By Mark Sturgis Memphis Director of Stand for Children

First, I would like to thank the tireless, hard-working, and often overlooked teachers in our districts, who meet our students where they are and bring them their best. As a classroom teacher for five years in MCS, I know very well the significant demands – mental, emotional, and physical – the job brings. I also know that a key component  of any teacher’s success is working in a supportive environment that has high standards and holds everyone accountable to student outcomes.

However, in a recent Commercial Appeal article, there was some push back against a district meeting intended  to bring together teachers from MCS whose students persistently scored in the lowest quartiles on standardized tests. And, although the means of communication used by the district may not have been the most tactful, the  purpose of the  gathering was very clear: these meetings are necessary to address the performance gaps, to discuss specific plans to improve the effectiveness of these teachers in order to increase student achievement. And with the new data generated as a result of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI), Memphis City Schools can now develop customized programs of support and development aligned to teacher need.

The data is helping the district identify and better support teachers on both ends of the spectrum, the high-performing teachers as well as the low-performing teachers. Indeed, identifying and supporting teachers is a key strategy of the TEI work; and, after a semester of observations, and years of data, is it not the right time to apply this information more appropriately for the benefit of our students? The response to the article challenges that assumption but raises some additional interesting points.

The idea that ‘privacy’ was violated by using data on how students are performing under a given teacher’s guidance warrants the question as to whether what happens in a classroom is a private or public matter. Of course, certain issues must remain sacred, like personal information, students’ names and classification, etc. However, several recently published studies show us just how public the work of teachers really is, and how it affects as all.

The first report, written by Harvard and Columbia economists for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), finds that elementary and middle school teachers who raise their student’s test scores also have an enormous impact on those student’s future: predicting things like college matriculation, future earnings, even teenage-pregnancy rates. Are these not some of the fundamental issues that plague the stability of our community and our economic growth? Are they not also significant pieces of our public life? Should we then, not take seriously what we know is happening inside of our classrooms, and address it? How can we permit any further delay in addressing inadequacies in our classrooms?

Their report tracked 2.5 million students over a twenty year period, and is the most in-depth report on linking student outcomes to value-added data to date. Linking the work of teachers to such striking long-term outcomes speak volumes to the urgency that the district is acting on, through the work of TEI. It also links the dreadful impact inadequate performance by teachers can have if left unchanged or unchallenged.  One finding in the report equates the effect of a bad teacher to missing 40 days of school during the year.

Furthermore, the economists’ research indicates that replacing one poor teacher with an average teacher would increase a single classroom’s earning by about $266,000.  Although money is not the only measure of what great teachers bring to our children, it is a significant determinant of life chances and generational outcomes. You can read the report here, a solid summary of the findings in the NYTimes here, and a column by Nicholas Kristof on the findings and their policy implications here. This research adds to our growing knowledge about just how important teachers really are.

In our current situation with so few of our students in the city (5%) and in the county (20%) prepared for college the essential work of recruiting, identifying, supporting, and retaining great teachers must be a priority for the current administration, the school board, and the Transition Planning Commission. We cannot be squeamish about the realities of low-performance. Our children deserve better, and our community will be better off, if we make strategic use of the invaluable date the TEI is providing us.

I believe this is the message the district is sending by beginning these conversations with teachers, and I hope with principals and district officials as well, about how to address low-performance. I expect as also that the district will pursue the same types of meetings with those professionals meeting expectations (3‘s) and those surpassing them (4-5’s) in order to understand what support is needed and what the district can do to maximize their effectiveness.

This work is founded on the continual research being done by the Gate’s Foundation to understand what makes an effective teacher, and how best to identify, and support them.

The Gates Measure of Effective Teaching (MET), is the most comprehensive study to date on teacher evaluations, and provides a crucial analysis of the effectiveness of three types of evaluations: classroom observations, value-added data, and student surveys, all of which play a key role in the districts evaluation tool the TEM. This research should give the district and parents even greater resolve to follow through with the strategies of TEI. Their findings suggest that:

–          Value-added data is more powerful than any other measure in predicting a teacher’s long term contributions to student success, (and the score reflects students’ mastery of higher-level thinking skills and school enjoyment, not just high test scores)

–          Observations help teachers improve their teaching, but have limited value in predicting future performance.

–          Combining several performance measures is key for accurate evaluations.

You can read a summary of the report from The New Teacher Project here and the entire report here.

Finally, the fact that teachers are so crucial to student achievement and other significant long-term outcomes must find its way into our discourse about equity. We must provide an equitable education to our students, this is not only a legal mandate of the State but more so an issue of justice. Research has shown over and over again that our most disadvantaged students are more likely to be taught by our lowest performing teachers. A recent study conducted in the Los Angeles Unified School District looked at the distribution and performance of teachers there for over a three year period. What they determined was that, indeed, the more effective teachers were concentrated in more affluent schools and that highly effective teachers were more likely to leave low-performing schools.

Now, more than ever, we must entrust all children, regardless of where they live, if they are optional or honors, or if they have special needs, to the best teachers, with no exceptions. We must also work, however, to support our teachers in every capacity and remove all barriers to their success, from our lowest performers all the way to our highest. To do these things, it is necessary to follow through with the four key strategies of the TEI, 1.Use a common, agreed-upon process to define and measure effective teaching, 2.make smart decisions about who teaches our students, 3. better support, utilize, and compensate our teachers, and 4. improve the surrounding contexts for teachers and students to foster effective teaching. We must follow through with these strategies with fidelity even when the conversations are difficult. Our students will benefit from our commitment, and so will we.