Teacher Quality Also A Civil Rights Issue

07/14/11

School choice has rightfully been called “the new civil rights struggle.” It’s not a stretch to argue that denying mostly minority kids trapped in chronically failing schools a chance at a decent education is a question of civil rights, and that by offering an alternative, school choice can help right the wrong. But as a recent report issued by the New Jersey Advisory Committee (NJAC) to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) states, improving teacher quality is also a way to right the wrong.

The NJAC is tasked with advising the USCCR of civil rights issues in the state of New Jersey. In December of last year, the NJAC released a report entitled “Teacher Quality: A Vital Determinant of Student Achievement” (see report here) which determined that racial disparities in access to high quality teachers constituted a civil rights violation. In the report, the NJAC made several key findings and recommendations.

First, the NJAC found that teacher quality is “the key driver” of student achievement – more important than student ethnicity, family income, school attended or class size. This is even more vital in urban communities where effective teachers are “indispensable” to closing achievement gaps. Yet urban schools are short-changed when it comes to the distribution of high quality teachers because current practices make it difficult to recruit and retain such teachers. These schools have disproportionate number of teachers teaching out of subject and “permanent substitutes.”

The report also finds that teacher quality must be measured in student achievement. Highly qualified must mean more than highly credentialed. Teachers must be “trained, hired, evaluated, and licensed in terms of student achievement.” Data systems must be put in place to track year-over-year student performance.

The NJAC then provides several recommendations to rectify these problems.

First, the reports calls for efforts to “change the image of the teaching profession” so as to attract high quality candidates. To do this, the teaching profession must provide incentives in the form of compensation, professional development, recognition and promotion to attract and retain high performing teachers. In addition, the report recommends recruiting non-traditional candidates and college students with an expressed interest in education.

Once candidates are recruited, the report calls for high quality professional development that would include teacher-led professional learning, the formation of professional learning communities and the creation of an apprenticeship program for new teachers. The goal is to create a challenging, collaborative and supportive school environment for teachers.

The report also finds that reforming tenure is an important element in transforming the teaching profession.  “Existing tenure models, focusing on seniority rather than performance, are insufficient and may protect ineffective teachers.”  The NJAC recommends “a shift away” from the current tenure model.

Lastly, the NJAC recommends increasing transparency and giving parents more information about teacher quality.  Such efforts would include: completion of annual report cards on teacher qualifications in each school, a school’s plan for improvement, disclosure of individual teacher qualifications upon request and sending letters notifying parents of students taught by under-qualified teachers.

B4K applauds the efforts of the NJAC to bring teacher quality to the fore of the civil rights struggle that is such a key part of the overall education reform movement.   In addition to righting the wrong of failing urban schools, we believe that all New Jersey students would benefit from the recommendations of the NJAC. 

Performance-based evaluations, compensation and professional standing; increased training and professional development for teachers; incentives to attract and retain high quality candidates and effective teachers where they are needed the most; tenure reform; increased accountability and transparency: these are all common-sense reforms that will elevate the teaching profession, improve student achievement and provide New Jersey with graduates ready and able to take on the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

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