Category Archives: Teacher Effectiveness

Why Aren’t We Talking About the Lack of Faculty of Color in Schools of Education?

Headlines about teacher diversity issues often neglect to tell an equally important story: the significant dearth of faculty of color in schools of education. Indeed, there is a large racial gap between the 80 percent of white teachers that make up the educator workforce and the over 45 percent minority student population in America’s public schools, where teacher candidates at schools of education are presumably aiming to teach.

For our new publication out yesterday, Max Marchitello and I spoke with a number of faculty and staff from minority serving institutions (MSIs) on the topic of teacher preparation. These conversations and a comprehensive literature review pointed us to a few key ways that teacher preparation in this country can improve, such as building teacher candidates’ cultural awareness, ensuring candidates engage with diverse students and contexts through well-designed field experiences, and increasing diversity in the teacher candidate pool.

However, without a critical mass of faculty of color in these programs, it will be difficult to implement these recommendations. Diverse faculty can make the institution more inclusive for students of color and help disrupt white dominance that leads future educators to be ignorant of the communities they will likely serve.

Over the past thirty years, we have focused on K-12 educator diversity and seen some gains, but we are not seeing reciprocal change in the faculty of schools of education. According to a recent Inside Higher Ed report, the percentage of underrepresented groups as full-time faculty has not changed much over the past two decades. In 2015, African Americans accounted for six percent of full-time faculty in all U.S. universities, whereas African Americans made up 14 percent of the student population in all U.S. universities. Similarly, Hispanic faculty made up five percent of full-time faculty members compared to the 17 percent of Hispanic students in higher education. While there has been progress in the number of minority faculty, significant gaps persist.

Faculty diversity is important to teacher preparation for a few key reasons. First, more diverse faculty helps recruit more diverse teacher candidates, as studies show that students find security in sharing a background or experience with faculty. Second, diverse faculty are important to the issue of helping teacher candidates unpack their own biases and understand the points of view of educators of color. For instance, in a 2008 study, a researcher observed a teacher preparation program’s classroom discussion of bilingualism with a classroom of majority Latino teacher candidates. Initially, white candidates focused on the economic downsides of bilingualism, but then shifted to the moral necessity of dual-language teachers when discussing the topic with Latino classmates. In addition, faculty of color’s research focus and what they incorporate into classes likely will vary from white professors, which will help train all teacher candidates, and offer different, more complete perspectives on classroom management, student discipline, and more.

In order to address faculty diversity, schools of education need to interrogate their hiring practices and eliminate sources of bias. Institutional leadership must carefully examine where disruptions occur for prospective candidates of color in the faculty pipeline. For instance, when the Rowan University College of Education refocused on creating a culture that embraces social justice and equity, leadership began prioritizing hiring faculty specifically embedded in this work.

Without acknowledging that the quality of teacher preparation is inextricably linked to the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in faculty, teachers will remain insufficiently prepared to educate diverse students. Diversifying faculty, like other changes to long-standing institutions, is undoubtedly a difficult challenge, but it is an incredibly important stride towards educational equity.

Walking While Chewing Gum: Why Curriculum and Quality Teaching Are Both Crucial To Improving Children’s Learning

Are high-quality teachers the key to improving student learning? Or is curriculum more important? Early in the last decade, reformers, persuaded by research that “teachers are the most important factor in a student’s school experience,” pushed for teacher evaluation, performance pay, and other teacher-focused reforms. As these reforms have fallen out of favor, however, a growing contingent of education leaders argue that curriculum, rather than teacher quality, should be the focus of improvement efforts.

It shouldn’t be either-or. In our new paper, Ashley LiBetti and I argue that the real key to improving children’s learning may lie not in curriculum or teacher quality alone, but in how schools or early childhood programs integrate curriculum with supports for quality teaching to deliver high-quality learning experiences for children.

logos of five Head Start programs profiled in Bellwether Education Partners' case studies

Earlier this week, as a part of the new report package, we released our study of five Head Start programs that produce significant learning gains for children they serve. We identified cross-cutting themes and common practices across the five programs that contribute to their impressive results. What we found underscores the importance of both teachers and curriculum for success.

All of these programs place a high priority on quality teaching. They hire teachers with more training than Head Start requires, pay them more than the typical preschool program, and support them with coaching and professional development. At the same time, they also pay careful attention to curriculum by adopting evidence-based curricula, adapting it to their needs and communities, supporting teachers to implement it with fidelity, and regularly testing and or piloting new curricula or enhancements in an effort to further boost children’s learning and results. And they constantly use data — including ongoing formative assessments of children’s learning — to improve teaching practices and differentiate learning for individual children. These practices related to curricula, assessment, and teacher quality and support offer models that other early childhood programs can learn from.

The  real “secret sauce,” however, isn’t in these programs’ approaches to teaching or curricula on their own, but the way they carefully and intentionally integrate these components. We call this careful integration of curriculum, expectations for what quality teaching looks like, and support for teachers an “integrated instructional model” — and it’s the key to these programs’ success.

This intentional, integrated approach isn’t as sexy as “silver bullet” solutions. It requires skilled, thoughtful leadership willing to constantly reassess and refine practice, and a lot of work from teachers, the coaches who support them, and program leaders. That makes it much harder to replicate or scale than curriculum or teacher credential requirements. But it’s crucial to improving learning results, particularly for the most at-risk students.

Rather than continuing to debate whether teacher quality or curriculum matters more for improving educational results, education leaders should take a page from these exemplary Head Start programs and focus on how to help more schools develop and implement integrated models of curriculum, assessment, and supports for quality instruction.

School Culture Is More Than Fragmented Strategies — It’s Four Cohesive Elements

Culture can make or break a school’s success. It can propel academics forward or drag learning down into an unrecoverable spiral where kids lose precious time and teachers quickly burn out.

When I started my career as a teacher through the time I became a school leader, I pulled ideas about school culture and classroom management from a number of educators and resources. My inspirations included Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, and books like Yardsticks, Power of our Words, Teaching with Love and Logic, and Teach Like a Champion. I also relied heavily on the experiences of my own upbringing as a black, West Indian woman in the 80’s and 90’s in New York City, with teachers and parents who let me know I was cared for but also “did not play” (in other words, they were strict). My guiding belief became, and remains, an unwavering faith in the limitless potential of each child, and the approach that followed was fueled by a lot of love, usually the tough kind.

My approach wasn’t foolproof. But this fundamental mindset was what I looked for in teachers that I hired. As a school team, we refined our approach to culture over time and adjusted the systems and practices that supported it. Building the culture of our school was a process we had to figure out through trial and error, which led to lost instructional time, frustrated teammates, or broken relationships with students when we didn’t get it right.  

Unfortunately, too many principals don’t learn how to build the kind of school culture where teachers feel successful and capable of teaching for many years and where students — especially students of color — thrive. Many of the existing resources on the topic tend to reduce advice down to ambiguous ideas, a few fragmented strategies, or case studies about charismatic leaders. They never demystify the elements necessary for a healthy culture or offer clear guidance on how to implement them.

School culture can be a touchy subject, particularly when leaders and teachers have different philosophies, approaches, and beliefs. While I have my own point of view on these topics, I unequivocally believe that consistency and alignment are the most important features of an effective school culture. A cohesive school culture isn’t built through a patchwork of random techniques, curricula, or professional development sessions. Instead, school culture is comprised of a thoughtfully defined cascade of four elements, described below in further detail:

school culture framework, by Tresha Ward of Bellwether Education Partners

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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.