AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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AFT Resolutions


Now is the moment when teachers can make teaching what it ought to be—a profession. For too long, those with little knowledge about the profession and often no experience teaching have defined for teachers what good teaching practice looks like and how it should be measured. Neither teachers nor their unions have significantly shaped the debate. In the last decade, "accountability" has been used as an excuse to exclude teachers in discussions of how and what they should teach. But if we are really to improve practice and student outcomes, teacher leadership will make the difference.

Teacher evaluation must foster both professional growth for teachers and student learning. Although good teaching is much more than students' test scores, teaching is about students, and teacher evaluation cannot ignore the importance of student learning. Nor can it exclude other student objectives, such as developing habits and behaviors that lead to success in school and life. A good teacher development and evaluation system, therefore, measures teachers on the practices that, over time, produce desirable student outcomes, and provides teachers the opportunity to hone effective practices.

A teacher development and evaluation system focused on truly improving practice and promoting student learning does more than simply create procedures for assessing individual teachers' knowledge and skills. It also contains support systems and opportunities for professional learning that facilitate the continuous improvement and growth of all teachers—high-quality opportunities such as job-embedded professional development and mentoring and induction programs. 

A Rationale for Change

Today, more than ever, students must master deeper content and be competent critical thinkers and problem solvers. They must gain new skills to deal with an increasingly interconnected, technological world. And students must be prepared to participate fully and effectively as citizens in a democratic society.

While the knowledge and skill requirements for students have dramatically changed, our current model of education remains a holdover from the industrial age. It does not fully prepare students to meet the challenges of today. Nor does it equip them for a future where knowledge is the currency that counts.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion around teacher evaluation today fails to address how teachers can best meet the needs of their students, given the constantly changing and increasingly demanding world in which they live. The discussion is narrowly focused, with its promise of boosting teacher quality by getting rid of "bad teachers" using standardized test scores as the sole or predominant measure. It offers no vision for continuous improvement—not for the individual teacher, not for the practice at large, and not for the evaluation process itself.

A student well prepared to meet the challenges and capture the opportunities beyond high school can attribute her learning to many teachers in her educational career. Student learning is not simply influenced by one teacher, no matter how great. You can neither fire nor hire your way to better schools. Like other professionals, teachers continuously develop, from formal preparation through retirement. They bring to the classroom varying skills and knowledge that reflect their training and experience, and they deepen their knowledge and hone their skills over the years. For students to benefit in all their studies, we must think more broadly and more systematically about developing teachers' knowledge and skills, building career ladders, fostering true professionalism, and providing the teaching and learning environments that help them and their students excel.

Measure What We Value

The AFT believes that schools should be responsible for ensuring all children are well prepared for life, college or a career. This means that for our students, especially our most disadvantaged students, schools must value more than a few academic standards when measuring instruction and increasing accountability. Schools must offer the kind of wraparound services needed to help all students succeed regardless of their background or situation. Schools must combat the problems associated with poverty—such as poor nutrition and lack of high-quality medical care. We value schools that provide all students with the tools and skills they need to join and contribute to our democracy.

We should measure what we value, not the other way around. All too often, we value in education what is easy to measure and overlook elements that are essential for effective practice. For example, in the current education climate for some states, we focus on the percentage of students who score proficient on state standardized tests, with scant attention to the content standards that should drive these exams or to what it means to be "proficient" in a content area. 

It is easy and cheap to design teacher evaluation systems that rely excessively on student test scores, but standardized tests do not effectively incorporate all the goals of public schooling. Excessive reliance on student test scores is foolish, and the consequences are detrimental to students and teachers alike. Evaluating schools and teachers mainly on outcomes like standardized test scores has led to excessive test preparation and a narrow curriculum in many schools. It has also led to an arbitrary and inordinate focus on students who are on the cusp of "proficiency" as measured by standardized tests, a focus that undercuts the right of all students to a well-rounded, content-rich curriculum that encourages them to develop critical-thinking skills.

Designing a comprehensive teacher development and evaluation system allows us to ensure consideration of outcomes that parents, teachers and other community members care about—in addition to student test scores. If our students are to compete in the 21st-century global economy, and be stewards of our democracy and our planet, then we need to ensure that teachers foster students' personal, civic and social concern and responsibility along with academic skills. These student outcomes are equally important to a vibrant democratic society, and we must find a way to measure them regardless of the challenges associated with doing so. We fail our students and our nation if performing well on a standardized test becomes the mission of public education.

The Union as a Vehicle for Change

Teachers unions are in a unique position. They have the opportunity to help teachers and the teaching profession as a whole to ensure that all teachers meet high professional standards of practice. Allowing ineffective teachers to stay in the classroom is detrimental to students, teachers, their unions and the profession. For this reason, unions must play a central role in assessing and supporting the teaching quality of those who enter and remain in the profession.

No other organization is better positioned to advance the issue of improving teaching than the AFT and its affiliates. First, we are a repository of expertise and knowledge about what good teaching practice looks like and how best to facilitate student learning. Second, we have the power to collaborate on a district level with key stakeholders to craft policies that will facilitate good teaching. And finally, teachers unions, through negotiations and legislative efforts, can institutionalize reforms at both the local and state levels to improve teaching quality and public education overall. 

But teachers and their unions cannot do this alone. Comprehensive teacher development and evaluation must foster collective responsibility and accountability, and there must be a willingness and a readiness of all stakeholders—union leaders, administrators, policymakers, parents and the broader community—to work together. We should provide real incentives in policy and practice for stakeholders to collaborate.

Reforms to the evaluation process will only be developed and sustained with strong labor-management relationships. Collaboration, partnerships and trust at all levels are essential. Trusting relationships are the cornerstone of successful school reform: Students need to be able to trust that teachers are guided by the desire to help them learn, grow and be successful in the classroom. Teachers deserve fair, competent administrators to facilitate and foster the school mission as partners with teachers. And administrators need to work with teachers and other stakeholders to make sure the district will support their decisions and actions that enable students to develop and be successful.

Teachers, administrators and other members of the community must form true partnerships and come together around the common goal of improving student learning. This will require unions and management to change how they interact, as well as schools to change how they are organized and governed, and how their staff members work with one another.

Continuous Improvement Model for Teacher Development and Evaluation:

The Components

A comprehensive teacher development and evaluation system can improve the overall quality of the teacher workforce by identifying and building upon individual and collective teacher strengths and by improving instruction and other teacher practices to improve student learning. It can also identify exemplary teachers who might serve as mentors and/or master teachers, as well as identify ineffective teachers and develop a system of support to remediate their skills. A comprehensive teacher development and evaluation system can ensure fair and valid employment decisions, including decisions about rehiring, dismissal, career paths and tenure. Finally, an effective system can be a lever for systemic change and guide overall school improvement. However, a comprehensive teacher development and evaluation system is only one necessary ingredient for improving student learning and ensuring a great teacher in every classroom.

Professional Teaching Standards

To ensure successful learning, a teacher must combine strong content knowledge with the skills and understanding needed to engage students. Everyone remembers teachers who were experts in their fields but simply could not unlock that knowledge in the classroom. When it came to content, there was no question that these teachers "got it"—but their students struggled constantly, sometimes hopelessly, to follow along. This illustrates a key point: Knowing content is critical, but it is not enough to make a teacher good, much less great.

That is where professional teaching standards come in. They define the practices good teachers use to promote student learning—things like managing student behavior, designing and presenting a coherent lesson, and using assessments effectively in the classroom, to name just a few. As such, professional teaching standards are like a career compass. They help individual teachers make necessary changes to keep their practice pointed in the right direction—toward continuous improvement.

Professional teaching standards benefit not only individual teachers but the profession as well. They reveal what people in the field really mean when they talk about "excellent practice." They make the concept real, putting meat on the bones of theory and making those practices transparent to others. In fact, professional teaching standards can help transform a school, encouraging teachers to reflect on their practice and share what they have learned with colleagues. This fundamentally reshapes school culture, turning the school into a professional learning community, reducing isolation and opening new leadership opportunities for teachers.

Building a comprehensive, common vision of teaching excellence is, in fact, a hallmark of strong standards, and the best ones are built in collaboration with other stakeholders. Strong professional teaching standards spur teachers to analyze in depth what they are doing in the classroom, for example, and they identify solid indicators of teaching performance.

Standards for Assessing Teaching Practice

There is no question that professional evaluations should reflect student learning. What is really at issue is how to gather the right ingredients and how to get the right mix. For instance, evaluations that use standardized student test scores as the sole or predominant measure, and fail to recognize the importance of ensuring validity and reliability, offer a sure recipe for poor outcomes and unintended consequences. They lead to such problems as a school curriculum narrowed to tested subjects only or a near-obsessive classroom preoccupation with test preparation. On the other hand, an evaluation system that ignores student learning also misses the mark. It fails to recognize that a fundamental connection does, in fact, exist between teaching and learning, and that some teaching practices are more effective than others in helping students learn.

There is a sensible solution: Develop an evaluation system focused on improving teaching and learning, one that includes intelligently gathered, intelligently weighted evidence of both.

So how can teachers, administrators and policymakers get to this point? The first step is for stakeholders to agree to some basic ground rules. The "teacher practice" piece of evaluation should use performance standards that reflect where teachers are in their careers, from beginning teachers to experienced ones. It should use multiple measures that research has proven are valid and reliable. And it should capture the breadth of good teaching and practice by incorporating a variety of techniques, things like classroom observations, lesson plan reviews, self-assessment, professional portfolios and teacher-produced materials for the classroom. 

In the same vein, no one measure can capture the entire scope of student learning —a warning that test developers have been sounding for years. To be sure, student progress on standardized tests may be considered as part of an evaluation system, but stakeholders must be mindful of their limitations. These student measures do a poor job of measuring performance for both high and low achievers, for example. And they also are vulnerable to measurement errors, particularly when it comes to measures of student growth that rely solely on a single measure of student achievement. To get a more accurate picture, other evidence must be considered: Student written work, graded performances and presentations and end-of-course projects are just some of the tools that can bring student learning into sharper focus.

Putting these elements together into a single system to gauge teacher performance will require all stakeholders to ask some hard questions: Are all criteria equally important? Can excellence on one measure compensate for weakness on another? What does exemplary, good, acceptable and unacceptable performance on a standard look like? In a dynamic system based on continuous improvement, not only is it likely that the answers to these questions will change over time, it is desirable. One thing is certain: Schools stand a better chance of finding those right answers once the either-or arguments surrounding teaching practice and student learning are laid to rest.

Implementation Standards

To ensure teacher development and evaluation systems create opportunities for students to learn and teachers to teach, they must be developed and implemented in ways that are good for students and fair to teachers. Investing time to make sure these comprehensive systems are implemented properly is one of the most important steps in creating systems that foster teacher learning and growth. Poor execution can undermine even the best strategy, and a professional evaluation model must not be afraid to shine a light on itself—making sure that implementation standards are part of the design.

Strong models spell out requirements for evaluators. These educators must be formally trained peers and administrators who have demonstrated the ability to assess teaching fairly and accurately. And they must be able to interpret their findings in a way that helps teachers design a high-quality professional development plan, one that is tailored to individual needs and goals. To make the process function properly, implementation standards must ensure that teachers, too, are given the opportunity to evaluate themselves and reflect on their practice.

Faithful implementation also means transparency, using reliable measurements with prompt feedback that helps teachers improve. Teachers must know the standards they are being held to, and what constitutes excellent, acceptable and less-than-competent performance under those standards. There must be a strong mechanism for data collection and feedback. The design must ensure that each evaluation begins and ends with teacher communication. Implementation standards also must guarantee that "formative evaluations," those specifically designed to spur professional growth, are conducted frequently, and that they lead teachers and evaluators to collaborate regularly on specific professional goals. When it comes to student achievement, implementation standards must ensure that data is of high quality and used correctly.

In all these areas, implementation standards must faithfully reflect the "big picture"—an evaluation system based on continuous professional improvement.

Standards for Professional Context
Strong and effective teacher development and evaluation systems recognize the importance of the teaching and learning environment. These standards are not intended to mask poor performance. They are meant to reflect the truth: Teachers striving for a full year of academic growth in a room with 45 students and not enough textbooks, for example, are taking on a heavier lift than colleagues working under better conditions.

What conditions allow good teaching to flourish? Is the curriculum rich, broad and nonscripted? How safe is the school hallway? Are teachers encouraged to collaborate with their peers? Is there time to work with students and call parents? Are there enough desks and chairs? Are there clear and coherent content standards? Are there high-quality student assessments? These important questions are tied to what is called "the professional context of teaching,"—i.e., the teaching and learning conditions necessary for teacher and student success.

Good standards of professional context consider many factors: time, facilities and resources, teacher empowerment, leadership, professional growth, and school climate and safety. They measure not only the physical and structural elements in play, but all the important factors that shape a school’s culture and climate. They must be developed collaboratively, giving school staff the opportunity to identify the conditions needed for a strong teaching and learning environment. And they are geared toward action: A procedure for assessing a school’s professional context must be developed, and data should guide decisions about how to improve a school’s teaching and learning conditions.

Standards for Systems of Support

Evaluation systems must provide the types of support that truly help teachers improve throughout their careers. Demanding better teacher performance is cruel and hollow when schools do not provide opportunities for professional growth. A good way to guarantee such opportunities is through evaluation systems that have embedded standards of support. Teachers need formal opportunities to engage in professional learning throughout their career.

Taking responsibility for professional issues and the delivery of professional development is central to unionism. Unions recognize that they have a responsibility to help teachers, both veteran and new, do their jobs more efficiently. High-quality professional development must be the linchpin of any effort to support and improve practice. Research indicates that without continuous and effective opportunities to hone their craft, teachers will be less able to meet the expectations placed on them and less likely to stay in the profession.

Systems-of-support standards must provide a broad range of professional development opportunities. They must be based on a teacher's ability to meet teaching standards and must offer rich, relevant assistance for each stage of the teacher’s career. This support must be intensive and ongoing, it must be focused on teachers’ work with students, and it must be aligned with the professional teaching standards that drive the evaluation model.

Assistance also must be targeted—centering on specific opportunities for improvement and growth rather than "one size fits all" models. That means systems of support that effectively use teacher evaluation data and also give teachers a say in improving the system through regular, timely feedback. Mentoring, professional learning communities, lesson study and coaching are just some of the vehicles that deliver real help to teachers and provide them with opportunities to learn and grow:

RESOLVED, that the American Federation of Teachers continue to work with national organizations representing chief state school officers, governors, mayors, school superintendents, principals, parents, other labor unions, higher education institutions and others, to join us in promoting improved teacher development and evaluation systems that proceed from rigorous curricula built upon content-rich core standards, and that are based on the components outlined in this resolution:

  • Professional teaching standards;
  • Standards for assessing teaching practice;
  • Implementation standards;
  • Standards for professional context; and
  • Standards for systems of support; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT work toward creating, identifying and sharing various effective models of teacher development and evaluation that have been developed throughout the country; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT not support and actively oppose teacher evaluation systems that rely solely or predominantly upon a single measure of student achievement to determine teacher effectiveness; and

RESOLVED, that any evaluation system that places direct accountability for student outcomes on teachers must be implemented in a way that ensures significant teacher pedagogical authority in producing these outcomes; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT assist locals that have productive labor-management relationships to design and implement new teacher development and evaluation systems that align with the five components outlined in this resolution; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT assist those locals that do not have the prerequisite labor-management relationships to develop more productive interactions between labor and management to better serve union members and their students; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT advocate for equitable teaching and learning environments—including curricula, resources, buildings and classrooms—that encourage learning and provide students and teachers with a level playing field; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT involve leaders and members in every stage of the process as it provides support for the design and implementation of teacher development and evaluation systems that are based on the components outlined in this resolution, since they are the educators closest to the classroom and their students.