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  • David B. Cohen is an associate director of Accomplished California Teachers and a National Board-certified English teacher at Palo Alto High School.

  • Sandra Dean directs the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University and is also an associate director of ACT.

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Viewpoints: Let educators help improve teacher quality

Published: Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 17A
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012 - 12:27 pm

California's public education system faces many short-term challenges to advance its mission of preparing all students for a productive future.

We have endured budget cuts totaling tens of billions of dollars in recent years, but we cannot pause to wait for an economic recovery; the state and its public school employees must continually seek improvement and pursue excellence.

While there is a consensus that the quality of teaching is essential to student success, we still seek consensus around the means of providing higher quality instruction in every classroom and school.

In our roles as co-associate directors of Accomplished California Teachers, we will be in Sacramento today to participate in a policy summit sponsored by the Stuart Foundation titled "Teaching Quality for California's Future."

Our message to the state's policymakers and education leaders will be: In order to meet the imperative need of improved teaching quality, California must engage teachers in the creation and implementation of a cohesive, robust system for teacher training, development, evaluation and professional advancement.

Teacher evaluation has been an area of focus for our network, which includes National Board-certified teachers and teacher leaders from around the state. Our report, "A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom: Creating a Teacher Evaluation System that Works for California," offers clear guidance for policymakers based on the collective expertise of accomplished teachers in traditional and charter schools, teaching all ages and most subject areas.

Existing evaluations generally offer insufficient feedback for improving pedagogy, often because evaluators lack the time or expertise to provide targeted and meaningful feedback and support. Rather than continue this ineffective system of evaluating for compliance, we propose teacher evaluation reforms that foster continual growth and improvement for all teachers, in part by analyzing student work along with teacher practice. Any system with the capacity to achieve this goal will require the participation of teachers as full partners, both in design and execution.

Some skeptics question whether teachers can be entrusted to evaluate each other. In response, we recommend the work of our co-presenters in this policy summit. Daniel C. Humphrey and Julia E. Koppich researched the use of peer evaluation systems already implemented in the San Juan Unified School District and the Poway Unified School District in "Peer Review: Getting Serious About Teacher Support and Evaluation."

In these districts, Humphrey and Koppich studied a decade's worth of evidence and concluded that "peer review is far superior to principals' evaluations in terms of rigor and comprehensiveness. Equally important, peer review offers a possible solution to the lack of capacity of the current system to both provide adequate teacher support and conduct thorough performance evaluations."

This conclusion carries implications for the teaching profession: We must build our capacity to take on new roles and responsibilities, accepting greater accountability to each other and all education stakeholders. Our colleagues in the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative, a project of the Center for Teaching Quality, have studied this issue with a team of early-career teachers interested in innovative professional reforms.

The report they will present at the summit is titled "Many Ways Up, No Reason to Move Out" – suggesting that the teaching profession should evolve to encourage teacher leaders to expand their roles and responsibilities in schools and districts, but without having to abandon classroom practice.

As veteran educators, we endorse that idea as well. To the extent that education reforms must bridge a divide between administrative and classroom perspectives, we see hybrid teacher-leader positions as part of the solution. The more responsibility teachers assume for the quality of teaching at our schools and in our districts, the more likely it is that we will be able to ensure that every child has an effective teacher. The more teacher voices and perspectives inform policy decisions, the greater the potential for achieving this goal.

While the costs of these changes may be high, they must be weighed against existing costs that have become the status quo in California. Economic research into teacher turnover shows that our schools spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually absorbing the costs of teacher turnover. Schools also incur costs associated with grade retentions.

Our general funds lose potential revenue when students drop out, and then we pay more when significant numbers of dropouts require assistance or go through the justice and correctional systems. These problems could be mitigated in part by advancing quality teaching.

Ultimately, teaching quality is an investment too vital to ignore. We need to clearly define what California teachers must know and be able to do at various stages, and then provide teachers with continual professional development, growth-oriented evaluation and expanded career pathways. Our investment in California's educational future will yield greater returns if we strengthen the teaching profession.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

David B. Cohen is an associate director of Accomplished California Teachers and a National Board-certified English teacher at Palo Alto High School. Sandra Dean directs the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University and is also an associate director of ACT.

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