Washington State’s Teacher Training Practices Don’t Make The Grade

Bar Is Set Too Low - There's A Full Menu Of Needed Fixes

Washington State's Teacher Training Practices Don't Make The Grade
Smaller class sizes have little benefit if well-trained and effective teachers aren't in place, experts say. Photo: Ilmicrofono Oggiono.

Washington state’s teacher training practices barely get a passing grade from a national education reform and research group.

The National Council on Teacher Quality gave Washington a C- in its 2015 State Teacher Policy Yearbook after analyzing each state’s laws on how teachers are trained, evaluated and rewarded for performance.

In the report issued for all 50 states in December, Washington was not alone in falling short. The state tied for 24th place in the grade rankings. Because 11 states had the same C- grade, only 17 states performed worse than Washington in the assessment. None received an A, and Montana was given an F. Florida received the highest overall grade with a B+.

Teacher Subject Mastery and Student Outcomes Get Short Shrift

Most of the state’s shortcomings related to how teachers were required to demonstrate preparation for teaching specific grades and subjects, and how instructional effectiveness wasn’t the most crucial factor in evaluations.

“Washington’s among a relatively small number of states that still doesn’t include evidence of student learning in a significant way,” said report author Sandi Jacobs, NCTQ senior vice president of state and district policy.

The state got a gold star for requiring annual teacher evaluations, an NCTQ best practice. Washington also requires a teacher’s effectiveness be considered for tenure and dismissal decisions. Less than half of states include that criteria when giving teachers tenure, according to the NCTQ.

State Is Not Showing Improvement

The Bill and Melinda Gates, Walton Family and Joyce foundations funded the study. Washington has received a C- in each annual yearbook except for the inaugural report in 2009, when it got a D+. However, the 2015 analysis added new criteria based on college and career readiness standards.

Jacobs said it was too soon to expect to see correlating increases in student achievement in states that have implemented the NCTQ’s policy recommendations. But she said in the course of improving its overall grade to B, Tennessee is also seeing higher scores for students tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Jacobs emphasized the grading was on state policy, and not on teachers. By other measures, Washington state’s teachers are among the more qualified.

Washington state has the third-highest percentage of teachers that are National Board certified.

The certification process includes testing on subject knowledge, along with student work samples and videos of classroom interaction, and has been credited with significant improvements in student learning by some studies. The number of national board certifications are not included in the NCTQ’s report.

“That’s a great way for teachers to get feedback..and have professional growth, but it’s a voluntary process,” Jacobs said. “We want to make sure there are systems in place that are going to help make sure all teachers are growing and developing and getting feedback throughout their careers.”

Who Gets In to Teacher Training Programs?

State laws aren’t strict enough about who gets into teacher preparation programs, according to the NCTQ. It recommended a required 3.0 GPA and a score in the 50th percentile on a test “normed to the general college-going population” rather than other would-be teachers.

In a 2014 report, the NCTQ found 17 of 30 Washington programs only accepted students who scored in the top half of entrance exams. Only 28 percent of national programs analyzed met that criteria.

Whitworth University was the top program in Washington for both elementary and secondary programs, ranking 63rd and 43rd respectively out of the 1,612 programs analyzed nationally. Yet the state also had 16 programs scoring in the bottom half of the rankings.

‘We Could Only Identify One Exemplary Program In Washington’

“Given the increasing knowledge and skills expected of teachers, it is indeed disappointing that we could only identify one exemplary program in Washington,” wrote NCTQ President Kate Walsh. “However, Washington is by no means unique. The dearth of high-quality programs is a national problem that public school educators, state policymakers and advocates, working alongside higher education, must solve together.”

Chris Eide, founder of the advocacy group Teachers United and former middle school math teacher, said schools need to take a more nuanced approach to preparing teachers, focusing not only on theoretical knowledge, but the “nuts and bolts” of classroom management and other techniques they need to be successful.

Eide said teacher preparation programs needed to specifically prepare students for teaching in high-poverty schools that could be more challenging.

Low-Income, Minority Schools Often Get Least-Effective Teachers

Low-income students in Washington are about 12 percent less likely to graduate high school. One study found that schools with mostly low-income or minority students received the least effective teachers, as measured by either student test scores, teacher licensing exam scores or years of experience.

Transparency, Accountability And Teacher Effectiveness

While Washington met some of the NCTQ’s requirements for reporting data on equitable teacher distribution, the report recommended publicly-accessible data at the school level on teacher effectiveness, and the ability to compare schools with similar demographics.

The report also recommended having quality mentors available to every new teacher, particularly those at low-performing schools. Washington school districts currently can choose to participate in the Beginning Educator Support Team program.

Eide said programs like North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district or the T3 initiative are among ways to address the opportunity gap. The district created a program for more flexibility for principals to direct their schools. The T3 Initiative trains and places groups of highly-effective teachers at struggling schools.

But the first hurdle to overcome, Eide said, is identifying effective teachers.

Defining Teacher Effectiveness

The NCTQ defined teacher effectiveness as evidence of student learning. While a teacher might have students scoring below grade-level on a test, if those students had begun the year two grades below but left the teacher’s class only one year behind, it was evidence that teacher was effective.

Both Eide and Jacobs said teacher evaluations needed to take into account multiple measures. Eide said a good evaluation process could include class observation from a principal, peer reviews from other teachers and perception surveys of students.

“There’s no way to fully measure or quantify the art of teaching, but I think we can get really close,” he said. “Those people, when taken in combination, have a really good look at who a good teacher is.”

The NCTQ report found student growth was a “substantial factor” in three of eight criteria used in Washington teacher evaluations, but recommended the state require evidence of student learning to be the most important. It also said classroom observations should primarily focus on effectiveness, as defined by efficient use of time, student grasp of lesson objectives and time on task.

State Grappling With Teacher Shortage

The state is currently grappling with a shortage of teachers, with 45 percent of principals who responded to a November OSPI survey saying they were unable to fill positions with fully-certified teachers, and nearly three-fourths saying they had had to cover a class in the past five days when a substitute couldn’t be found.

The shortage is partly due to new requirements for smaller class sizes. Jacobs said it shouldn’t be used as justification to lower the bar.

“You won’t receive any benefit from having fewer students in the classroom if you lower the requirements and expectations for what those teachers need to know,” she said.

Mixed Messages Sometimes Sent To New Teachers

Eide said people were drawn to the profession in the hope of making a difference, but discouraged by others, sometimes teachers themselves, who saw teaching as thankless and underpaid.

“It’s the case now that people will readily acknowledge teaching as the most noble thing you can do, but they’ll also say in the same breath, ‘Please, God, don’t become a teacher,’” he said.

When Teachers Go The Extra Mile

Great teaching can defy quantification, Eide said, but it’s easy to see when teachers go the extra mile to make sure each student is on track and learning specific objectives.

“Every student is known and every student is loved. I think you can tell those things by observing the way a teacher interacts with his or her students, and to me that’s ultimately the most important thing,” he said.

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