Author Archives: Cara Jackson

Which Aspects of the Work Environment Matter Most for New Teachers?

As a member of Bellwether’s evaluation practice, there’s nothing I love more than connecting research with policy and practice. Fortunately, I’m not alone: The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) has launched several initiatives to succinctly describe empirical research on contemporary topics in education and encourage evidence-based policymaking.

At CALDER’s recent 12th annual conference, I had the opportunity to serve as a discussant in a session on the career trajectories of teachers. The papers in this session illustrated the potential for research to inform policy and practice, but also left me wondering about the challenges policymakers often face in doing so.

Taking their First Steps: The Distribution of New Teachers into School and Classroom Contexts and Implications for Teacher Effectiveness and Growth” by Paul Bruno, Sarah Rabovsky, and Katharine Strunk uses data from Los Angeles Unified School District to explore how classroom and school contexts, such as professional interactions, are related to teacher quality and teacher retention. Their work builds on prior research that suggests school contexts are associated with the growth and retention of new teachers. As my Bellwether colleagues have noted, to ensure quality teaching at scale, we need to consider how to restructure initial employment to support new teachers in becoming effective.

In “Taking their First Steps,” the researchers developed four separate measures to understand the context in which new teachers were operating.  The measure of “instructional load” combined twelve factors, including students’ prior-year performance, prior-year absences, prior-year suspensions, class size, and the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, eligible for special education services, or classified as English learners. “Homophily” was measured by a teacher’s similarity to students, colleagues, and administrators in terms of race and gender. “Collegial qualifications” consisted of attributes such as years of experience, National Board certification, and evaluation measures. “Professional culture” was a composite of survey responses regarding the frequency and quality of professional interactions at teachers’ school sites.

Which of these factors had impact on teachers’ observation ratings and teacher attendance? As seen in the figures below, instructional load had a significant negative relationship with teachers’ observation ratings, meaning teachers with higher instructional loads (such as students with lower prior performance, more prior absences and suspensions, or larger class sizes) received lower ratings. On the other hand, professional culture had a significant positive impact on observation ratings, meaning that in schools where teachers had more and higher-quality professional interactions, new teachers received higher observation ratings. Instructional load also had a strong negative relationship with attendance rates, meaning teachers with higher instructional loads took more personal days or used more sick leave.

Figure based on Katharine Strunk’s presentation from January 31, 2019.

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All I Want for Christmas Is for People to Stop Using the Phrase “Education Reform”

In a recent opinion piece at The 74, Robin Lake casts off the label of educator reformer, arguing that “to imply that they are some monolithic group of reformers is ridiculous.” I agree, not so much because education reform has lost its meaning but because it never had a single definition in the first place. At the heart of reform is an acknowledgement that the educational system isn’t serving all kids well, but agreeing that the system could be improved is far from agreeing on how to get there.

definition of educationTo some people “education reform” is about holding schools and districts accountable for student outcomes, which can be viewed as either a means of ensuring that society doesn’t overlook subgroups of students, or as a top-down approach that fails to account for vast differences in school and community resources. To others education reform is shorthand for increasing school choice, or requiring students to meet specific academic standards to be promoted or graduate from high school, or revising school discipline practices that disproportionately impact students of color. Each of these ideas has supporters and detractors, and I suspect that many people who are comfortable with one type of reform vehemently disagree with another.

To take a specific example, consider teacher evaluation reform. One challenge in debating this particular education reform is that there are multiple ways teacher evaluation could change outcomes: one way is by providing feedback and targeted support to educators; another is the identification and removal of low-performing teachers. So even when “education reform” types favor a policy, they might have very different views on the mechanisms through which that policy achieves its goals. In the case of teacher evaluation reform, the dueling mechanisms created trade-offs in evaluation design, as described by my Bellwether colleagues here. (As they note, in redesigning evaluation systems, states tended to focus on the reliability and validity of high-stakes measures and the need for professional development plans for low performing teachers, devoting less attention to building the capacity of school leaders to provide meaningful feedback to all teachers.)

I personally agree with those who argue that teacher evaluation should be used to improve teacher practice, and I have written previously about what that might look like and about the research on evaluation’s role in developing teachers. In a more nuanced conversation, we might acknowledge that there are numerous outcomes we care about, and that even if a given policy or practice is effective at achieving one outcome — say, higher student achievement — it might have unintended consequences on other outcomes, such as school climate or teacher retention.

Instead of broadly labeling people as “education reformers,” we need to clearly define the type of reform we’re discussing, as well as the specific mechanisms through which that reform achieves its intended goals. Doing so provides the basis for laying out the pros and cons of not just the overall idea, but of the policy details that transform an idea into action. Such specificity may help us avoid the straw man arguments that have so often characterized education policy debates.