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Testimony to the Senate by John Wright

April 16, 2008

The Federal Role: Quality Teachers in Every Classroom

Chairman Harkin and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify today on the important topic of teacher quality, including the federal role and specifically what the Congress can do through the education appropriations bill to help states, schools, and teachers ensure that every child has a quality teacher while also improving the working conditions necessary to foster and support quality teaching.

I am John Wright, president of the 33,000-member Arizona Education Association (AEA), one of the state affiliates of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA). I am speaking here today on behalf of both AEA and NEA. In addition to serving as AEA president, I am also president of the National Council of State Education Associations, which is the organization within NEA that represents the state leaders of all 50 NEA state affiliates. I also serve on NEA's Professional Standards and Practices committee which develops and makes recommendations regarding NEA policy on teacher quality issues. And most importantly I have been a classroom teacher for over 20 years, starting in Connecticut in 1985, and then moving in 1990 to Arizona where I taught elementary and middle school in the Window Rock Unified School District on the Navajo Nation.

Improving the quality of teaching in America's schools continues to be a central focus of school improvement and educational reform efforts. This is because teacher quality matters. Teachers do not enter the classroom as accomplished professionals — they increase their knowledge and skills with increased experience, and, as a result, effect greater student learning. Simply put, good teachers produce good students.1 In fact, research continues to show that having a good teacher is a key to students' success. The National Education Association understands and values this and is a leading voice that supports and promotes quality teaching. Throughout its long history, the NEA has advanced the profession of teaching and works toward a goal of a qualified teacher in every classroom.

In my statement I first review NEA's policies on teacher quality, next highlight some of our initiatives to improve teacher quality, and finally focus on the federal role.

What Constitutes Quality?

In the last five years, several bodies of research, most notably What Matters Most: Teaching and America's Future, published by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF),2 have found that teacher quality is the single most important factor in student success. Several other researchers echo these findings.3 But just what constitutes quality? Does more and better preparation make a difference? NCTAF believes it does, advocating for preparation that focuses on subject matter expertise, knowledge and understanding of how children learn and develop, and the use of a wide range of teaching strategies. The NEA agrees.

In 2007, NEA defined (in broad terms) what characterizes a quality teacher: one who knows his/her subject matter; one knows how to teach that subject matter; and one who understands how students learn and what it takes to reach them (See Appendix A). NEA believes that defining a quality teacher can best be achieved using a set of principles and standards, combined with a process of preparation, licensure, support, and assessment. To illustrate these principles, standards and processes more clearly, NEA developed its "Principles of Professional Practice" that define the knowledge, skills, and dispositions a quality teacher should possess:

A Quality Teacher…

  • Designs and facilitates instruction that incorporates the students' developmental levels, skills, and interests with content knowledge;
  • Develops collaborative relationships and partners with colleagues, families, and communities focused on meaningful and deep learning;
  • Provides leadership and advocacy for students, quality education, and the education profession;
  • Demonstrates in-depth content and professional knowledge;
  • Participates in ongoing professional learning as an individual and within the professional learning community;
  • Utilizes multiple and varied forms of assessment and student data to inform instruction, assess student learning, and drive school improvement efforts;
  • Establishes environments conducive to effective teaching and learning;
  • Integrates cultural competence and an understanding of the diversity of students and communities into teaching practice to enhance student learning;
  • Utilizes professional practices that recognize public education as vital to strengthening our society and building respect for the worth, dignity and equality of every individual;
  • Strives to overcome the internal and external barriers that impact student learning;
  • Demonstrates generic and content-specific knowledge in areas such as child development, classroom management, motivating children to learn, interpreting and using assessment data, individualizing instruction, aligning content to the state's standards, developing appropriate instructional materials, and working with children with disabilities or from other cultures.

Attaining knowledge and skill in each of these practices is not easy and cannot be effectively measured by a single snapshot in time (such as one classroom observation or a single standardized test of teacher knowledge). Rather, teacher learning should be described as occurring along a continuum from preservice (university level) through inservice (school level) years. In this view of teacher learning, teacher preparation does not end once teachers are in the classroom but rather continues with the induction of beginning teachers and with professional development for experienced teachers.4 NEA believes that if states and/or the federal government are to make a serious commitment to ensuring a quality teacher for every child, they must support a systemic approach that recognizes, supports and measures a teacher's growth and ability along the various stages of a quality continuum—a continuum that includes recruitment, preparation, licensure, hiring, induction, continued practice and professional development through mastery, on-going performance assessment, and advanced certification.

NEA's Teacher Quality Initiatives

NEA continues to highly value its role as a leader in teacher quality and as a result, we are actively engaged in a wide-range of activities and initiatives that promote a quality teaching profession.

  1. Teacher Working Conditions Survey Initiatives
    It is not reasonable to expect individuals to perform effectively if working conditions do not permit them to do so. If qualified individuals are working in nonproductive environments, the problem likely is systemic and won't be resolved by nonsystemic responses. In the teaching profession, many effective teachers leave schools—and sometimes the profession-when working conditions do not support professional practice. NEA believes that the workplace enables or constrains good teaching and consequently, is a partner in a number of state initiatives examining teacher working conditions. Research from my own state of Arizona as well as a number of other states such as North Carolina, Mississippi, and Kansas5 shows that if effective teachers are to be retained in teaching and supported in doing their best work with students, they must have a workplace that promotes their efforts in a variety of ways such as: 1) increased time to focus on student learning, collaborate with peers, and learn from each other; 2) sufficient materials, resources and facilities to teach successfully; 3) opportunities to influence the design and organization of the school; 4) the support and assistance from collaborative school leaders; and, 5) support through effective, relevant, and continuous professional development. Simply put, teacher working conditions equal student learning conditions.
  2. C.A.R.E. — Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gaps
    NEA's Culture, Abilities, Resilience, and Effort (C.A.R.E.) guide focuses on closing the gaps in student achievement by examining and utilizing research on working with culturally and linguistically diverse students. The guide examines research on cultural, language, and economic differences, as well as at unrecognized and undeveloped abilities, resilience, and effort and motivation-the "C.A.R.E. themes," and translates that research into instructional and other strategies that engender high levels of student learning.
  3. Ensuring Quality Teacher Preparation
    Facilitating the involvement of over 200 teachers in reviewing and accrediting over 700 teacher preparation institutions through the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), NEA assures that prospective teachers enjoy preparation experiences that are standards-based and rigorously evaluated.
  4. Supporting Accomplished Teachers
    Through its network of state and local affiliates, NEA has helped thousands of teachers pursue certification through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Recently, NEA has conducted research and developed support strategies specifically designed to ensure that National Board Certified Teachers represent the diversity of the teaching population.
  5. Attracting Talented Teachers to High-Needs Schools
    NEA sponsored six National Board Certified Teacher Policy Summits (Washington, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi) culminating in a National Strategy Forum designed to learn directly from accomplished teachers what it will take to recruit and retain them to high-needs schools. Summits have resulted in policy and legislation to support quality teaching and positive teacher working conditions. (See Appendix B)
  6. Diversifying the Teacher Workforce
    NEA is engaged in a partnership with the Tom Joyner Foundation to provide support to minorities pursuing state teacher licensure. NEA also maintains an active partnership with the Education Testing Service to conduct research, develop curriculum, and provide intervention services to prospective teachers of color in order to help them meet high standards for teacher licensure.
  7. Advocating High Standards for Teacher Licensure
    NEA works in partnership with its state affiliates and national partners (such as the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education) to promote and strengthen state licensure processes that ensure every teacher has the necessary preparation, knowledge, and skill before being granted a license to teach.
  8. Providing Quality Professional Learning and Development
    Through the new NEA Academy, NEA is developing and/or brokering scores of high quality on-line professional development programs and products for teachers throughout the country. In addition, NEA maintains a partnership with the National Staff Development Council that will result in a comprehensive report on "Advancing High Quality Professional Learning Through Collective Bargaining and State Policy" scheduled for publication in Spring 2008.
  9. NEA's Salary Campaign
    Quality teachers are the key to providing great public schools for every student. In order to attract and retain accomplished teachers, districts must pay them a professional level salary. A $40,000 minimum salary must be provided to all teachers in every school. While teacher compensation is primarily a state and local government responsibility, Congress can express support for this minimum salary in the ESEA reauthorization. While the $40,000 minimum is at the heart of NEA's salary campaign, NEA also supports other key compensation elements such as: 1) designing compensation systems to firmly establish teaching as a respected profession. Comprehensive pay systems must encourage the factors that make a difference in teaching and learning-such as skills, knowledge, and experience, and National Board Certification; and, 2) using creative ideas to enhance the single salary schedule such as forgiving student loan debt and providing housing allowances/tax credits.

Supporting Quality Schools and Teacher Quality

The vast majority of Americans believe that public schools are indispensable for the continued health of our country and that everyone benefits from high quality public schools. NEA believes that in order to eliminate the inequities that exist between and within our schools, policies and programs must be developed, funded, and implemented in order to advance the nation's goal of high quality public schools and high quality teachers for all students. To do this, NEA:

  1. Opposes the President's budget proposal to cut funding by $100 million for the most important, comprehensive, and largest federal program supporting teacher quality, Title II, Part A. Instead, NEA recommends that Improving Teacher Quality State Grants be funded, at a minimum, at the level originally authorized—$3.175 billion, a $240 million increase over current funding.
  2. Opposes the expansion of the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) since the Title II-A program already includes among its many allowable uses provisions for state and locally designed performance-based compensation systems and pay differentiation programs. Second, the research on so-called performance-based pay plans and their effect on improving student achievement is at best mixed. A story in Education Week on a recent conference on teacher performance pay plans held by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University was headlined, "Performance-Pay Studies Show Few Achievement Gains", and noted that performance pay initiatives nationwide have found mixed results. Third, this program is still not authorized. In fact an effort to add an authorization for TIF to the Higher Education Act was rejected last fall by the House Education and Labor Committee. The President is requesting a $103 million increase, essentially doubling the size of the program and allowing for an expansion of the number of grantees.
  3. Opposes funding for the adjunct teacher corps as proposed in the President's request, and asks the subcommittee to reject this request as it has done in the past. The President's proposal would allow individuals who do not meet the highly qualified requirements of NCLB to be considered teachers of record. While individuals who are content experts might play a role in helping students while working under the supervision of a fully licensed/certified teacher, they should not be considered regular teachers of records.
  4. Supports the $15 million request from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) for the continuing support for the NBPTS to assist more teachers to obtain National Board Certification and provide financial incentives for National Board Certified Teachers to go to and stay in hard-to-staff schools. The President's budget calls for elimination of funding for such advanced credentialing.
  5. Requests a substantial increase to the Title I, Part A program of at least $1 billion, as well as the restoration of funding eliminated in the President's request for school leadership, advanced credentialing, and teacher quality enhancement grants under Title II, Part A of the Higher Education Act.
  6. Recognizes and is a strong proponent of smaller class sizes and supports "The Facilitating Outstanding Classrooms Using Size Reduction Act" (FOCUS Act), (S. 2122), introduced by Senator Murray, and the first year's authorized level of $2 billion. To ensure quality teaching in schools teachers must have quality teaching conditions, including smaller class sizes. We support adding this program to the ESEA reauthorization, as well as providing funding for class size reduction in the FY 09 education appropriations bill.
  7. Advocates for the renewal of a school modernization program, and supports "The Public School Repair and Renovation Act of 2007" (S. 1942), introduced by the subcommittee's chairman, Senator Harkin, and the first year's authorized level of $1.6 billion. As with class size reduction, we call for adding this program to ESEA and including funding for urgent school repairs in the FY 09 bill.
  8. Proposes that through congressional action, take advantage of the flexibility of salary schedules now in place to offer incentives for teachers to gain additional skills and knowledge and for taking on challenges and additional responsibility. By recognizing that compensation systems now have the flexibility to accommodate some immediate changes, Congressional action that takes advantage of what is already in place will make more of a difference and faster, than trying to reinvent the system.
  9. Opposes any federal requirements for a pay system that mandates teacher pay based on student performance or student test scores. There are numerous reasons for rejecting such schemes: tests are imperfect measures; student mobility in a given district or classroom might be high, thereby skewing the system; test scores are not the only measure of student success; and, single year test scores do not measure growth. In addition, NEA opposes any federal mandate that requires test scores or student performance as an element of compensation systems.
  10. Recognizes the right of many jurisdictions to collectively bargain (or mutually agree to) enhancements to the current salary schedule. NEA already supports many ideas to enhance the single salary schedule, such as:
  • Incentives to attract qualified teachers to hard-to-staff schools;
  • Incentives for the achievement of National Board Certification;
  • Incentives for teachers to mentor colleagues new to the profession;
  • Incentives for accepting additional responsibilities such as peer assistance or mentoring;
  • Additional pay for working additional time through extended school years, extended days, and extra assignments;
  • Additional pay for teachers who acquire new knowledge and skills directly related to their school's mission and/or their individual assignments;
  • Additional pay for teachers who earn advanced credentials/degrees that are directly related to their teaching assignments and/or their school's mission; and
  • Group or school-wide salary supplements for improved teacher practice leading to improved student learning, determined by multiple indicators (not test scores or student achievement).

Two programs that have implemented some of these positive aspects of enhancements to the current salary schedule include:

A. Manitowoc Public School District (MPSD), Manitowoc, Wisconsin. In MPSD, they have:

  • Restructured the salary schedule;
  • Required teachers to work toward a professional development goal to move on salary schedule;
  • Provided increased compensation for earning National Board Certification, Masters's degree or Doctoral degree; and
  • Introduced a Professional Development Certificate program which is a research-based, portfolio-driven program that is specifically tailored to each individual teacher's professional assignment.

B. Helena Public School District, Helena, Montana. In this school district, they have:

  • Developed a Professional Compensation Alternative Plan (PCAP), which allows members to remain on the traditional salary schedule or move to PCAP. PCAP programs include the following components: 1) professional development, including an educational component and completion of professional service, and, 2) increased compensation for earning Master's degree and National Board Certification.

Congressional support for diverse approaches could spur needed change and enable local school districts to tailor action to their specific educational objectives. NEA affiliates at the local and state levels are open to compensation innovations that enhance preparation and practice which, in turn, drive student performance. NEA underscores that in those circumstances, local school administrators and local teacher organizations must work together to mutually decide what compensation alternatives work best in their particular situation. The federal government can play a role in providing funds to support and encourage local and state innovations in compensation systems, but the federal government should leave the specific elements to be decided at the local level.

The NEA believes that the federal government can play a meaningful role in improving teacher quality and, although the Appropriations Committee does not directly deal with policy, we offer the following recommendations for the ESEA reauthorization:

  1. ESEA offers the opportunity to provide incentives to strengthen the profession of teaching. In constructing those incentives, federally-supported programs will be most effectively implemented when teachers have the opportunity to understand them and the option to embrace them. Therefore, any such federal program for compensation innovations must require that such program be subject to collective bargaining, or where bargaining does not currently exist, subject to a 75 percent majority support vote of the affected teachers.
  2. Provide financial incentives to school districts that enable teachers with time for collaboration on a regular basis. Components of the TEACH Act legislation proposed by Sen. Kennedy would give teachers across the nation access to high-level, ongoing, high-quality professional development programs that are designed and delivered by expert, practicing teachers. Teachers need adequate time to participate in effective professional growth experiences and should consider ways and the necessary funding to provide more learning time for teachers.
  3. Expand support for high-quality, research-based professional development for all teachers. These programs should be developed in a collaborative fashion between school district officials and local teachers to ensure that teachers — and other educator — receive professional development that is directly linked to their students needs and tied to the school and district curriculum/instructional needs and strategies.
  4. Support and fund high-quality induction programs for new teachers so they have the assistance required to assure their success, and, support experienced teacher service as mentors for new teachers during their first two to three years of teaching. Effective mentoring is a key component in helping new teachers move from theory to practice. For mentors, the experience can motivate, strengthen skills, and, in some districts, lead to career advancement.
  5. Provide incentive grants to districts for the development of peer assistance programs that focus on the improvement of staff knowledge and skills.
  6. Provide financial incentives to districts for recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in hard-to-staff schools.
  7. Require states to develop a "Learning Environment Index" for all schools, and require districts and states to address the problem areas identified for schools not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Many of the schools not making AYP do not have adequate facilities, safe conditions, teacher retention incentives, and the financial and professional supports needed. The Learning Environment Index should identify and measure teaching and learning conditions in each school.
  8. Amend Title II (the Teacher Quality State Grant program) to allow district collaboration with local teacher unions to survey principals, teachers, and other school staff about their working conditions.
  9. Directly support efforts to improve working conditions through grants for smaller class sizes, and school repair, renovation, and modernization.
  10. Establish scholarship and debt forgiveness programs as incentives for students to enter the teaching profession. This type of financial support is especially important given the low starting salaries for most teachers.
  11. Support additional pay for working additional time, through extended school years, extended days, and extra assignments. Support additional pay for teachers who acquire new knowledge and skills directly related to their school's mission and/or their individual assignments, and for achieving National Board Certification.
  12. Support additional pay for teachers who earn advanced credentials/degrees that are directly related to their teaching assignments and/or their school's mission.
  13. Support group or school-wide salary supplements for improved teacher practice leading to improved student learning, determined by multiple indicators.
  14. Support teacher preparation and licensure programs that assist universities, school districts, and state licensing agencies to advance high, meaningful standards that assure fully-prepared beginning teachers. Eliminate and prohibit national, state, and district programs that permit unprepared individuals to teach with no professional training and no classroom experience. NEA believes that teacher preparation and licensure programs must be rigorous and that every teacher candidate — including those graduating from alternative route programs — must meet identical standards and measures in order to receive a professional teaching license. Those same standards and measures align with NEA's Principles of Professional Practice and ensure that processes for teacher licensure adequately address the skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed for effective teaching (See Appendix C for additional details).
  15. Support, expand and improve training for Paraprofessionals so they have the skills and knowledge they need to assist teachers in improving student learning.

NEA supports the following Senate bills that address teacher quality issues:

  • S. 837, the Improving the Leadership and Effectiveness of Administrators for Districts (I LEAD) Act of 2007 by Sen. Clinton (D-NY) would authorize competitive grants to high-need local educational agencies; consortia of high-need local educational agencies; and partnerships of high-need local educational agencies, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education to develop a generation of school leaders who are committed to, and effective in, increasing student achievement, and to ensure that all low-income, underperforming schools are led by effective school leaders who are well prepared to foster student success.
  • S. 1574, the Teaching Residency Act by Sen. Obama (D-IL) would establish an innovative framework for prospective teachers to partner with mentor teachers for an academic year, receive master's level coursework and certification, and gain direct classroom experience (similar to medical residency programs for health professionals) by creating a competitive partnership grant program under Title II of HEA to support Teaching Residency Programs. It would fund programs in high-needs school districts to recruit, prepare, and provide ongoing mentoring and induction support through a partnership between colleges or universities, school districts, non-profit community partners, and other participants. It would also provide a stipend for teachers during their year of preparation and require them to work in the district upon completion of the program.
  • S. 1979, the School Improvement through Teacher Quality Act of 2007 by Sen. Reed (D-RI) would create a new program in Title II geared toward enhancing professional development for school improvement. The legislation emphasizes high-quality, ongoing professional development, mentoring and induction programs, collaborative planning and instructional strategies, and would target schools most in need of improvement.
  • S. 2212, the Teachers Professional Development Institutes Act by Sen. Lieberman (D-CT) would amend Title II of ESEA to authorize a total of $30 million to support the establishment and operation of Teachers Institutes for local educational agencies that serve significant low-income student populations to improve student learning; and to enhance the quality of teaching and strengthen the subject matter mastery and the pedagogical skills of current teachers through continuing teacher preparation.
  • S. 2496, the Enhancing Teaching Standards and License Portability Act of 2007 by Sen. Bingaman (D-NM) would amend Title II of ESEA to improve teacher quality by supporting the development of rigorous kindergarten through grade 12 teaching standards that incorporate 21st century teaching and learning skills; promote alignment of these standards with performance-based teacher assessments; create incentives for states to adopt, pilot, and implement such teaching standards and performance-based teacher assessments through a competitive grants process; promote efforts for states to align these teaching standards and performance-based teacher assessments to state licensing requirements; and to create incentives for states to develop policies that would facilitate license reciprocity and portability.

Mr. Chairman, as you can see, the question of how to improve teacher quality in this country is a complex one that requires a comprehensive solution with adequate resources. I hope that your subcommittee can help lead the way in providing states and school districts with those needed resources. I again thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify today and would be happy to answer any questions.

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Footnotes:

1 Boe, E.E., and Bobbitt, S.A., Why didst-thou go? Predictors of retention, transfer and attrition of special and general education teachers from a national perspective. (Journal of Special Education): 30, 4, 390-411.

2 National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America's future. New York: Teachers College Press; Little, J. W. (1990).

3 The mentor phenomenon and the social organization of teaching. In C. Cazden (Ed.) Review of Research in Education, 16, pp. 297-351. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

4 Feiman—Nemser, S. (2001). From preparation to practice: Designing a continuum to strengthen and sustain teaching. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 1013-1055.

5 To view teacher working condition (TWC) survey instruments and results (North Carolina, Kansas and Arizona), and learn about other aspects of individual state initiatives, go to web pages created for each state: Arizona: www.aztwc.org; North Carolina: www.northcarolinatwc.org; Kansas: www.kansastwc.org; Clark County, NV: www.nvtlc.org; Ohio: www.ohiotlc.org; Mississippi: www.projectclearvoice.org