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Teacher-quality study lacks quality

RECENTLY, the National Council on Teacher Quality released its "Teacher Quality Roadmap" in which it offered its criticisms and recommendations on policies and practices of the School District of Philadelphia.

RECENTLY, the National Council on Teacher Quality released its "Teacher Quality Roadmap" in which it offered its criticisms and recommendations on policies and practices of the School District of Philadelphia.

"Thank heavens," you're thinking. The district is so broke it's looking for loose change in the corner of desk drawers; thousands of students and teachers whose schools will close forever in June don't know where they'll be in September; parents wonder whether their children will have access to a nurse or counselor, or remember what a school librarian is; Harrisburg says don't call us - we'll call you.

What does the Council recommend that the district do to solve these problems? Crack down on teachers who get too many sick days, don't deserve collective-bargaining rights, are too hard to fire and waste time getting advanced degrees in their field.

The National Council on Teacher Quality has been a loyal soldier in the corporate-reform army since its creation by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 2000. Major funders include Bill and Melinda Gates - whose Great Schools Compact has mandated major changes in many cities, including Philadelphia - and the William Penn Foundation, which paid for the Boston Consulting Group's report last year that called for school closings and large concessions from the district's unions. The Council's Advisory Board includes Michael Barber, of Pearson Testing, which has profited mightily from the high-stakes testing advocated by Gates and the Council. This study was paid for in part by the Philadelphia School Partnership, a private organization whose influence over school-district policies has grown from school funding to principal training and recruiting of senior staff.

While the study's stated purpose is "to shed light on teacher policies that can be improved . . . to increase the quality of the teaching force in the district," its questionable methodology and misunderstandings of current policies hardly lead to faith in its recommendations. Facilitators conducted surveys of principals and teachers, but admit that "the number of responses to the survey was not sufficient to consider it a representative sample," and that the quotes given by respondents "are not necessarily statements of fact, but rather they represent teacher and principal perceptions about Philadelphia policies and practices." Their claim that teachers' earning additional degrees has little or no affect - or, inexplicably, a negative effect - on student outcomes is illustrated by a graph that does not show any student outcomes. Another proposal cites a study completed last year by Michelle Rhee's New Teacher Project that uses only one year of student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Actually, one can look in vain for the Council to say what defines teacher effectiveness or student achievement anywhere in the report.

The study's assertion that "tenured teachers are evaluated once every three years" is incorrect, and seems to confuse observations with evaluations. Yearly evaluations can be done in one of two ways: by formal classroom observations, or after presentation of the teacher's Professional Development Plan, which entails thorough pre- and post-conference reviews with the principal. (Of course, all principals conduct several informal observations throughout the year.)

The criticism that the district does not effectively deal with teacher absences fails to mention that disciplinary action can begin after the third incidence.

The Council's preoccupation with getting rid of bad teachers ignores the unfortunate reality that more than 50 percent of new teachers quit within five years. Teacher turnover costs school districts millions and furthers instability in schools and school districts. Its stand against seniority is especially misguided, given that seniority is a recognized protection against unfair and punitive measures by incompetent administrators. Even this Council, presumably, does not want to see the return of cronyism, nepotism and political favors used as methods of awarding jobs to teachers.

The Council continues to advance the narrative that the most important factor in a child's education is a good teacher, never acknowledging the many studies (by real educators) that point to parents' income and level of education as better predictors of student success. The study fails to address any of the all-too-common problems that plague many students: poverty, violence, neglect, malnutrition and sexual abuse.

Perhaps in its next report, the National Council on Teacher Quality could employ rigorous research and thoughtful conversations with parents, teachers, principals and students about their true concerns. It could recommend successful reforms including lower class size and increased behavioral and academic supports for students. That would create a roadmap worth following.