Thursday, January 21, 2010

Teaching quality and state action

Finally, after a day of addressing different angles on teaching quality at the student, classroom, and school level, I want to turn to state-level action to build that kind of instruction. Here's my list of the important next steps:

1. Teacher preparation
Teacher preparation programs must focus on standards, evaluating student progress, analyzing the resulting data, and planning effective instruction to move each student forward and on sustained classroom practice of those skills. My understanding is that having already upgraded the expectations for principal preparation and masters' degrees, the Education Professional Standards Board is getting ready to work on preparation of new teachers as the next big push forward.

2. Pre-tenure development
New teachers need sustained mentoring, expanding the current internship program to last two years and receive full funding, rather than repeated reductions, for both years. They should also see clear standards defining the quality of work needed to earn tenure, receive regular information on how close they are to those standards, and get strong support to reach that level by the end of their fourth year of work. In its Race to the Top application, the Department has proposed important work on this issue, work that should go forward with or without RTTT funding.

3. Growth beyond tenure
Tenured teachers should work with a clearly defined ladder of growing quality, with their evaluations providing credible feedback on where they are strong and how they can get stronger--again on the key process of standards, assessments, data, instruction, and collaboration. The main point should be helping the large majority of teachers who already do satisfactory work do even better work. This effort, too, is on the RTTT and KDE agenda.

4. Principals and superintendents
Top administrative leadership should be defined as fundamentally about developing teaching quality. Preparation programs should focus on that role, and properly funded two-year internships should strengthen reinforce those skills. Evaluations for educators in those roles should emphasize effectiveness in supporting classroom educators' growing effectiveness. Tasks that are not part of that primary focus should, whenever possible, not be the responsibility of the men and women we ask to be provide that central instructional leadership.

5. Persistently weak schools
Our current improvement strategies work for most schools: if schools enter state assistance, most get the right help to exit again. For the smaller group that has consistently done work that is much too weak, we need a fresh approach. House Bill 176 zipped through the legislature last week in order to strengthen our RTTT application, and I hope it signals a new readiness to push harder in the cases where past efforts have not succeeded in turning a school around.

And the fundamental thing about state leadership
Good policy is a start, but steady implementation is the only way to meaningful results. Some teachers can work in isolation and achieve excellence--but most need to think and work with supportive colleagues. Some schools become professional learning communities on their own, but many will get there sooner if their boards and superintendents make it a priority. Some districts are doing what it takes and getting rapidly stronger at that work, but experience says districts move at different paces--and Kentucky's constitution says we are to build a common system rather than accept big differences based on geography.

It will not be enough for state leaders to describe what needs to happen in classrooms. Whether that's done in stature, regulation, plans, or published advice, the words are never more than a beginning.

From state agencies and elected leaders, the big changes will need robust, persistent, demanding attention, applying sustained weight on the key levers above.
That follow-through is what makes the main difference for our children and our shared future.

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