A back-and-forth exchange about teacher quality in the USA Today editorial pages last week illustrated the current stalemate in our public policy debates about teacher quality. The USAT editorial board noted that teacher performance evaluations in many school districts are lacking in rigor and largely meaningless. In an "opposing view," newly elected AFT President Randi Weingarten argued that the editorial board and like-minded critics "scapegoat" teachers, since factors apart from teacher quality, such as class size and student socio-economic background, also affect student performance. The discussion mirrors a long-standing dispute in education policy between those who believe teachers should be held accountable for student test scores, and those who believe it's unfair or unwise to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes that are also influenced by factors teachers can't control. But new tools that can measure the quality of teacher-child interactions in the classroom may be rendering that debate obsolete.
Ultimately, good teaching is about the quality of interactions between a teacher and a student, which are central to student learning. That's particularly true in the earliest years of schooling, from pre-k through third grade. A 2005 study of 910 pre-kindergarten children found that children whose mothers have low education-a risk factor for poor educational outcomes-were able to catch up to their peers with better-educated mothers if they were placed in classrooms with "high instructional quality," while at-risk students in low-quality classrooms did not. Similarly, first-graders who have behavioral and emotional problems are more likely to overcome these challenges if their teachers displayed "warmth and sensitivity" while teaching. Another study, published this spring, finds that high-quality teacher-student interactions in pre-k are just as important as (if not more important than) other popular measures of classroom quality, such as having a teacher with a bachelor's degree or early childhood certification.
The No Child Left Behind Act seeks to improve teacher quality by mandating a "highly-qualified" teacher in every classroom. This policy -- which requires highly qualified teachers to have a bachelor's degree, subject matter knowledge, and meet state licensure requirements -- is important to address long-standing inequities in teacher distribution, But it also falls far short of ensuring real teacher quality. In order to provide high-quality teaching, teachers need access to reliable individualized assessments of their classroom performance, combine with support to help them improve, throughout their careers. Such increased support for quality teaching should be an essential complement to greater accountability under federal and state law.
The good news is that researchers are developing new tools that can help schools, districts, and states provide teachers this kind of support-and some of these tools are already available for states and school districts to use. The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), developed by researchers at the University of Virginia, allows trained observers to watch teachers in the classrooms and measure the quality of emotional support, instructional support, and classroom organization that they provide, along 10 indicators. Key things to look for include warm and sensitive interactions, responsive and structured feedback to student answers, verbal engagement and stimulation, and explicit instruction in certain key skills.
CLASS has been tested in thousands of elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, and researchers have demonstrated that higher CLASS scores for teachers correspond with improved learning outcomes for students. CLASS can also be paired with another tool, MyTeachingPartner.com, to provide teachers with feedback and individualized coaching to help them improve their classroom performance. The system in relatively non-intrusive-- often using videotapes of teachers in action-- and can provide invaluable feedback for new and veteran teachers alike.
As policymakers sit down this year to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, they should think about investing in individualized teacher assessment and coaching programs such as CLASS and MyTeachingPartner. These tools offer a new approach to teacher accountability that overcomes some of the problems with both traditional principal evaluations and test-score accountability, and can also support underperforming teachers in a diverse array of classroom settings. States and districts seeking to build high-quality pre-k or PK-3 education systems should incorporate validated observational assessments of teacher and classroom quality into these systems from the ground up, and integrate them with systems of ongoing professional development. By providing teachers with meaningful feedback, coupled with support to improve, policymakers can move beyond tired debates about teacher accountability and make real strides towards improving the quality of classroom instruction.