Good for Gordon

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The latest blast directed at dysfunctional state licensure systems and other professional sundries comes from an unexpected source and appears to be gaining some legs. While the criticism isn't new, the critic is. Writing for the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, former Kerry strategist Robert Gordon (now of the Center for American Progress) proposes the kinds of substantial reforms to the teaching profession that have previously been the purview of reformers to the right.

Gordon is joined by two economists, Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, and has been taking some heat from some corners and getting hosannas from others. We're loath to take any additional potshots at prominent Democrats taking on this issue; this is a big step forward. However, Gordon et al.'s paper might best be considered for its symbolic value, as a sign of the increasingly bipartisan mandate for reform, because some of its proposed solutions could use a little tweaking.

For example, Gordon et al suggest two routes for becoming highly qualified. First, anyone who has a bachelor's degree and can pass a subject matter test would be able to teach, provided that after two years of teaching, they fall within the top half of teacher effectiveness (per test scores) in either the district's or state's pool of teachers. The second route would automatically grant highly qualified teacher status to any teacher who has been to ed school, provided they then fall within the top three quarters of teacher effectiveness. It is not entirely clear why the first group of nontraditional teachers is held to a higher standard than ed school grads, but there you go.

Then, no matter how teachers come into the profession, they can qualify for tenure within two years provided they aren't in the bottom quartile of teacher effectiveness, again at the district or state levels. These low-performing teachers would be denied tenure and presumably get the boot, a solution which raises more questions than it answers. What if the lowest quartile in one district is better than the highest quartile in another? Moreover, using student test scores to decide a teacher's fate presumes a great amount of stability in test scores' ability to measure teacher effectiveness, even though we know that current measures of teacher performance tend to get conflated with other classroom effects so they're not very stable from year to year. Furthermore, using an arbitrary figure, especially one as large as 25 percent, to decide who stays or goes is probably not the best way to run any operation, be it a business or a school.

These "little" details aside, good for Gordon for moving the debate to the center.