What Teachers of the Year Have to Say About Federal Education Policy

By 04/08/2016

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On Tuesday, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) released its inaugural Federal Policy Survey. While the sample was too small to claim much statistical validity and the sampling didn’t necessarily yield representative responses, I love the idea of accomplished teachers systematically sharing their take on pressing questions and the fact that NNSTOY is working to make this happen. That’s real teacher leadership—and exactly the sort of thing I’d expect from an outfit full of cage-busters.

The survey collected views from 124 current and former State Teachers of the Year or individuals who were finalists for that title (though not all survey respondents were still classroom teachers). The survey asked respondents about topics including the role of the federal government in education, efforts to professionalize teaching, and how to attract and retain teachers. This kind of survey is both illuminating and a terrific reality check.

For instance, respondents pegged the most fruitful areas for education research as, in order, teacher preparation, the comparative analysis of instructional strategies, and brain research. That sounds like a pretty reasonable list to me. Respondents also flagged the most promising policies for incentivizing excellent professional development as, in order, access to a highly supportive principal, the chance to watch peers model effective teaching practices, access to a mentor, and common planning time with colleagues. These are not only sensible, but they are things that systems and schools can move on without requiring vast new resources. This is the kind of practical advice from seasoned professionals that administrators and policymakers sorely need—and need to treat very seriously. That said, it’s not clear why the survey made the effort to frame these questions as matters of “federal policy.”

Moreover, on a lot of the more explicit “federal policy” recommendations, I found the responses far less compelling. This was partly because these questions strayed further from the expertise of respondents and partly because the questions themselves needed some work. For instance, 70% of respondents strongly agreed that federal policy should “support structures and mechanisms to develop mentorship roles for expert teachers.” It’s unclear what that respondents are agreeing to and even more unclear what this would amount to in terms of concrete policy. You’d think the respondents would be more concerned about that, given their very negative take on Washington’s efforts to improve teacher evaluation—with 81% strongly believing that federal policy should not “support teacher evaluation systems that rely significantly on” student test scores. Now, it may be that respondents were just reacting to the idea of test-based teacher evaluation or mentorship rather than to the “federal role” question, but it’s hard to know. It’d be nice if the next iteration of the survey did more to tease that out.

In some cases, the responses suggested a lot of enthusiasm for notions that the questions only vaguely defined, leaving me foggy as to what respondents were endorsing. For instance, respondents indicated that the two federal policies most effective in enhancing teacher recruitment are “expanding partnerships between higher education and K12” and “loan forgiveness.” It’s not entirely clear what support for “partnerships” implies in this case. More to the point, a huge number of such partnerships are pro forma efforts with little demonstrated value.

As for “loan forgiveness,” I’m not sure what respondents are agreeing to. Are they endorsing an immediate, 100% loan forgiveness for signing on to teach for one year—or are they endorsing a phased-in deal linked to long-term commitment to the profession?  Have they considered that a forgiveness deal would mostly likely reward those who’d borrowed to attend pricey private colleges or out-of-state flagships rather than those who chose cheaper public alternatives? What’s the projected price tag, and are the respondents suggesting they’d rather see that amount devoted to loan forgiveness rather than on salaries or instructional support? Absent any of this, the impression is more of a push poll programmed to elicit a talking point than a gauge of what accomplished teachers would advise.

Some specific caveats aside, this is a good and worthy project—but one that can benefit from some careful attention to the basics of survey design and sampling strategy. There’s work ahead, but that doesn’t make this effort any less of a promising start.

— Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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