Friday, December 9, 2011

Bold Ideas Lead to Great Schools:The Future of Education Reform

Sometimes an idea, or set of ideas, comes along that's so clear and sensible, it makes you stop and wonder why we haven't implemented it. Then again, some ideas are so ineffective, it's a wonder they haven't been buried in an avalanche of criticism.

Such is the state of public education reform in the United States at this moment. Governors throughout the country have tried, and in some cases succeeded, in forcing their versions of school reform in their states with little or misguided thought and a jaundiced eye towards the teachers who will need to carry it out. They eschew collaboration for rigidity, cooperation for coarseness, and conversation for calumny. Theirs is a corporate model based on competition, but that's not necessarily how schools work. So far, this top-down approach has done little for education, but has done a great deal to sour relations between the adults who need to implement the changes and the politicians who want votes.

The key to real, lasting, effective reform in this country lies in a partnership between the state governments and teachers, parents and students, and the most effective reforms will focus their energies on people working together. That's why the ideas in the article, Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation by Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools Blog, are so vital. They are aimed at improving education and student performance without sacrificing the rights and concerns of teachers. As Karp says:

One promising model is the Montgomery County, Maryland Professional Growth System (PGS), which has taken a collaborative approach to improving teacher quality for more than a decade. Several defining features make the Montgomery model very different than the test-based “value-added” or “student growth” approaches. The Montgomery Co. professional growth system:
  • was negotiated through collective bargaining rather than imposed by state or federal mandate.
  • is based on a clear, common vision of high quality professional teaching practice.
  • includes test scores as one of many indicators of student progress and teacher performance without rigidly weighted formulas.
  • includes a strong PAR (peer assistance and review) component for all novice and under-performing teachers, including those with tenure.
  • takes a broad, qualitative approach to promoting individual and system-wide teacher quality and continuous professional growth.
There are many strengths to the PGS, as outlined above and in the rest of the article. It allows for collective bargaining, so it's less antagonizing than the Wisconsin model that took away that right from teachers, and it has a component for peer assistance (PAR), where experienced teachers can share their expertise with newer educators.

But perhaps the best part of the system is that it's not SDOT (Shoved Down Our Throats) by politicians who have little, if any knowledge of what works best in classrooms. It's teacher-centered; and that's the correct approach because teachers are the ones best qualified to carry it out.

The PGS also addresses another concern that the public has about education, and that's teacher quality. As Karp notes: 

In 11 years, the PAR process has led to some 500 teachers being removed from the classroom in a countywide system of about 150,000 students with approximately 10,000 teachers and 200 schools. Over the same period, nearly 5,000 teachers have successfully completed the PAR process.[ii]

But PAR is only part of a professional growth system designed to improve teacher capacity throughout the system, not just identify and remove ineffective teachers. It’s a qualitative approach growing out of a shared vision of high quality professional practice. The PGS begins with “six clear standards for teacher performance, based on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards” and includes “performance criteria for how the standards are to be met and descriptive examples of observable teaching behaviors.”

You can read the standards in the article. It's refreshing to see that every one of them begins with the word, "Teachers."

There's more to like in the explanation of the process that teachers and administrators use to evaluate the program and each other. Teachers and principals are equally represented on a panel that determines if a teacher is effective. There's an appeals process if a teacher is given a negative recommendation, and the system is based on documentation at every level of evaluation and appeal. This is a far cry from what happens at many public schools, especially here in New Jersey, where many teachers are observed once or twice per year and documentation is cursory, general or incomplete.

In the end, it's the words the participants use to describe the process that show how effective the program can be. Here are some examples:

“It wouldn’t work without the level of trust we have here,” MCEA president Doug Prouty told the NY Times.

“(G)ood teaching is nurtured in a school and in a school system culture that values constant feedback, analysis, and refinement of the quality of teaching.”

While the system is spelled out in detail, what really makes it possible is the level of trust and cooperation that grew out of years of developing a collaborative approach to issues of teacher quality.

In Maryland, they seem to be on the right track.

In New Jersey, we might be moving in that direction.

On December 1, State Senator Barbara Buono introduced two education bills. The first would establish a teacher residency program to replace the present student teaching requirement.

Under the bill, all fourth-year students would be placed in a school district five days per week for a full-semester under the supervision of a district mentor teacher. The students would also take a seminar course during this period that provides a collaborative learning experience and peer discussion with other residency students and with faculty.

The bill would also create teacher mentor positions in each school district. These master teachers would then serve to introduce the teacher residents into the profession over the course of the full semester. It would be a collaborative program and would recognize excellent teachers.

The second bill would require each school district to develop a set of standards by which all teachers would be evaluated, by both peers and principals, based on district curriculum standards. They would be observed four times per year and be required to submit a portfolio of their work. There is no mention of standardized tests, and this process would be determined through collective bargaining. Those are good things. The bill also mentions collaboration and cooperation. Senator Buono's bills will not be the final word on these issues, but they are a welcome addition to the debate.

The current reform models that rely on threats and stare-downs might make for exciting videos, but they are terrible public policy. If more Governors and Commissioners of Education would commit to the cooperative, collaborative ethic, they would find that educators would more readily commit to implementing bold reforms enthusiastically.

For more bold, enthusiastic ideas, visit


  1. What do you think of teachers evaluating supervisors, APs, principals, and senior management?

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