We're reaching the end of another year of the pandemic and are well into our third school year under the clouds of COVID-19. Our nation's educators and students are exhausted and embattled, but not beaten. While this crisis has dragged on far longer than all but the most pessimistic among us could have anticipated, this year has not been a story of defeat.
2021 is a story of resilience.
Scientists have leveraged decades of research to produce a life-saving vaccine in record time. Students, many of whom had to adjust to learning at home for months, have made the return to in-person learning as smoothly as could be expected. While substitutes are in short supply to fill in for teachers calling out as they or their children have to quarantine or as the teachers themselves struggle under the weight of this year, teachers are still showing up nearly every day, helping their students make up for lost time.
The most widely-read pieces from NCTQ's Teacher Quality Bulletin reflect this ongoing struggle. These posts celebrate hard-won successes, identify opportunities that could reap great benefits for students if the appetite for change is there, and quantify one of the most intractable issues facing our students and teachers.
Celebrating the great work by states
NCTQ President Kate Walsh's most widely read editorial of the year applauds the hard work of states implementing policies that will make a huge difference for their students and teachers, mostly for the purpose of improving early reading instruction. Arkansas is putting an end to harmful reading curricula in the state, North Carolina is providing teachers with professional development on LETRS training in how to teach reading, Colorado is requiring and enforcing a policy that teacher prep programs only teach scientifically based reading methods, and Texas, which has replicated the successful Dallas ACE program across the state, is paying effective teachers more to work in challenging schools.
Leveraging long-hidden data to strengthen and diversify the teacher workforce
The most widely read NCTQ blog posts this year dealt with institutional pass rates on teacher licensure tests. Nearly every state requires that elementary teachers pass a test of their content knowledge before they begin teaching, but data on pass rates has largely been absent from view, including how many people pass these tests on their first try and how many walk away after failing the first time. In a three-part series, NCTQ explores why elementary teachers' content knowledge matters, why pass rate data can help support greater teacher quality and diversity, and what useful insights the data hold. Faced with evidence of low pass rates, many states and teacher prep programs have embraced the opportunity to identify and fix the problem, rather than sweep it under the rug.
Giving teachers the right tools to support student literacy
Reading struggles are the primary reason schools assign students to special education. A study from Washington state found that special education students see the greatest literacy gains when they have teachers whose preparation programs taught scientifically based reading instruction and their school districts also emphasize this evidence-based approach to reading. In contrast, students have significantly lower reading gains when their districts emphasize debunked (but still popular) balanced literacy practices, spotlighting the harm of ignoring the science.
Paying effective teachers more to boost student learning
While performance pay remains controversial, a meta-analysis found that paying effective teachers more money is positively and statistically associated with student learning gains. The outcome is likely due to a mix of motivating teachers to become more effective, and of retaining those effective teachers in schools. But not all performance pay programs are equally effective. They tend to work better when combined with professional development, when effectiveness is measured through multiple criteria rather than just student test scores, and when the incentives are larger and individualized.
Measuring bias matters, but removing it remains elusive
New research this year adds to the evidence of endemic and systemic racism in our nation and how it permeates our education system. One study found that racial disparities in student test scores and suspension rates were greater in counties with higher levels of pro-White/anti-Black bias among teachers, and that bias levels were lower in counties with a greater proportion of Black students (though researchers could not untangle cause and effect there). Another study shows the effect of bias on teachers themselves: Black teachers tend to receive significantly lower observation scores than White teachers, which appears to be associated not with characteristics of the teachers themselves, but rather with the characteristics of the students in their classrooms. Understanding where bias occurs is an important first step, but as our nation's fraught "reckoning with race" has illustrated, the work ahead is hard and complicated.
Spotlight on NCTQ Senior Fellows
Finally, don't miss these pieces from the NCTQ Senior Visiting Fellows, who contributed their expertise and perspective on some of the greatest challenges teachers face:
- Kareem Weaver implores the education sector to admit that they've been shortchanging teachers and students when it comes to literacy in A moment for humility and a new path forward on reading.
- Sarah Beal describes how more intensive clinical practices can support great teaching (without breaking the bank!) in Making sustainable residencies THE standard.
- Adrienne Williams gives prep programs guidance on how to support and sustain candidates of color in Affirming spaces matter for teachers too.
- Simone Hardeman-Jones speaks to how one teacher has navigated some of the messy but pivotal topics of the year in Showing up.