My beef with current conversations around reforming schools is really quite simple: They're often centered around the idea that teacher effectiveness can be judged -- and schools can be saved -- if we would just start holding educators accountable for producing measurable results on end of grade exams.
Not only do these kinds of carrot-and-stick approaches to saving our schools ignore what we know about motivating workers in knowledge-based professions, they overlook an unfortunate truth that Oprahgandists would rather ignore:
Successful schools depend on far more than identifying and then rewarding handfuls of whiz-bang teachers. They also depend on communities that are willing to provide every teacher with the kinds of critical working conditions essential for being successful.
The good news is that my colleagues at the Center for Teaching Quality have been documenting the kinds of working conditions that have a positive impact on student achievement for years now.
In fact, their most recent report -- titled "Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System that Students and Teachers Deserve" -- summarizes the thoughts of 14 incredibly accomplished teachers who spent the better part of the past year studying the connections between teacher working conditions and student achievement with leading experts and educational researchers.
The team -- comprised completely of full time practitioners -- argues, among other things, that:
Teacher Preparation Programs Need to Change:
Ask any practicing teacher and they'll tell you that their preservice training was basically useless. Real learning happens only after teachers start spending time in classrooms.
That's why my TLN colleagues believe that teacher preparation programs should begin offering residency options where new teachers work alongside experienced veterans in much the same way that preservice physicians work in hospitals alongside practicing doctors.
Teacher Mentoring Programs Just Can't be Cut:
Ask any district budget managers and they'll tell you that mentoring is expensive. Not only is it challenging to pay for release time for mentors to observe new teachers, it is challenging to find the cash to provide meaningful training to potential mentors.
That's why mentoring programs are often cut when economic times are tough.
Those cuts, my TLN colleagues believe, are irresponsible. Instead of cutting mentoring programs, districts that are truly committed to reforming education must continue to invest in proven programs for supporting the newest members of our profession.
Teacher Evaluation Systems Need to Change:
A cornerstone of TLN has always been our willingness to accept responsibility for student learning results and a recognition of the fact that some teachers are more effective than others at producing results.
We push back, however, against teacher evaluation systems that are simplistic.
In "Transforming School Conditions," my TLN colleagues argue that responsible evaluation systems should be built on sophisticated teacher observations conducted by principals and peers.
What's more, they argue that responsible teacher evaluation systems should include the analysis of student work samples on performance based assessments.
Professional Development Must Be Collaborative:
Are you ready for an admission that should anger you as a taxpayer? I can't remember many formal professional development opportunities during the course of my 17 year career that have changed who I am as an educator.
Talk about a colossal waste of cash, huh?
On the other hand, I've learned tons and tons every time that I've been given structured, on-the-clock opportunities to study my practice with peers.
How does that translate into more effective reform policies? As my TLN colleagues argue, the best professional development must be, "job-embedded, problem-based, differentiated, collaborative, onsite, compensated, ongoing and teacher-driven.
The report goes on to study the connections between student learning conditions -- assessing learning in a variety of ways, differentiating learning opportunities for every child, addressing social issues that interfere with learning -- and high performing schools. It also examines the connections between teacher leadership and student learning.
All of it is interesting, research driven, and crafted by practitioners with a real understanding of what change in schools needs to look like in order to succeed.
Here's to hoping that policy makers and influential thinkers will actually spend a few minutes listening to those of us working in real classrooms with real kids for a change.
It's high time that teacher voice informed policy development in our country.