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Moving Beyond the Value-Added Debate: A Teacher's Take

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By Thomas Hakim

Since Harvard and Columbia economists released a recent report connecting high-quality teachers to long-term positive outcomes for students, there has been much debate over the use of "value-added" measurements to identify effective teachers.

The conversation around the validity of value-added data is important. Nonetheless, education stakeholders should not lose focus on immediate, tangible, classroom-level steps that can be taken to improve the effectiveness of all active teachers across the country. As more and more connections are made between outstanding teaching and positive life outcomes for students, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, it is obvious that action must be taken to make more teachers just that ... outstanding.

My worry for current teachers like myself is that the heated debate over the use of value-added measurements detracts from a productive movement towards raising the quality of instruction in all classrooms. The use of these metrics should not be to instill fear in teachers, but rather to help us feel supported around the idea of career-long improvement for the benefit of our students. In the midst of ongoing research and subsequent reform efforts, I have heard (and shared) concerns from fellow teachers such as, "Have I prepared the students well enough for the test?" to "How can I refine and improve my lesson plans when the standards keep changing?" to "How is all of this going to impact my pay and job security?"

How can we move away from these concerns and instead focus on the positive outcomes of having more evidence of what effective teaching looks like, and the impact it can have on the lives of students? By promoting more collegial practices within the teaching profession, we can work towards a commitment to supporting each other in career-long improvement that will ultimately lead to improved student achievement nationwide.

Unlike in the business world, where trade secrets, patents, and original ideas can mean the difference between profitable enterprises and those that fail, teachers around the country need to share our best practices. I am sure there are middle school mathematics teachers across the country who plan their lessons, explain their content, develop student projects, differentiate instruction, manage their classrooms, or motivate students better than I do. I am confident in my work, but I also want to see those who do the job better, or even just differently, and learn from them. Let me watch videos of their teaching. Let me see how they design their lessons. Let me hear their stories about why particular strategies work for their students. As teachers are identified as highly effective through various measures, those teachers need more avenues for sharing their practices with others.

Some in the education world have tried to capture and disseminate best practices to the masses. Doug Lemov with his taxonomy of teaching strategies Teach Like a Champion comes to mind. Steven Farr with Teach for America has released a similar guide in Teaching as Leadership. Yet, especially in this technological age, books alone are not an adequate means of capturing and sharing the work of the country's many excellent teachers.

Once the bell rings and students enter the room, so many of us practice our craft in isolation. We need the opportunity not only to be observed, but also to observe others, either in person or via video technology. We need professional development centered on studying and developing quality lessons drawn from high performers in content-specific areas. We need to be able to analyze each others' assessments for quality and rigor. We need the ability to collaborate in learning communities not just within our departments, schools, or districts, but among teachers in similar situations nationwide. Websites like the Teaching Channel, which features teacher videos, and Better Lesson, which allows teachers to share lesson plans, are a great place to start. Now we need a more widely disseminated, systematic use of these kinds of resources.

Our valuable interactions with talented colleagues outside our own schools cannot be limited to the occasional conference. Instead, all stakeholders with an invested interest in student achievement need to think of ways to reinvent teachers' professional growth as a continuum of improvement. Private and public funding dedicated to building quality professional development opportunities at scale, coupled with innovative uses of technology, can help with this effort. If all teachers have more opportunities to learn from each other, and if more of us take the initiative to consistently increase our own classroom effectiveness, student outcomes can only continue to improve.

Thomas Hakim teaches secondary mathematics at Christel House Academy, a public K-12 charter school in Indianapolis. He is a recipient of the Sontag Prize in Urban Education, and is currently a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.