I completely agree with the notion that career ladders, which allow excellent teachers to share their work with other teachers, is the best approach to thinking about ways to provide additional compensation to outstanding educators.
As long ago as 1985 I wrote a policy paper for Irv Moskowitz, then in the Colorado Department of Education, making the same point. We definitely need to find ways to allow teachers to move upward in their profession without having them leave teaching for administration. Having highly skilled teachers take on new mentoring responsibilities can revitalize their professional life and, if done well, can improve teaching throughout the system.
My concern is the means that will be used to identify these outstanding teachers. State Sen. Mike Johnston speaks of multiple measures, but in fact Colorado has only one measure, the CSAP growth model. Reliance on this single battery of tests to determine the trajectory of teacher and principal careers increases the ways in which these tests can further distort the system.
First, teachers would have even more reason than ever to teach to the test rather than to educate students. The hyper-focus on the specific reading, writing, math and science skills and knowledge tested by the exams to the exclusion of other valuable dimensions of those disciplines will accelerate. In addition, the marginalizing of social studies, the arts and the social and emotional skills that all reformers claim to value will be exacerbated.
Second, the power struggles that already exist within most faculties to determine which students are placed with which teachers will intensify to the detriment of collegiality. Demands that all classes be perfectly matched cannot be met without removing all discretion from schools and even if the outcome is accomplished it is unlikely to be in the best interests of anyone.
Classrooms are communities of learners in which personality, peer influences, and chemistry play as much of a role in student learning as demographics. Schools need to be able to shape these classrooms without worrying about distorting the outcomes of the teacher compensation system.
Third, instances of outright cheating, which have already been documented in high stakes testing around the country, will undoubtedly come home to Colorado.
I absolutely support the creation of more robust, nuanced measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness so that a new system does not have to rely exclusively on CSAP growth measures. Unfortunately, every such system that has ever been proposed or developed that is able to meet reliability and validity concerns without being a standardized test is time consuming and expensive.
Even before the current budget crisis Colorado schools were underfunded and there is no reason to assume that this will change in the foreseeable future. Until the underlying school funding system is overhauled and placed on strong fiscal footing I don’t see how we can commit to either a new teacher compensation system or to the development of high quality student and teacher assessment systems needed to undergird it. We just don’t have the money to do the job right.
Trying to do it on the cheap with the information system we have will lead to all three outcomes described above as well as other unintended consequences that we cannot yet imagine.
We have three challenges in improving the quality of teaching. The first is finding fair ways to remove the relatively small number of incompetent teachers who have managed to acquire tenure. The second is finding effective ways to continually improve the teaching skills of all current teachers who wish to remain in the system. And the third is creating a profession that is attractive to the best and brightest.
The last two are system-changing but also expensive and therefore currently unattainable. My recommendation is that legislators work closely with unions to find new ways to address the first issue that are doable within our current fiscal constraints. That will make a difference we can all be proud of.
I’m all for changing the whole system. But not when we don’t have the means to do it right.
Rona Wilensky was the founding principal of New Vista High School, a small, innovative public school of choice in Boulder Valley School District. She retired from that position last June. This year she is a Resident Fellow at the Spencer Foundation in Chicago Illinois.
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