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The path from changing laws to helping kids

This piece was submitted by Celine Coggins, CEO of Teach Plus, a Boston-based non-profit organization with a mission to improve outcomes for urban children by ensuring that a greater proportion of students have access to effective, experienced teachers. Coggins is the featured speaker at the Nov. 18 Hot Lunch event.

At Teach Plus, we are working with several states on the roll out of reforms similar to those in Colorado’s SB 10-191, the educator effectiveness law. It is complicated work with a number of interesting puzzles that are destined to make or break the impact of the legislation. In my view, there’s passing laws and there’s actually helping kids. The two are completely different things—although the law is the necessary pre-condition for changing the way schools operate. Here are three puzzles I’m currently wrestling with that are likely challenging folks in Colorado as well.

What are the real roots of resistance?

If you listen to the media, one would come to believe that all teachers are against any form of testing and/or accountability. In my work with teachers across five states and across charter and regular district contexts, I hear something very different.

Teachers are eager for meaningful data on the progress their students are making. Too often, the assessments their district or school currently uses do not fit that bill. They are jealous when they hear of teachers who have access to assessments that are aligned to their curriculum, given several times a year, and in which results are fed back to teachers and students immediately.

About Teach Plus
At Teach Plus we work to break down the barriers that separate teachers and policymakers. We run two programs designed to give teachers greater input into the decisions that affect their classrooms. Our Teaching Policy Fellows program is a selective training program in policy and advocacy for classroom teachers in years 3-10 of their careers. It spans two school years. Our T+ Network, is a broad-based community for over 5,000 progressive teachers seeking a voice in education reform. At both in-person and online events, we use real-time polling to get feedback directly from teachers to policy leaders.The teachers with whom we work feel responsible for whether and to what degree their students are learning—but they want assessments that will allow them to learn and modify practice, not just “be held accountable”.

How do you build a powerful coalition of the willing?

From the outside, one of the most important achievements of SB 10-191, was the broad-based coalition that was built around the need to get an effective teacher in front of every child in the state. On the path to real reform, there was space for many voices to shape the legislation. Implementation is typically a time when coalitions dissipate, but it needs to be a time of continuing to push the message out and cultivating a growing group of supporters for the message—this time, primarily within the teaching ranks.

I’d suggest three key pieces of coalition-building: 1. We need top state leaders regularly meeting with teachers in communicating why changes are happening. Too few teachers understand the research that confirms differences in teacher effectiveness and their significant consequences for kids. 2. We need teachers who are trained as ambassadors to communicate with their peers in the classroom and answer their questions. And 3. We need platforms, like the one we offer at Teach Plus, for teachers to offer constructive ideas to leaders and get their voices heard.

Are there ways to mitigate unintended consequences?

Like all laws affecting large swaths of the population, sweeping teacher quality legislation is bound to have a few unintended consequences. We recently worked with the state of Illinois to get opinions from more than 2,000 teachers on how to implement changes to their evaluation system.

One question state leaders were wrestling with was: Should performance expectations for novice teachers be different from their more experienced peers? One would expect that experienced teachers would be of the opinion that they are part of a profession where complex skills are developed over time. Thus, they would vote that their newer colleagues could not possibly be held to the same high standards as someone who had been in the classroom for several years.

Surprise! They voted just the opposite way. The majority argued that all teachers needed to be held to the same standard, whether they had been in the classroom for a few dozen days or a few dozen years. Why? Another new piece of legislation in that state mandates that layoffs must be based more on performance than seniority. Allowing newer teachers a lower standard, they argued, might be their passport to unemployment.

Ugh! What should we do with this? Certainly we shouldn’t turn back from the premise that performance matters. But we cannot allow senior teachers to cannibalize those who will be the future of the profession because public policy has taken away the security that has long been a hallmark of their job.

I am eager to dig deeper into these puzzles with many of you later today in Denver.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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