught by inexperienced, out-of-field or ineffective teachers at higher rates than other students. One major challenge is how to define "effectiveness," and a close second is how to encourage effective and highly effective educators to work in high-need schools and classrooms.
Having done this work for more than 15 years with thousands of educators across more than 10 states, NIET strongly encourages states not to start by focusing on a definition of "ineffective," but to focus instead on defining effectiveness across a range of indicators from ineffective to highly effective, and to align this vision and description of effective practice with systems for professional learning, support and career advancement.
Teaching and learning are the foundation of our education system. For this reason, it is especially important for states and districts to develop a definition of "effectiveness" that truly captures a teacher's ability to help students learn. This definition will signal to districts, and to educators across the state, the expectations for teaching and learning in classrooms.
As seen in this chart used by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, teacher effectiveness is the key to closing achievement gaps: students assigned to a teacher in the top 20 percent of performance gain a year and a half of academic growth on average, while students with a low performing teacher average less than a year of growth during that school year.
Research demonstrates that the most effective systems for evaluating a highly complex activity like teaching use multiple measures of performance. Using multiple measures provides opportunities to demonstrate effectiveness in a variety of ways and, more importantly, creates a structure for detailed, specific feedback for educators to improve throughout the year.
An essential measure in systems designed to support instructional improvement is the classroom observation and feedback system. Observations of practice are grounded in a "rubric" or detailed description of teaching practice that educators agree captures the breadth and depth of teaching skill from novice to expert. It must provide teachers and their evaluators with a full vocabulary for discussing how classroom practice varies across a range of skill levels, and create structured opportunities for feedback and improvement. In this way, the observation process supports growth for every teacher, even the most advanced. This common language for describing effective teaching underlies professional learning.
States play an important role in providing guidance to districts on the definition of effective teaching, including how to measure accurately and fairly the effectiveness of teaching, and how to create systems to support improvements in classroom instruction for all educators. As they consider defining "effectiveness" for purposes of equitable distribution, states must pay close attention to how this definition will align with broader efforts to create a system of continuous improvement for classroom instruction in every district.
For example, to ensure an observation system is valid, reliable and supported by teachers, evaluators should be trained, certified and recertified annually on the use of the observation rubric. Teachers should be observed by multiple observers, multiple times over the course of the year, and timely, detailed and structured feedback should be provided based on each observation of practice.
In addition to observations of classroom practice by multiple, trained and certified observers, states and districts may choose to include measures of student academic progress. Student learning should be measured using growth rather than proficiency for purposes of supporting teacher effectiveness, so that teachers of higher-need students who have not yet met proficiency targets are recognized for how much they help their students to grow. By considering how a teacher supported learning growth, this approach signals to teachers that they will be recognized for working with the highest-need students.
Incentivizing Highly Effective Educators to Teach High-Need Students
In order to encourage highly effective teachers and principals to work with our highest-need students, we need to create a system that will recognize and support their efforts to help students achieve significantly more than one year's academic growth.
Consider a high-need school where most students are two to three years below grade level. Even the most effective teacher may not be able to bring her students up to proficiency in a single year. Yet if she can help them to achieve more than one year of growth in her classroom, they will be on their way to closing the achievement gap, particularly if they have multiple years of effective teachers in a row.
Building a school environment and staff with the skills to accomplish this requires an effective school leader. An effective school leader can create systems that build the skills of existing teachers, draw new talent to the school, and put in place incentives within the building for the most effective teachers to teach the highest-need students. Effective district leaders are critical as well in making it clear that supporting high-need students is a priority for the district, and that teachers who are successful in working with these students will have opportunities for recognition and reward.
This Can Work
There are strong examples of districts and schools that have successfully increased the percentages of effective and highly effective educators working with their highest-need students. Given the diversity of states and districts, these plans must be driven by local needs, as envisioned in ESSA. Yet they all use as a foundation a clear, detailed and challenging description of classroom practice across a range of skill levels, and a system for both measuring and improving practice along this continuum.
For example, in Indianapolis, the Perry Township Schools targeted efforts to increase teacher and school leader effectiveness to its highest-need schools. Southport Elementary School, a high-poverty school with a large refugee population, was able to use a structured system of support to increase the skills of teachers across the school. In particular, Southport adopted a clear, detailed description of teaching practice, identified teacher leaders to support colleagues using this rubric, carved out time for school based professional learning and individual coaching on these skills, and trained principals to use distributed leadership teams that include these teacher leaders to support improvements in every classroom.
The data generated by this system enabled Southport Elementary to accurately identify teachers needing support for improvement as well as highly effective teachers to target to its highest-need students. The result was significant and sustained increases in student achievement across all subgroups of students.
In another example, Ascension Public Schools in Louisiana has some very high performing schools in wealthier communities as well as a number of very high-poverty schools. Ascension created a "turnaround zone" where high-poverty schools became centers of innovation and excellence. The district directed significant resources including funding teacher leadership positions with the training, time and authority to provide individual teacher support and school-based weekly professional development for teams of teachers, opportunities for additional compensation based on effectiveness and on taking on leadership roles, and an evaluation system designed to provide feedback for support based on multiple measures of performance.
This intensive support increased the skills of teachers and principals in the turnaround zone schools. The opportunity to take on leadership roles, and the support the leadership team provided to every teacher, created a powerful draw for educators across and outside the district to choose to teach in the high-need innovation schools. The result was a far higher percentage of highly effective teachers and principals in the turnaround zone schools than other schools, and more rapid increases in academic growth for high-need students. These investments also benefitted students in other schools, as the district took the most impactful practices and resources—such as the evaluation rubric—and embedded them districtwide.
As states and districts think about their strategies for increasing the number of effective and highly effective teachers and school leaders working with low-income, minority students, these examples illustrate the importance of first clearly, accurately and consistently describing what it means to be "effective." And second, developing strategies that consider the many elements that effective educators take into consideration when deciding where to work, and that help them to grow professionally.
These strategies include opportunities for professional growth and leadership roles, time for collaborative learning and team work led by trained experts in that school, evaluations that provide meaningful, timely and individualized feedback, and opportunities for additional compensation based on leadership roles and supporting student learning. District and school structures that provide opportunities, support and accountability for results can create the conditions that attract and retain effective teachers and school leaders to work with our highest-need students.
We encourage states and districts to emphasize the importance of aligning the definition of effective teaching for purposes of promoting equitable access, with other elements of a comprehensive and coherent education system.