Category Archives: Teacher Effectiveness

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.

ICYMI: #BWTalksTalent Week

Ten bloggers. Nine posts. One week.

At Bellwether, we spent last week talking about teachers and school leaders for our #BWTalksTalent series.  We shared insights from staff who’ve led classrooms, schools, and organizations. And we shared opinions, research, and personal experiences on how to create a robust ecosystem of adults to better serve students.

Topics ranged from trauma-informed teaching, to principal satisfaction, to retaining teachers of color.

If you missed it, here’s a recap of our conversation:

You can read the whole series here!

Defining the “Pipeline” in “Teacher and Leader Pipelines”

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

Talk of teacher and leader pipelines has been a mainstay in our field. “We need to grow high-quality, diverse pipelines of new teachers.” “We need to build a pipeline of future leaders from our current pool of teachers.” But what exactly is a pipeline? Where does it start, and where does it end? Our Bellwether team set out to find a simple visual answer to these questions and didn’t find a comprehensive solution, so we created our own. If you’ve seen something great and are willing to share, please email me.

As we see it, a teacher pipeline begins with supply: new teachers entering the field, prepared through both traditional and alternative programs. Once teachers are “in,” they head into the development stage, as they are recruited and selected into schools and systems, onboarded to ensure at least basic proficiency in the classroom, and then continuously developed to deepen effectiveness and enable retention. Continue reading

I Wish I Had Learned About the Science of the Brain and Toxic Stress

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

The first time I met Martin*, his fellow kindergartners were at the rug listening to a book, and he was under a chair. I was a first-year teacher visiting the students who would be in my first grade class the next year. I watched as Martin noisily crawled under desks while the teacher read aloud; she had clearly reached her limit and decided to attempt to ignore the behavior for the time being. Like me, her teacher training had not prepared her for what to do in the “child-under-desk” scenario.

I resolved that when Martin joined my class the next year, I would make sure that he participated in class activities. I spent the summer reading up on classroom management and student engagement. What I didn’t know until many years later is that there is a body of knowledge on the science of the brain and stress that would have made me a much more effective teacher to Martin — and many of the other students in my class.

The author at the graduation ceremony for her teacher preparation master’s program.

Martin, a stocky, apple-cheeked boy with a winning grin, turned out to be one of my most rewarding and challenging students. Each day that he was in my class, I braced myself for some kind of outburst or confrontation. He threw tantrums, as well as the occasional backpack, book, or pencil. He had a hard time sitting still. He picked fights. He became quickly frustrated and often refused to do work. On the other hand, he regularly made me and his classmates laugh. He relished my praise and listened attentively when I sat down with him one on one. He was so proud and delighted when he finally started to read.

I thought of Martin many times this summer as I read The Deepest Well by renowned pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. In the book, Harris lays out in detail how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a profound impact on children’s and adults’ physical and mental health. She describes her journey to understand and incorporate into her medical practice lessons from a seminal study, published in 1998, that found longterm health effects related to ten specific ACEs: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; loss of a parent to death or separation; a parent who is alcoholic, depressed, or mentally ill; or witnessing a mother being abused. Continue reading

Traditional and Teach For America Preparation: One Teacher’s Experience

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

While Teach For America (TFA) welcomes fully certified teachers from traditional programs at institutes of higher education, most of their corps members come in and attend TFA’s summer sessions without prior teacher training. Fully certified teachers might wonder if there is a place for them in TFA, and TFA-trained teachers might question what they missed by not having teacher preparation as an undergraduate.

I interviewed one educator who completed both pathways: my daughter Gabriella Nelson. She completed teacher training at Grinnell College, then enrolled in Teach For America and attended their summer institute in the Mississippi Delta region.

Gabriella is now the academic coordinator at the school she joined through TFA six years ago. In addition to overseeing curriculum, she coaches grade 6-12 ELA other subject teachers, bringing lessons from her classroom experience and dual preparation to shape and encourage her colleagues. In our conversation below, we touch on the reason for her choices, the differences in each type of preparation, and what she finds most helpful to prepare teachers.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you choose a college for your teacher preparation?
I looked for colleges with good educational programs where I could get my license in four or four and a half years. I picked Grinnell College because I knew that they put you in the classroom earlier than the student teaching programs in other schools. I was in a classroom beginning the second or third semester of college. I also liked that education wasn’t a major — you had to major in a subject, and I felt that was better content than what I perceived some “education major” coursework included.

Grinnell created a strong foundation for knowing how to plan my classes — they did a good job of preparing us in that respect. But the program didn’t talk a lot about classroom management. Another weakness (not their fault) was that learning how to teach in rural Iowa is not necessarily the most translatable experience to where I ended up teaching.

You also chose to participate in Teach For America (TFA) after graduation and attended their summer institute. Tell me about that choice.
I chose TFA in part because they sent me an email in October of my senior year inviting me to meet with them and apply. At that time, I was unsure of where to go teach and I knew their process would help me make that choice. Also, educational inequality was something I wanted to focus on: to be around people who valued making education more equitable.

How did TFA’s summer institute training compare to your traditional training?
Grinnell had a general focus on social justice, but I didn’t get explicit preparation for teaching in diverse settings. TFA’s institute had specific sessions geared towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, we learned how to teach students who didn’t share your culture, and strategies inclusive of all learners. A lot of time was spent on building cultural competency.

You ultimately taught in Memphis with TFA. Did you feel prepared to enter your classroom on the first day?
I felt prepared and then very quickly realized I was not prepared. In theory, I knew what I was supposed to be doing and had my plans, but nothing prepares you to be the only one in the room responsible for all these students. I hadn’t really practiced for that.

In theory, teaching should be easy — best practices, best classroom management, etc. — but you are not teaching in a vacuum. The hardest thing is that you never know what is going to happen. Will there be a fire drill? What kind of attitude will the kids have? Will the school flood? There were so many different things that could happen. Constantly adapting and working through the sheer number of decisions you have to make every day was overwhelming. Responding to students, switching up a lesson, calling out a student for a uniform violation or letting it go — nothing can prepare you for how much decision making is happening all of the time. And those decisions potentially have a long-lasting effect on student outcomes. Learning how to productively manage that pressure takes a lot of practice.

What have your experiences taught you about what works in traditional and/or alternative pipelines for teachers?
More programs should follow the Grinnell-like model where you are in the classroom earlier. I wish more of them would make students really study some content – Grinnell’s academics were more rigorous than some “standard” education preparation programs.

I recommend a more rigorous and regular support system for new teachers: a combination of classroom support, checking in with teachers to make sure things are going okay, and anecdotal coaching to relate to them that you also struggled when you were new. This support is better if it is school-based rather than someone coming in from the outside because every school is different.

After serving as a classroom teacher for three years, and one year split between teaching and administrative work, I’m now a full-time K-12 academic coordinator for about 700 students and 45 – 50 teachers. The value of what I do is that I’ve been here and understand this school’s culture and can coach from that lens. Outsiders may not understand the culture and norms our teachers face. At the very least, the coach should have taught in the same city or the same general environment. A suburban teacher coaching in a Title 1 school is not effective.