Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has proposed a new school finance plan that is sure to be the primary focus of Kansas education policy in the upcoming session of the legislature. Critics of the plan have noted that it does nothing to address the issue of student achievement. At the same time, education researchers are producing convincing evidence that of the factors under control of schools, teacher quality has the largest impact on student achievement.
Kansas ranks low in policies relating to teacher quality. The 2010 State Teacher Policy Yearbook for Kansas prepared by National Council on Teacher Quality gives Kansas these grades for five areas of policy related to teacher quality:
Delivering Well Prepared Teachers: D+
Expanding the Teaching Pool: F
Identifying Effective Teachers: D
Retaining Effective Teachers: C-
Exiting Ineffective Teachers: F
Kansas has a problem with its policies related to teacher quality. These issues have not been addressed by the Brownback Administration. Many of these policies would cost very little to improve, and would make a huge difference in the classroom for Kansas students.
Last year Sandi Jacobs of National Council on Teacher Quality spoke in Wichita on the issue of teacher quality policies. Following is the report I filed at that time.
Kansas ranks low in policies on teacher quality
States are the primary drivers of teacher policy, said Sandi Jacobs, and the states, particularly Kansas, are not doing a good job promoting teacher quality.
Jacobs is Vice President of National Council for Teacher Quality. She appeared in Wichita at an event sponsored by the Kansas Policy Institute. NCTA is a research and advocacy group that promotes accountability and transparency of the institutions that affect teacher quality.
While states play the largest role in formulating teacher policy, other actors are local school districts, teachers unions, and the education schools that train teachers. Until last year when Race to the Top money became available from the federal government, it didn’t play a significant role. Kansas did not make it past the first round of Race to the Top evaluations.
Jacobs said that there is strong consensus that of the factors under control of schools, teacher quality has the greatest impact on student success. And recently there has been a shift in how we consider teacher quality, moving from certifications and past education to effectiveness and results in the classroom.
Jacobs presented research that shows how teacher quality can make a large difference in how much students learn in just a period of three years. In the example she illustrated, third graders who had teachers in the top 20 percent of effectiveness for the next three years went from the 50th percentile in performance to the 90th. For students with teachers in the lowest 20 percent for the same period, their performance dropped from the 50th percentile to the 37th percentile. This is a “huge achievement gap,” she said.
Jacobs said that states already have many policies regarding teachers, but they are not the right policies. The NCTQ gives an average grade of “D” to the states for their policies regarding teachers. Kansas is below average, earning a grade of “D-.”
Among the policy areas regarding teacher effectiveness and quality, states fare worst in identifying effective teachers. Further, the methods that statues use to evaluate teachers are not indicative of teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Only ten states “require evidence of effectiveness to be the preponderant criterion for teacher evaluation.” Kansas policy says that school districts “should” include a measure of teacher effectiveness in their evaluations. But that is as far as Kansas policy goes, Jacobs said. Kansas, like many states, does not require classroom observation in teacher evaluation.
If student data is to be an important factor in teacher evaluation, states must create data systems that match students and their test scores with teachers. Kansas has the building blocks in place, Jacobs said, but the system needs more work before this matching can be done.
Value-added data has been in the news recently. This refers to the ability to measure the impact of teachers on student achievement. In value-added methodology, the specific students taught by a teacher are tracked so that teachers may be evaluated by the achievement of their own students, not by broad measures. “Value-added methodology is very fair to teachers. It looks at their impact on their students,” Jacobs told the audience.
Jacobs said that twelve states use value-added data in teacher evaluations. Kansas does not.
The frequency of teacher evaluation is important, too. Kansas requires multiple evaluations for new teachers, which Jacobs said is a wise policy, even though the evaluation process may not be meaningful. For teacher who have gained tenure, they are evaluated once a year in their first two years after gaining tenure. After that, evaluations are required once every three years, which Jacobs said does not make sense, and should be addressed.
The process of granting tenure — permanent employment status, after which is is very difficult to dismiss a teacher — is almost automatic in most states, Jacobs said. She added: “We’re not awarding it based on anything too meaningful, and we’re awarding it very quickly.” In Kansas, as in most states, teachers earn tenure after three years.
Jacobs said that after three years, school districts will have probably two years’ of data on a teacher, which she said is not enough. She recommended a probationary period of five years before evaluating a teacher for tenure.
For professional licensure, which is awarded by states, many states require no evidence of effectiveness. Kansas requires a performance assessment. Jacobs had no data for Kansas, but on other states that have such as assessment, the passing rate is generally above 98 percent. “So if 98 percent of people are coming through your gate, well then you don’t have a gate. Why are you even giving that assessment?”
The policy area in which Kansas scored lowest was in exiting, or firing, ineffective teachers. Kansas labor law has special language just for teachers, Jacobs said, and this language makes it very difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers. Teachers are also allowed multiple appeals. The second appeal is made in the court system, which changes the matter from an educational issue to a procedural issue.
Kansas is also weak in alternate certification, a process where people may become teachers without going through the traditional route through the education colleges. Kansas schools may hire such teachers only if they certify that no traditionally-prepared teacher is available. Jacobs said that research shows that alternatively-certified teachers perform well.
Retaining effective teachers is important, Jacobs said, and compensation is an important factor in this regard. A problem is that teachers are treated interchangeably, she said, because school districts pay teachers based on years of experience and by degrees earned, not by effectiveness. Furthermore, there is strong consensus of evidence that advanced degrees do not make teachers any more effective in the classroom. It’s a “double premium” that districts pay, however, as many will pay teachers to earn a higher degree, and then pay them a higher salary. But this practice does not increase student leaning.
Kansas does not have a state teacher salary schedule. Instead, districts create their own salary schedules. But Jacobs said the state needs to send the message to districts that salary schedules based on years of experience and advanced degrees “don’t make sense, aren’t efficient, and are counterproductive to retaining our most effective teachers.”
I asked Jacobs about the relative importance of class size as compared to teacher effectiveness. Jacobs said that research shows that class size makes a difference for very young children (below third grade), when class size can be reduced to 11 or 12 students. For everyone else, there is no evidence that class size makes a difference. Additionally, reducing class size requires that more teachers be hired. When California tried class size reduction, the thousands of additional teachers hired were not of high quality, and student achievement fell.