The 2014 State Policy To-Do List

Looking at the states, there’s a lot to celebrate on the education policy front. As I noted recently, states have made strong progress in recent years to modernize and strengthen teacher and principal evaluation systems. And several are taking important steps to use that information to strengthen professional development, implement meaningful mutual consent hiring policies and overhaul how teachers earn and keep tenure protections.

But there’s much more to be done. As a kid, I would watch sailboats on New York’s East River and imagine where they could take me, so I think of things this way: Passing new teacher evaluation laws is like raising a sail, and personalized, data-driven professional development is the wind that will move that ship forward. But even with those things in place, the ship isn’t going to pick up speed or go very far until all of its anchors are raised. And at the moment, a few heavy anchors remain, in the form of policies on teacher preparation, licensure, compensation and layoffs, which have no meaningful connection to improving outcomes for kids, and in many cases, get in the way of that service.

As districts and state education departments continue to ensure the faithful implementation of educator evaluation systems, it’s time for state legislators and state boards of education to take the next bold steps. Educators need to use this information to help schools build and maintain teams of great teachers. There is a clear set of policy changes that can support that goal and should be among the next steps—and there is good cause to expect bipartisan support for each of them.

1. Teacher Preparation: Set new standards for teacher-preparation programs, including rules that require focused attention on the skills and techniques that will prepare new teachers to lead effective classrooms, including in high-needs schools. Policies that establish standards for approving preparation programs should be agnostic as to whether they are traditional university programs or alternative certification programs, and should be based primarily on the ability of the program to train candidates to be effective based on a range of measures.

2. Licensure: Replace anemic bureaucratic systems with a focus on actual classroom performance. States should remove unproductive barriers to entry. Instead, they should base licensing decisions on how aspiring teachers actually perform in the classroom, not whether they can complete abstract coursework and run a maze of paperwork. Research tells us the best predictor of future teacher performance is past performance—and licensing decisions should conform to, not ignore, this evidence.

3. Compensation: Replace step-and-lane systems. These systems reward time on the job instead of performance, spend more than $15 billion each year on increases based on factors with little relationship to student performance, and back-end-load teachers’ compensation, forcing less experienced teachers to wait decades to earn top pay. Instead, teacher compensation should consider multiple factors and reward individual performance in the classroom (especially that of early-career top performers, who leave low-wage positions at high rates). In addition, they should account for the needs of individual districts and students for high-performing teachers in shortage areas like math, science, special education and bilingual education.

4. LIFO: Base layoff decisions on student needs, not adult seniority. When downsizing or school closures are necessary, educators should have the final say over which teachers are retained, not legislators in a faraway state capitol. State policies that require “last-in, first-out” rules prevent school and district leaders from making these critical decisions. Research shows that only 13-16 percent of teachers let go under LIFO policies would be laid off if performance were the deciding factor. They must be changed to prevent schools from losing the highest-performing teachers who best meet the needs of their students.

As states take action in these important policy areas, there’s a pretty big elephant in the room. It’s also time to begin an honest conversation about pension reform if we are to avoid the fiscal calamity that awaits public pensions across the country and the “work now, pay later” compensation system that holds teachers hostage. And that raises a second set of questions, about school finance systems—ultimately, states would be well-served to redesign systems such that the needs of individual students and districts are taken into account, and funds are distributed with transparency and accountability.

Taken together, these issues feel like anchors that are too heavy to lift. But separately, each one has a clear case for action and can be addressed relatively simply. Is there hope for forward motion? I think so.

I believe that with the right information at hand, state leaders can come together to take the next steps to update and align each one of these policies. And I believe that with the right policy fixes in place, schools can continue to build on the hard work they’ve already done. As the 2014 legislative sessions begin in state capitols across the country, we’ll be keeping close watch.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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