Takeaways from Senate HELP Committee on Fixing No Child Left Behind – 1/27/15

Takeaways from Senate HELP Committee on Fixing No Child Left Behind – 1/27/15

This was an unexpected opportunity. Our Tennessee AMCHP team was scheduled to attend the Tennessee Tuesday event Senators Alexander and Corker host each Tuesday, but I had no idea until that morning that the Senate’s HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) committee was holding a hearing on “Fixing No Child Left Behind:  Supporting Teachers and School Leaders” the same day.  My wife and I were able to catch about 90 minutes of the two hour hearing.

Senators Patty Murray (WA) and Lamar Alexander (TN)

Senator Alexander and Senator Murray co-Chair the HELP committee. I was very impressed with the bi-partisan manner in which they exhibited preparation and knowledge about the issues related to the craft of teaching and the educational landscape in their opening comments.

Using this link, you can view the hearing and read the prepared comments of the witness panel.

Overall, I was disappointed that the only Senators who participated in the entirety of the hearings were Senators Bennet and Baldwin, and the co-Chairs, Senators Murray and Alexander. The others in attendance, Senators Cassidy, Burr, Warren, Isakson, and Franken, asked questions of the panel and left when their questions were answered. Several were not there at all. I realize this might be commonplace and may meet a sympathetic response from many of you, but I was not pleased in that it took my full concentration to follow the complex nature of the issues being addressed, and this is my craft. There is no way to fully digest the intricacies of this topic without listening to more than just answers to your own questions. This is why constituents are sometimes frustrated with politicians. Too often the emphasis is on the sound bite or the leading question rather than an authentic desire to fully grasp the topic. After all, the meeting was only two hours long and moved incredibly fast. To close this point, Senator Cassidy’s line of questioning was hostile and felt much more like that of a prosecutor to a defendant than a servant of the people focused on listening with humility.

The purpose of the hearing was to allow subject matter experts at various levels on the educational career ladder to share what they believe are the most pressing educational concerns toward which the federal government should put its focus. The witnesses were also given the freedom to share best practices and innovative ideas.

Interestingly, in their opening comments, both Senators Alexander and Murray addressed the need for a career ladder for teachers. I have several times lamented the fact that there is no career ladder for teachers. Specifically, a teacher cannot move into a leadership role and receive a significant increase in pay without exiting the classroom and entering administration. We often lose our best teachers to administrative roles for this reason. Dr. Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education, explained “Kentucky is working to develop specific career pathways to provide multiple pathways for teachers to become leaders. Many teachers want to gain leadership roles without giving up the ability to teach. Kentucky is working to model what the most successful systems in the world provide to teachers for career pathways.”

Both also addressed some of the complex sticking points of this debate such as teacher evaluation and what it should be based on, NCLB waivers, and the primary contributors to student achievement, especially in the most difficult environments.

Each of the witnesses made their own unique contributions based on expertise and experience. Dr. Dan Goldhaber is Director of both the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes For Research and the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington. As one might expect based on his titles, he did a fantastic job of pointing to solid research on some of the most critical aspects of public education:

  • Encouraged no change to annual testing requirement
    • Overall, underscores significance of the profession – ties teacher quality to long-term consequences for students’ later academic and labor market success
    • Leads to idea that educator quality affects nation’s economic health
    • Reveals that teachers differ significantly from one another
    • Disadvantaged students tend to have less access to high quality teachers
  • Generally, there are small differences in terms of effect between the two major teacher prep tracks (traditional certification vs. non-traditional such as Teach for America); however they are not equal; the small differences could be due to several reasons
  • Professional development is a ubiquitous strategy but the evidence suggests it does not make a strong contribution to teacher effect
  • Financial incentives somewhat address this problem but the impact is small
  • Other contributing factors toward teacher retention are the quality of leaders and collegiality with peers
  • Need: common yardstick across states with which to measure teachers
  • Need: Encourage innovation

Ms. Rachelle Moore

Ms. Rachelle Moore is a first grade teacher at Madrona K-8 School in Seattle. She was the only current teacher on the panel, and her testimony was such a fantastic representation of our craft. It was professional and eloquent. She described the Seattle Teacher Residency program. It strongly resonated with me. A concern of mine for a while has been that we are one of few fields with the expectation that a novice practitioner should be given the same level of responsibility as that given to a veteran. And we wonder why retention is such a huge problem. This program in Seattle pairs novice teachers (“residents”) with experienced teachers (“mentors”) for an entire year with a long-term goal of keeping teachers for at least five years at a time when most leave the profession prior to that point. Grant money from outside the district is required to sustain it, but her description of its success lines up with what I would expect from such a model. She also pointed out that the co-teaching involved in the residency program allows for high-level differentiated instruction.

Teacher evaluation was a frequented topic. Is it possible that teachers could be involved in the creation or implementation of a teacher evaluation tool? The need for teacher buy-in with regard to evaluation was discussed and I believe this is realistic. I often compare teaching to soldiering and here is one of the similarities. While there are many in the field who are unprofessional, there are still many who are consummate professionals. Allowing top teachers to have a seat at the district or state level table at which these kinds of decisions are made would be wise and would, I believe, lead to a very effective product. The TEAM (Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model) rubric is a fantastic coaching tool, but not a great evaluation tool. Its large number of domains leaves teachers tempted to offer a dog and pony show. Ideally, administrators should have the freedom to evaluate the craft of an educator based on a few key best practices applicable across content areas and grade levels.

Much of the subsequent conversation revolved around the following topics:

  • How to address teacher quality disparity across the economic spectrum
  • Teacher prep programs and the reliability of alternative routes such as Teach For America
  • Teacher preparation must involve more hands-on work and time in the classroom
  • How do we help teachers improve?
  • Best predictor of student success: parent income level
  • Best predictor of teacher success: past success
  • Teacher Retention
  • The school Principal’s contribution to student success (data, retention, culture, mentoring)

Complex Issues

  • Teachers are overwhelmed
  • The role of federal government and federal funding
  • Teachers are doing the jobs of both a social worker and a teacher in areas of high poverty
  • Elevating the status of teaching, especially in terms of salary
  • Federal oversight vs. state/local autonomy
  • Perception that successful charter organizations such as KIPP are capable of doing a more effective job for students than traditional schools, especially at the elementary level
  • How do we demand progress but allow for maximum flexibility, especially in the area of Special Education; one size fits all is not effective
  • Are we allowing for flexibility with respect to technology?

As a parent myself, I hear the kinds of conversations that reveal our incredibly high expectations of teachers. We certainly should have high expectations, but those have, I believe, crossed over into a distortion of reality. Teachers, I know we are overwhelmed, but we must engage with eloquence and professionalism on matters of policy. Well-meaning leaders maintain that teachers should “not worry about the noise around them and remain focused on what is best for students.” That sounds really good at first, but I’m afraid a possible result is that teachers might give up a seat at the table. Teachers, please embrace your role as subject matter experts and speak to the complex issues based on your wealth of experience. This is no less a component of your public service than the content you teach to the future of America.

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