Group Recommends Expanding Reach of Best Teachers to Close Achievement Gap

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Since there aren’t enough highly effective teachers to go around, schools should begin to use “remote teaching” and higher salaries so that an elite cadre of the nation’s best teachers can reach greater numbers of students.

That is one of the more radical recommendations contained in a new report released Wednesday by Public Impact, which calls for making access to excellent teachers a new “civil right.”

The report is titled “Giving Every Student Access to Excellent Teachers: A Vision for Focusing Federal Investments in Education.”

The report notes that students taught by the most effective teachers ― or those in the top 20 or 25 percent of their profession in terms of student growth ― make an average of three times as much progress as students taught by teachers in the bottom 20 or 25 percent.

“But the stark reality is only 25 percent of classrooms have teachers that are this strong,” said Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based organization that seeks to improve student learning outcomes.

“Increasing that percent dramatically should be a high priority for our country and federal policy,” Hassel said Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Achievement gaps can close if students get the chance to have excellent teachers consistently instead of one out of every four classes or once every four years,” Hassel said, citing research that suggests poor Black students who consistently get the best teachers for four years can catch up academically to their non-poor or White peers.

In order to get all or most students the benefit of a highly effective teacher, schools must rethink their roles, use of time and technology.

“What we need are new models of a classroom that give all students access to excellent teachers,” Hassel said.

Hassel said this school reconceptualization involves having the top teachers specialize in their best subjects as well as lead and develop “instructional teams.”

It also involves increased reliance on digital learning in order to free up top teachers to reach more students without increasing class sizes, as well as utilizing “remote learning” for students in schools or school districts that lack a sufficient amount of highly effective teachers.

“Technology enables excellent teachers to engage directly ― though not in person ― with students, bringing top teaching to places that lack sufficient local talent,” the report states.

The report comes at a time when there is an increased focus on using teacher evaluations to gauge teacher effectiveness based in part on student gains.

Hassel said the new report takes this new focus “to a whole new level.”

One school of education leaders said the report’s idea that new technologies be leveraged to ensure more children have access to exemplary teachers is “a good one.”

“The meteoric rise and endemic use of Khan Academy is one indication of the potential power here,” said Timothy F.C. Knowles, John Dewey Director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

“Equally important, the report calls for significant investment in gathering good evidence about what actually works,” Knowles said. “The fact is, there are legions of charlatans in the ed-tech space, draining precious resources from schools and classrooms.

“The authors are right to suggest a central role for the federal government should be identifying which policies or programs improve teaching and learning and which do not.”

However, a teachers union leader warned that, while there is “plenty of room for discussion moving forward,” it is too soon to use teacher evaluations in order to redeploy teachers and technology in the manner that Public Impact suggests.

“If we start tomorrow, it’s a big problem,” said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, explaining that various states are “trying to come to terms with the new evaluation systems.”

Toner also raised concerns about suggestions by Public Impact that schools and school districts could reach more students with highly effective teachers by increasing reliance on paraprofessionals and technology.

“I don’t see us firing five teachers and hiring five paraprofessionals and sticking a bunch of computers in front of kids as the way to go,” Toner said. “I do see a greater role for technology around individualizing education for children.”

John Bailey, Executive Director of Digital Learning Now!, Foundation for Excellence in Education, said it’s a “false premise” to say that the new models suggested by Public Impact necessarily mean less teachers.

“A whole cadre of new jobs that we haven’t even thought of” will come about through the new models, Bailey said, offering “online learning specialist” or “lecture capturer” as examples.

Bailey said there could be “bad implementation” of the new models by school superintendents who see them as a way to cut costs, “but that’s not good implementation.”

Tiffany McAfee, Master Teacher of Humanities at Merit Preparatory Charter School, also said the new models should not necessarily mean less teachers, but more effective teachers working with novice teachers to bring them up to higher levels of teaching.

The Public Impact report also calls for revamping federal policy to use competitive grants to incentivize states to do more to place highly effective teachers in front of more students.

To this end, the report states, grants should be given to states that formulate plans to:

n      Increase the percentage of students who have highly-effective teachers based on teacher evaluation systems that meet federal standards.

n      Increase the percentage of teachers with highly effective teachers in charge of and accountable for their development.

n      Increase the percentage of “sustainable compensation” offered to highly effective teachers who reach more students. “Applicants could garner even more points if they also raised the pay of all teachers sustainably,” the report states.

The report also calls for “legislating a new civil right to excellent teachers.”

“For any child who did not make grade level in the previous school year, who did not make at least one year’s worth of growth in any designated subject in the previous school year, or who has not been assigned an excellent teacher in a designated subject during the prior two school years, policymakers should require schools and districts to put a consistently excellent teacher in charge of instruction,” the report states, adding that such children should be “empowered to take legal action to enforce the right.”

Toner, the teachers’ union rep, said he appreciated the goal of making access to excellent teachers a civil right, but said it would also be problematic because “there are plenty of ways to sue folks for not meeting expectations.”

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