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Don’t Eat the Young: Balancing Accountability and Obligate Job Responsibilities for New Teachers (4/25/15)

Teaching is not for the faint of heart; it’s tough. This is especially true if you are a PK -12 teacher in a public school system. The reason is that public schools generally have no control over what students they are required to teach. Public school educators in the United States teach whoever shows up in their attendance zones or whoever is assigned to their schools. Public school teachers use their designated state standards and pacing guides as road maps and they are expected to deliver all of their students to at least the same minimum destination of proficiency. Further, the work of public schools takes place amidst the backdrop of ever daunting state accountability standards.

The problem with the current context of the profession, especially for new teachers, is that universally they [new teachers] are not being given the time to develop to a level of professional capacity that allows all of them the opportunity to effectively serve all of their students. Stated differently, teaching is a complex blend of art and science and no matter what preparation a teacher has had prior to beginning in his or her own classroom, it takes time on the job to perfect the craft.

A provocative 4/16/15 Education Week article by Gary Wiener titled Why Teachers Need Time to Succeed places the same argument made here in the context of the circumstances surrounding a recent New York law that denies tenure to teachers in the first four years of their practice. The new teachers in New York are denied tenure if they receive two consecutive ineffective ratings/annual evaluations during the first four years of their practice. The ratings that are used to inform these determinations are based in part on student achievement on standardized tests that have not been proven reliable or valid. Also, according to Wiener’s article, one of the most stinging elements of this system is that a new teacher cannot earn a satisfactory rating even if their classroom observations are good if the teacher’s student achievement data does not meet the required standards!

Uniformed accountability advocates and skeptics of public schools may say “All other professionals are expected to do their jobs at least proficiently at the time that they enter independent practice. Why shouldn’t teachers be expected to do the same?” The short answer is generally speaking, new teachers are proficient; they just are not experienced, yet. Remember my point about art and science; well this is where it comes into play. The situation is analogous to a newly minted airplane pilot, yes you completed flight training BUT you are not deeply experienced flying in every situation. You still need assistance before you are really ready to fly solo at any time in any conditions. The same is true in teaching; while most students have similar needs, every student presents different challenges, and at times these challenges are different than any you have seen previously. Because of this fact all school districts need strong induction and mentoring programs for all new teachers.

Strong induction and mentoring programs provide the support and knowledge of practice that new teachers need to make it successfully through the first three or four years in the classroom. Also, it should be understood that all new teachers will not have stellar performance across the board in their first years, but with the right support they can serve their students appropriately. As for New York’s law that will deny new teachers the right to tenure, it may potentially create an even larger rotating door of new teacher recruits, IF they are able to find them. I say if because the profession will certainly become less attractive to new teacher candidates in that state if they know the peril that faces the investment they have made in preparing for a career once they enter the workforce.

To close, we live in an era of accountability in PK – 12 education in the United States like none other before it. Tough laws and policies that hold educators accountable are a part of this environment. While the spirit of these laws might be well intended, their implementation in the real world must be given careful consideration. We certainly want all educators to give their very best to our students, they deserve it. However, we do not want to do this under the auspice of unreasonable practices that will damage the profession’s ability to attract quality candidates and to nurture those who may struggle initially, for indeed just as caterpillars transform into beautiful butterflies, given time and the right support a floundering new teacher of today may very well become the strong experienced teacher of tomorrow. We must acknowledge the obligate and awesome job responsibilities of the classroom teacher while providing the opportunity for newcomers to the profession to experience the growth they need.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO