A Tale of Two States

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If you were just looking at some of the media coverage on teacher policy in Virginia and Oregon in the past week, you might get the impression that teacher quality policy stands or falls on a single law or program. But if there's one lesson that people should draw from our State Teacher Policy Yearbook, it's that there is no single silver bullet.

Virginia has gotten a lot of attention lately for a bill that passed the state House (but failed in the Senate) that would have curtailed tenure protections for experienced teachers. After three years on the job, teachers not making the grade in their evaluations would have lost their positions.

Certainly we think it is important for states to have sensible policies on exiting ineffective teachers, but Virginia has a host of other areas that need attention, too. For starters, Virginia does not have a data system with the capacity to provide administrators evidence of teacher effectiveness. And the failed bill envisioned only one formal evaluation every three years. Between the lack of a data system and the rarity of formal evaluations, Virginia teachers wouldn't have been getting enough reliable feedback to improve, and principals and districts would have been hard pressed to identify teachers who should not be in the classroom.

A recent story shows Oregon taking a more supportive — but still limited — approach to its teachers. In the Salem-Keizer district, new teachers get extensive mentoring. Funded by the state, this induction program helped cut the district's beginning teacher attrition rate from 40 percent to 10 percent. But while this seems like a great program that other districts in the state should implement, investing in teacher development is not enough. Oregon does not meet any part of our goal for dismissing poorly performing teachers. So, for example, new teachers can teach for three years before they have to pass subject-matter tests. It's hard to see how mentoring could help a high school math teacher who doesn't know algebra!

Two states, two kinds of stories, but one big issue: nothing short of a comprehensive approach will ensure that our students get the teachers they deserve.

Amy MacKown