Baking Bread Without The Yeast

Among my son's favorite books are the ones in Richard Scarry's Busytown series. In What Do People Do All Day?, Able Baker Charlie puts too much yeast in the dough, resulting in a gigantic, explosive loaf of bread that the bakers (and Lowly Worm) need to eat their way out of.

The opposite problem -- a lack of yeast -- is present in Michelle Rhee's recent op-ed in Education Week. In it, she limits her call to "rethink" teaching policy to "how we assign, retain, evaluate, and pay educators" and to "teacher-layoff and teacher-tenure policies." (And she casts the issue of retention purely as one about so-called "last-in, first-out" employment policies rather than about school leadership, collaboration or working conditions.)

The utter absence of any focus or mention of teacher development either in this op-ed or in her organization's (StudentsFirst) expansive policy agenda leaves me wondering if Rhee believes that teachers are capable of learning and improving. If Rhee indeed does believe that new teacher induction and career-long professional development have value, then why does she consistently ignore it in her public statements and in her organization's strategic priorities? The alternative, of course, is a view that teachers are static beings, incapable of improvement. They are either born effective or ineffective. "Mr. Anderson's value-added score is an 18, thus he is an ineffective teacher and should be fired because his inability to teach cannot be ameliorated." We, of course, know this not to be the case. This alternative view also involves a strategy of simply trying to hire and fire our way to success. From research and international exemplars, I think most of us understand such a narrow approach to be ineffectual, albeit politically attractive in some quarters, especially among the Republican governors that Rhee is assisting exclusively.

High-quality development opportunities for teachers are like the yeast that helps the bread to rise. Comprehensive teacher induction has been shown to accelerate new teacher effectiveness and increase their students' learning. Likewise, personalized and purposeful professional development also can strengthen teaching skills and classroom impact.

It seems to me that a stated policy goal should be to ensure that as many as teachers as possible successfully pass educator evaluations being developed across the nation. Too many advocates such as Rhee appear to be eager to fire more teachers rather than make investments and restructure schools to maximize their effectiveness. A critical role for policy then would be to re-define teacher development in a way that raises the quality bar and invests public dollars in programs and approaches shown to have the desired impact on teaching and learning. Isn't that something we all can agree with?

Teachers are tremendously influential -- and we should do everything we can to unleash their full power. On teacher effectiveness, I'm unwilling to settle for half a loaf.