Up for Vote #1: Think Big and Give Educators the Tools to Succeed

This is the first blog in our Up for Vote series, which explores much needed Congressional action to reauthorize the framework legislation for federal education policy. Our recommendations reflect AIR’s years of research and direct work with states and districts to improve schooling. In this blog we begin with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and home in on educator quality. Next up: School improvement under ESEA.

The 114th Congress needs to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—but this time, no silver bullets or artificial deadlines. Real education reform will take many years, and it’s time to go long.

A reauthorized ESEA shouldn’t abandon the goal of improving educator effectiveness. Rather, it should expand the focus laid out in the waivers from implementing educator evaluation systems to creating a comprehensive approach to developing educator talent at every stage in the pipeline. This approach should include plans to recruit the best candidates into the profession, prepare them to succeed, and develop, support, and retain effective educators with an eye to making sure our most at-risk children have access to the best teachers. (Visit the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders Educator Talent Framework to see how a comprehensive approach to talent development might look.) A reauthorized ESEA should encourage states and districts to shift from individual educator quality to system quality—creating strong district and state systems that support educators’ success.

How? Two ideas, neglected in No Child Left Behind and the waivers, deserve particular attention in the next ESEA.

1. Support School Principals. Research demonstrates that strong school leaders are critical to teacher recruitment and retention and to student achievement. Yet, today’s school leaders say they are under-prepared to lead instructional change, evaluate teaching, and provide teacher professional development (the top three jobs we expect them to do). For too long, school leaders have been the stepchild of school reform—too often blamed, too seldom supported. We can turn this around by:

  • Setting standards for effective principal preparation programs, giving future principals financial incentives for completing highly selective and practical administrator-preparation programs.
  • Shifting more ESEA Title IIA funding to school administrators’ professional learning and coaching. Today, only 4% of a shrinking pool of Title IIA dollars is spent on principal professional development activities (as reported in the 2013-14 LEA survey).
  • Setting expectations for implementing principal evaluation systems that can help administrators grow and develop. Most states and districts are further behind in developing principal evaluation systems than they are in developing teacher evaluation. States and districts should create principal-development plans, starting by figuring out what information they need to collect and how to use it in continuous system improvement.
  • Funding principal (and assistant principal) supervisor training to make sure that administrators’ evaluations of teachers and staff are accurate and fair and that principals know how to support teacher learning.

2. Build World-Class Professional Learning Systems. “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals, since student learning is ultimately the product of what goes on in classrooms.” This statement from the PISA 2009 report is just common sense. Yet, our nations’ schools are not structured to support educator learning. Many studies (some by AIR) show that professional development as currently structured and implemented in many districts does little to improve teaching or increase student learning. And educators themselves tell us they are dissatisfied with the professional development they receive.

So no more tinkering on the edges! A reauthorized ESEA should encourage states and districts to rethink and restructure professional learning for educators so that opportunities to learn are relevant, engaging, collaborative, and continuous. States and districts will need timely and rich measures of educator performance improvement and the stability and support to make good use of those data. (Next month AIR will publish Principal Researcher Jane Coggshall’s policy brief on reforming ESEA’s Title IIA.)

In 1965, the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act—aimed at children living in poverty—took less than three weeks to move through House and Senate votes. At the bill’s signing, President Lyndon Johnson noted that Congress had tried since 1946 to pass an education bill. "For too long," he said, "political acrimony held up our progress. For too long, children suffered while jarring interests caused stalemate in the efforts to improve our schools."

In 2015, it is again time for Congress to act quickly for our children’s education.

Sara Wraight is director of State and Federal Outreach for the Education Policy Center and Director of the Midwest Comprehensive Center at the American Institutes for Research.