Thinking outside the quality/quantity box: focusing on strategic use of teachers' time and talent

Teacher quality is arguably the most important variable impacting student achievement. Americans have generally accepted this truism, either through common sense or nostalgia, and policy wonks and politicians (armed with substantive evidence that good teaching matters) are elevating teacher quality as a primary focus of reform and pursuing relevant policy changes.

Ohio House Bill 1 moved teacher tenure decisions back from the third to the seventh year of a teacher’s career, a move with potential to help weed out ineffective teachers. The legislation also lowered the legal bar for terminating teachers and laid out requirements for a four-year teacher residency program. Both are attempts to improve the quality or quantity (through retention or recruitment) of teachers.

On a national level, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has begun visiting America’s teacher colleges, calling for them to reform the way they train teachers and put an end to “mediocrity” (see his remarks here and here). Duncan references the teacher shortage: more than half of the 3.2 million teachers working in America’s schools are Baby Boomers nearing retirement, and the U.S. Department of Education projects one million new teaching slots by 2014. The message seems straightforward -- we need better prepared teachers, and we need more of them.

Two recent reports view the teacher quality issue through a slightly different lens. Education Sector’s Teachers At Work: Improving Teacher Quality Through School Design (see here) and Public Impact’s 3x for All: Extending the Reach of Education’s Best (see here) are premised on the idea that recruiting more (and even better) teachers is not sufficient unless, as Teachers at Work notes, “we fundamentally overhaul the way the work of teachers is organized in schools.”

Teachers At Work showcases the Generation Schools model and offers a glimpse into its Brooklyn-based pilot high school, where teachers are organized into grade- and subject-based teams, teach 90-minute core classes as well as shorter elective classes, and have two hours of daily planning time. Twice a year, grade-based teaching teams go on a four-week break – three weeks for rest, and one week for planning and collaboration. Breaks are staggered among teacher teams so that students won’t miss learning time; students take intensive month-long literacy courses during teacher breaks. The school year stretches for 200 days for students without adding any extra work time or pay for teachers.

3X for All, which gets its name from research showing that students taught by top-quintile teachers make three times the progress of those taught by the bottom fifth of teachers. Even if we entice more great teachers to join the profession, “our nation still will not have an excellent teacher in every classroom… [because] the magnitude of the gap is too enormous.” Our current attempts to address education’s human capital challenges simply are not enough.

The report’s authors argue that schools should use the good teachers they already have so that more children can benefit from “3X” (the best) teachers. 3X teachers should devote nearly all their time to student interaction (and no time to rote and non-instruction duties). Schools can maximize 3X teachers in three ways: 1) “in person reach extension,” which changes how schools are organized so that the best teachers only focus on instruction (and can opt to teach larger classes for extra pay); 2) “remote reach extension,” which leverages technology so that 3X teachers can interact with students through videos, e-chats, etc.; and 3) “boundless reach extension,” which uses technology not based on direct teacher-student interaction but is boundless in the number of students who can be reached.

3X for All contends that while the number of top-flight teachers is limited, the number of students they could reach is not. The report is reminiscent of many ideas underlying NYC’s School of One pilot (see here), whose founder, Joel Rose, argued that “superhero” teachers are hard to come by and that technology and better use of data can change the effectiveness of the inputs we already have. While 3X for All offers some good and feasible ideas to expand great teachers’ digital reach, the argument to reorganize the profession so that the best teachers lead “pods” of classrooms and manage other teachers (and that average or below average teachers shouldn’t be allowed to “own” their classroom) would require significant cultural shifts and changes to collective bargaining agreements.

The thrust of both reports is spot-on: recruiting and retaining more good teachers is only part of the strategy to ensure that all students receive excellent instruction. Policy makers and educators should think creatively about reorganizing teachers’ workload, planning time, and school calendars, and should consider the power of technology to expand excellent teachers’ reach.

Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from both reports is that if we wish to organize teachers’ time and talent strategically, many other policy changes must happen in tandem (Ohio, pay attention). Traditional budget allocation makes such experimentation difficult; therefore states should consider funding that follows students. Charter schools are a likely vehicle for experimenting with school calendars, and start-up models like Generation Schools must be encouraged. Though class size mandates are well-intentioned, they impose restraints on maximizing teachers’ interactions with students. And teacher licensure barriers, mandates on minimum hours of instruction, and rigidity in school calendars all hinder the innovative ideas described in these reports.

If Ohio is serious about improving its teaching force, leaders must ease regulatory burdens on schools and think outside of the teacher quality/quantity box. Quality and quantity do matter, but current reforms won’t go far enough unless we rethink policies that constrain how well teachers’ time and talent are used to impact students.

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