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Teaching Quality Summit Review

January 31, 2012

For Accomplished California Teachers, the highlight of our month was going to Sacramento to put on an event titled “Teaching Quality and California’s Future.”  [EDIT 4/25/12: Video highlights of the event now available on the ACT YouTube Channel]. This policy summit was made possible by the Stuart Foundation, and organized by ACT with the help of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) and the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ).  I’ve had some prior opportunities to write about the event and its goals, in an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee, and in a blog post that provided a preview of the event.  Interestingly, the Bee chose to title the op-ed “Let educators help improve teacher quality” – a title I’m not crazy about for two reasons.  First, “Let” makes us sound a bit too suppliant.  Of course we would need the support of legislators and policy makers to enact teacher evaluation and career pathway reforms aligned to our recommendations, but we weren’t going to Sacramento in an asking mode as much as we were going in a telling mode: that is, if you want policies that will work, let us tell you, based on both research and the collective experience of teacher leaders, what those policies should look like.  We were also deliberate in titling our event “Teaching Quality” rather than “teacher quality.”  The debates around improved teaching and learning too often, I think, put the locus of teaching quality in the individual, a result of fundamental attribution error.  I’m convinced that the greater problems lie in what the system does, or neglects to do, in teacher training and professional development, and in providing a workplace that allows people to grow and improve continuously in their practice.  Thus, while we’d be happy to see teaching become a more competitive profession vying for the most talented college graduates, we’re also cognizant that American schools and teachers working in low-poverty communities are already producing great results, on par with the top-performing nations in the world.  We do have talented and dedicated professionals in teaching, but we don’t have a larger system worthy of them, or more importantly, worthy of our students.  For that reason, we want policy makers and the public to think about improving systems and working conditions, trying to make every teacher better rather than try to identify the “quality teacher.”


State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, Sacramento Convention Center, 1/20/12 (photo by the author)

As for the event itself, it has taken me more than a week to regroup, catch up, and find the time for some follow-up on our experience.  But I’m glad to say I’ve pulled it all together here, and I hope this review will spark some renewed interest in the work, and some further dialogue.

The kick-off of the event was State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announcing the formation of an Educator Excellence Task Force.  What’s encouraging about Torlakson’s intention is that the task force, to be led by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond and Long Beach Unified Superintendent Chris Steinhauser, will focus on bringing coherence to the full continuum of the teaching profession, from training and certification, to induction to evaluation, and to ongoing professional growth and expanded options for teacher leadership.

From there, we went into three short presentations about various aspects of strengthening the teaching profession.  (If you’re interested in the bios of speakers, or links to materials, use this link as your one-stop-shop).  The first presentation came from our colleagues Anna Martin and Sherene Judeh, a pair of early-career teachers who helped the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative to produce their report on modernizing the teaching profession.  They were joined by Barnett Berry, who founded and directs the Center for Teaching Quality.  We began here to focus on the broad picture of what teachers want and need in order to be more effective as career educators.  Their presentation emphasized the importance of providing a wider range of leadership possibilities for excellent teachers.  Right now, Martin and Judeh experience pressure to leave the classroom if they wish to translate their teaching success and leadership ideas into broader changes in education at any level.  Teaching has a unique divide that keeps too many excellent practitioners either entirely in or entirely out of classrooms.  They argue that some hybrid positions would improve both teaching and education leadership, first by keeping experienced and talented teachers in regular contact with students, and secondly by keeping administrative and professional development efforts more grounded in the classroom.  Not only would the people doing the work remain informed by their classroom practice, but they would also benefit from increased credibility with their peers.  Ask any teacher about the average quality of professional development programs led by non-teachers or former teachers, compared to professional develompment led by current teachers.  I don’t mean that as a criticism of anyone in particular, but I think most teacher and former teacher participants in this discussion would admit that there’s a sort of half-life on your classroom credibility once you leave teaching.  (Bill Ferriter pondered this question in an article for NSDC (2007): “How can teachers extend their ‘shelf-life,’ holding on to a legitimate understanding of what it means to be a classroom teacher after stepping into leadership roles beyond the classroom? What actions can accomplished educators take to remain master practitioners when they are no longer practicing?”).


David B. Cohen, Anthony Cody, Sandy Dean (l-r)

The second presentation was the one that I participated in, along with Anthony Cody.  Our focus was on the ACT teacher evaluation report, which includes several important principles upon which to build an imtproved teacher evaluation system.  But if our audience took away any one idea from our presentation, I would hope that they understood the importance of designing evaluation systems that focus on continual growth and development for every teacher, rather than focusing on compliance and minimal levels of quality control.  A more robust system will serve to provide the guidance and feedback that many teachers find lacking in the predominant models now in use.  At the same time, I’d expect that such a system could effectively identify teachers who, for whatever reason, are not making progress and need either stronger intervention or a dismissal.  As much as we hoped to focus on the positives of evaluations that truly focus on quality teaching and evidence of student learning, we couldn’t ignore the major political issue in teacher evaluation – the suggestion that student test scores should be part of the evaluation.  We state our firm opposition to that idea.  Our position is consistent with the best research in the field, and consistent with all of the leading professional associations that set the standards for educational research and measurement.  However, I won’t rehash all of the evidence and arguments here.  Interested readers can look at our report, or any of these blog posts, each of which has numerous citations and links.

The first segment of the morning presentations ended with researchers Dan Humphrey and Julia Koppich describing their findings regarding the efficacy of peer evaluation in two California school districts – Poway Unified, and San Juan Unified.  In short, they found that teacher evaluators, pulled out of the classroom and given the time and training to focus on evaluation, provided much more feedback than administrators, more specific and relevant feedback, and more of their time to coach and guide teachers who needed that support.  As an additional benefit, Humphrey and Koppich note that labor-management relations in these districts are more positive, more professional and collegial.  The common misconception or fear around peer evaluation is that the system would not be rigrorous and substantive, but decades’ worth of evidence in these districts demonstrates the opposite.

In a follow-up discussion panel, the seven of us who had made these presentations fielded questions from moderator John Fensterwald, and from the audience.  I was particularly glad that this portion of the event gave me an opportunity to mention something I’d intended to include earlier.  ACT is close to publishing a follow-up report to our evaluation report, in which we will share the perspectives of teacher leaders from around the state who have good ideas about how to modernize compensation and career pathways for teachers.  One question for the panel concerned actual models that might guide the work of California policy makers, and due to my work on the next ACT report I was able to point people to New Mexico, which has created a three-tier teacher licensure system, giving the average “tenured” teacher something higher to shoot for, something meaningful to their professional practice, and something that includes higher pay for a broader array of responsibilities.

Carranza, Brown

Richard Carranza, Shannan Brown

A subsequent panel offered four education leaders an opportunity to respond to the ideas contained in the earlier presentations.  Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes began the process by sharing a little bit about how he came to be interested in education policy, though he did not go into details about his teacher evaluation reform bill (AB5), introduced in the Assembly last year, and still working its way towards a potential floor vote.  Fuentes was followed by Deputy Superintendent Richard Carranza of San Francisco Unified School District.  His remarks focused on the importance of working for equity in California schools, a cause he has helped advance in San Francisco by promoting teaching quality through National Board Certification, and other efforts to support good teaching.  Shannan Brown, current president of the San Juan Teachers Association and a 2011 California Teacher of the Year, offered a simple yet powerful condemnation of the wasteful and non-professional practices that currently deny teachers their professional prerogratives to exercise their judgment about student needs and student learning.  Essentially, she asked, “Why are outsiders telling me about my students, or my needs as a professional?”  Her criticism of this state of the profession did not absolve teachers of all blame: “We were asleep at the wheel,” Brown argued, when we let non-educators take control of our work and our workplace.  The final panelist was Eric Heins, Vice-President of the California Teachers Association.  Heins has spent considerable time working on evaluation for CTA, and elaborated on some important ideas relating to the culture in a school or district that can make evaluation either function well, for purposes of growth and improvement, or function poorly, in an atmosphere of enforcement and fear.


Linda Darling-Hammond, Sacramento Convention Center, 1/20/12 (photo by the author)

And finally, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, whose work includes serving as Co-Director of SCOPE, offered concluding remarks for the event.  With an exhaustive knowledge of teacher training and evaluation, plus years of recent research in international education policy, she was able to put our situation into a broader context.  Here’s what I took away from her talk (and to some extent these reflections are influenced by the fact that I heard her speak again several hours later, along with Diane Ravitch, at the Sacramento Convention Center).

The “single story” of American education most frequently told in the press, in politics, community forums and business roundtables seems to suggest that our schools, teachers, and students are falling behind the rest of the world, and if we look at averages and broad brush strokes, it can be difficult to argue otherwise.  It turns out, however, that American students and schools in low-poverty communities are more than holding their own in international comparisons.  Students attending high-poverty schools are not being served equitably and are not performing well on assessments used for international comparisons.  The good news?  There are many strategies that U.S. and California policy makers could adopt to improve learning and teaching at all schools.  International comparisons suggest we could raise the skill level of teachers and the stability of the school as a workplace by putting in place more selective admissions policies and more generous fiscal policies.  Then, an emphasis on teacher learning – studying, analyzing, collaborating and reflecting – can dramatically improve the quality of education in a school or school system.  The solutions are not complicated, but they do cost money.  Given the tremendous importance of public education, it’s an urgent, essential investment.  The return on the investment will come through better education, a stronger workforce, less waste on the high costs of teacher turnover, fewer dropouts and grade retentions, less crime, and fewer prisoners.

Many policy makers and notable thinkers in the field of education will say all the right things about valuing teachers, respecting teachers, and our need to retain the best teachers.  On January 20, 2012, we offered a vision and a set of examples that we believe argue persuasively for putting teachers and teacher voice at the center of the conversation about improved teaching and learning.  We know our students, our schools, and our professional needs.  When we have the resources and authority necessary to do the job expected of us, when policymakers and voters understand that they, too, are accountable for student outcomes, the potential for systemic improvement can be realized.

(Once again, if you’re interested in the bios of speakers, or links to materials, use this link for all).

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    February 1, 2012 5:40 am

    Despite its active presence since the mid-1970s, I see the absence of mention (presence?) in your remarks of the National Writing Project, and/or the California Writing Project, as striking, especially given the importance of literacy learning and of literacy to learning. NWP/CWP would seem to be major actors in the cultivation of teacher quality? JSD

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    February 1, 2012 8:35 am

    Jim, thanks for your comment. The omission of NWP/CWP was certainly not intended as a slight. At ACT, we are well aware of the writing project and our reports have benefited from the participation of educators involved in regional and state Writing Projects. There are certainly a number of specific models and programs that we value. Our hope would be that teacher leadership, intentionally cultivated in any given school and district, would give WP educators a natural outlet for their talents and for spreading their knowledge. The fact that we mention National Board Certification explicitly is a result of our direct connection to the National Board Resource Center at Stanford, but we are certainly NWP/CWP fans. If you have some ongoing contacts there, maybe you can help us make additional connections and work together for better teacher leadership around the state.

  3. Rob Manwaring permalink
    February 13, 2012 9:59 pm

    It would be nice if we could just classify California’s achievement issues as one effecting high poverty schools, but I don’t think it is that easy to just sweep away the facts. While low poverty school in the US may be competitive with other countries, California continues to drag down the national averages. For example, look at the performance of our 8th graders on NAEP math. Our non-poor kids rank 42nd in the country. And children of college graduates rank 38th. Our peer states are New Mexico, Mississippi and Nevada. So, while middle class students in Mass may be doing fine, California schools are letting students down across the board. Sorry for the bad news.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 13, 2012 10:51 pm

      Hello, Rob. Thank you for reading and commenting. I think you’re responding to a portion of the blog where I blended state and national perspectives, and so I’ll try to clarify. I made no claims about California’s averages either way, and I don’t think I “sweep away the facts.” I wrote: “American schools and teachers working in low-poverty communities are already producing great results, on par with the top-performing nations in the world.” So, you seem to be taking me to task for something I didn’t say. Did I imply that California is keeping up with the rest of the country? I don’t think so, but since the overall topic of my post concerns California I can see where that impression could slip in.

      I’m not surprised to see California’s average results slipping as we systematically divert funding from public education to prisons. School spending is roughly 30% off from where we would have been had we simply kept up with inflation at spending levels a decade ago. It would also help to know if those NAEP results are far off the average, or if the scores are tightly bunched.

      We also have some serious inequities among schools and districts in our state, and if we could apply a more granular examination of the same data, I expect we’d still find that the best and worst educational outcomes track pretty closely to wealth.

      My main point was that the solutions to our state’s problems will come from attention to systems rather than individuals – avoiding fundamental attribution error. I work in a very high performing public high school, with teachers who were trained mostly in the same programs as our peers in other schools. I’d suggest that our success arises largely from the support and resources we have in place, the stability of the staff and student body, and the wealth of the community. Would you have reason to believe otherwise?

      And finally, what do you think of the policy ideas detailed in the blog? Would it help California improve its public education system to strengthen the teaching profession as suggested here?


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