Teacher Quality In DC

[The following testimony on how DCPS might learn from strategies used successfully in other districts for improving teaching quality was delivered on behalf of the Mooney Institute before the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) on March 12, 2008. A pdf version of the testimony is attached.]

The most important thing a school district can do to improve the quality of teaching and student learning is to create a system for nurturing the craft of teaching. Great teachers are not found; they are made. Smart, young, even ivy-league recruits who may have taken lots of math or history content courses don’t know how to teach until they study the knowledge-base of teaching and develop a broad repertoire of skills and strategies.

The Federal definition of “highly qualified teacher” bears little relevance to the task of improving teacher quality. It is the responsibility of the State Board and Superintendent to define the “highly qualified” standard in a way that meets the federal requirements in NCLB. The “higher” standard that has been in place in DC has, ironically, caused good teachers to be labeled “not highly qualified” simply because they don’t have multiple Masters degrees for each subject they teach. It has also unnecessarily shrunk the pool of applicants for teaching positions. The State Superintendent’s proposed fix to the “highly qualified” definition in DC is a good one. However, it is important not to confuse the need to meet that not-very-well-regarded standard in the federal law with doing anything significant to impact teaching quality in school classrooms in the District of Columbia.

When the State Superintendent’s office looked at Ed Week’s Quality Counts report, which you referenced in your power-point overview, you seem to have overlooked the most important deficit for DCPS. In the category of “supports for beginning teachers,” “professional development” for all teachers, or even “school working conditions,” nothing was checked off for DC. They saw nothing positive going on at all in these categories.

The main function of the central office in a good school system is to nurture excellent teaching and to invest in the quality of its workforce. Such a system for nurturing good teaching has at least five components:

  1. A clear, non formulaic, definition of what good teaching is – what skillful teachers know and are able to do – what it looks like.
  2. A mechanism for creating a language to talk about what good teaching is and whether it is taking place in any classroom or school – clearly understood by the whole teacher and administrator workforce.
  3. An induction and new teacher mentoring mechanism that supports new teacher effectiveness.
  4. A credible evaluation process that identifies teachers whose practice does not match the definition of good teaching and removes teachers who cannot improve to meet standard.
  5. A mechanism for intensively assisting veteran teachers, available to principals, to help teachers expand their repertoire of strategies and meet the high standard.

The District of Columbia Public Schools has never had any of the components of such a system, and has therefore been failing its students, across the board, throughout its history. To be fair, Montgomery County just to the north of here really didn’t have those components until 2000 either. Good teaching exists in DCPS as random acts by heroic teachers, not as the result of systemic nurturing.

The tragedy that seems to be unfolding this year is that the new “Teacher Quality Initiatives” of the State Board of Education and the reforms being implemented by Chancellor Michelle Rhee still seem to be assiduously avoiding the crucial work of building such a system. The whole discussion today about so-called “teacher quality” is missing anything that seems connected to improving the quality of teaching.

The issues raised in the power-point presentation “The Key To Improving Student Achievement: Ensuring Educator Quality” touch on legitimate issues, all of which admittedly need to be addressed by the state office:

  • How to fill shortage subjects areas.
  • What to do about the numbers of teachers who don’t meet the “highly qualified” federal definition.
  • How to use traditional or alternative certification paths to address shortage areas.
  • How to use a value-added model to get more useful information than the apples to oranges comparison of student test data for different groups from one year to the next.
  • Adjustments that should be made to the credential or certification requirements required of new hires.
  • Incentives and other levers to impact teacher behaviors.
  • Administrator characteristics that have an impact on the quality of teachers a school or the school system is able to attract and retain.

But none of these seven issues involve anything that improves the quality of teaching or creates an understanding of what good teaching is. While all of these are interesting and useful questions on some level, they do nothing to create a system that nurtures skillful teaching.

Furthermore, the recommendations in the power-point under “Where Are We Heading?” seem to avoid the main task confronting DCPS. The major recommendation to solve the teacher quality problem seems to be to implement a value-added rating of each teacher and administrator’s DC-CAS scores. The power-point recommendations carry a false assumption that teaching quality equates with student scores on a single, annual, fairly simple multiple choice test. That value added information can be useful, but it is important not to confuse it with an effort, or plan, to improve teacher quality. Examining or even acting on value-added data improves nothing.

The DC State Board of Education seems to be relying almost exclusively on the narrow formulations of the National Council on Teacher Quality and Brookings’ Hamilton Project, both of which rely exclusively on the rate at which the District’s students pass the DC-CAS or any individual teacher’s students score above of below average on the DCCAS as the measure of teacher quality. There is much research that could have been drawn upon when discussing teacher quality, that wasn’t. From a teacher perspective it feels insulting to our professionalism to reduce the teacher quality discussion to a single set of test data. It is also in stark contrast with the approach taken in all the jurisdictions just north and south of you. Nationally, this is a contested arena. You seem to have sided with a very ideologically conservative approach to the subject of teacher quality.

What should be done?

A Definition of Good Teaching and a Language To Talk About It – School systems that are serious about teaching and learning begin with a definition of good teaching. Montgomery County and Fairfax County began with the person I think is the guru of skillful teaching – Jonathon Saphier, of Research for Better Teaching (RBT). RBT came in over a several year timeframe and trained all principals, assistant principals, department chair-people – anyone who had any role in teacher evaluation – and any teachers who wanted to take the six-day training in the language of how we talk about the extent to which skillful teaching is taking place in any given classroom. Little by little, almost all employees have now had the training. The effect has been to create a culture focused on teaching and learning.

Jon Saphier let it be known that he was interested in working with DCPS as a final challenge in his long career. He was invited to give a two day workshop to principals this past summer, but the proposal from within DCPS staff to bring him in to design a professional growth system for the District was rejected by the Chancellor as costing too much money.

Prince Georges’ County Public Schools has chosen to begin with Charlotte Danielson’s language of what constitutes good teaching and brought in another consultant, Lauren Resnick from the Institute for Learning (IFL) in Pittsburgh. Teachers and administrators in PGCPS are all studying the Danielson “Framework for Teaching” as their language. The Institute for Learning is deepening the language with their “Principles of Learning.”

Additionally, the Superintendent in Prince Georges County began just this year implementing a $2 Million project to recruit and support candidates for National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) in order to develop a cadre of teacher leaders who could help bring a very sophisticated understanding of what good teaching looks like to PGCPS’ most challenging schools. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has five Core Propositions that define good teaching and provide the basis for teacher reflection about their practice. Those core propositions can become the core of powerful professional development within a school.

DCPS, on the other hand, seems not to have much interest in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Work started under Clifford Janey to beef up DCPS support for NBPTS candidates has been all but discontinued under Chancellor Rhee. Contracts with George Washington University and other local universities to do NBPTS work in DCPS have not been consummated. It’s not where the Chancellor’s focus lies. She seems to not consider it a good investment.

I note that you include National Board Certification as potentially meeting the definition of “highly qualified,” but DCPS has no supports to help teachers achieve certification.

Investing In New Teacher Induction – School systems serious about the quality of Teaching create positions or stipend bearing activity in every school, through which every new teacher to the system is provided a veteran mentor.  The mentors are trained in the language of skillful teaching.  In some Districts, the New Teacher Center (NTC) at Santa Cruz is brought in to establish new teacher training and mentoring programs.

Michelle Rhee has made no secret of her admiration for Joel Klein, the Chancellor in New York. Klein ended New York’s contract with the Santa Cruz New Teacher Center to work with new teachers. Klein also discontinued the nationally celebrated District II Chancellor’s District which emphasized intensive support for improving the quality of teaching and learning.

Building a Robust Teacher Evaluation System – When Montgomery County created its Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program to evaluate and provide intensive assistance to every new teacher and to every veteran teacher identified by their principal as being below standard, they created a powerful intervention program focused in a deep way on the quality of teaching and learning. Peer Assistance and Review was an initiative of the Teacher’s Union and the program is run collaboratively by the teachers’ union and the principal’s union. As far as I know, there has been little or no discussion in DCPS between the Chancellor and the teachers’ union about reforming the teacher evaluation system.

Supports for Schools to Help Teachers Who Are Struggling – Currently in DCPS, the labor-intensive work involved in helping teachers develop their repertoire of skills when poor teaching is going on falls into the principals’ lap. There are no staff developers to draw on, no cadre of experts in the craft of teaching. No effort has been made in DCPS to create such a cadre.

Conclusion: The most important reason that the conversation about the quality of teaching needs to include a deep understanding of the complexity of the craft is out of respect for teacher professionalism. It is demoralizing for teachers to hear policy makers demean the quality of teaching as amounting to statistical analyses of multiple choice tests. From a teacher’s perspective, you begin to wonder whether anyone appreciates quality teaching and student learning. The consultants I have referenced in this testimony – Research for Better Teaching, the Institute for Learning, and the New Teacher Center at Santa Cruz all communicate to teachers that the difficult work they do is important, complex, and requires life-long learning on the part of the people who choose to teach.   

On a personal note, I spent seven years in Montgomery County Public Schools helping to design, create, and implement the kind of system I have been describing, as the president of the teachers’ union.  I have spent the past ten years observing DCPS through a parent’s eyes as my daughter has now reached 8th grade at Alice Deal MS. Ruby has had great teachers and we have been pleased with her schools. But if I was to summarize what I consider to be the biggest difference between DCPS and MCPS, it is the lack of any system in DCPS to nurture and support high quality teaching.

Good teaching in DCPS is a random act. There is no system of support from downtown. Principals are on their own, which means that teachers are on their own. I hope that the State Board of Education is interested in talking about high quality teaching because it doesn’t feel like it is yet on the table in DCPS. 


What Keeps Good Teachers in the Classroom? Understanding and Reducing Teacher Turnover, Alliance for Excellent Education Issue Brief, February, 2008

Evaluating Value-Added Models for Teacher Accountability, Daniel F. McCaffrey, J.R. Lockwood, Daniel MJ. Koretz, Laura S. Hamilton, The Rand Corporation, 2003

Recruiting and Retaining Quality Teachers for High-Needs Schools: Insights from NBCT Summits and other Policy Initiatives, Center for Teaching Quality, November 2007

Recruiting and Retaining National Board Certified Teachers in Hard-to-staff, Low-Performing Schools: Silver Bullets or Smart Solutions, Center for Teaching Quality, 2005

The Skillful Teacher; Building Your Teaching Skills, by Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Haley-Speca, and Robert Glower, published by Research for Better Teaching, 2008 Edition

The Skillful Leader, Confronting Mediocre Teaching, Alexander D. Platt, Caroline E. Tripp, Wayne R. Ogden and Robert G. Fraser, published by Research for Better Teaching, 2008 Edition

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