Supporting (And Rewarding) Our Educators - A Conversation with Dottie Smith
Note: The legislative landscape has continued to shift since this episode was written and recorded. House Bill 3 no longer contains an Effective Educator Allotment as described in the final section of this piece. Currently, it remains in Senate Bill 4.
Dottie Smith: It seems like a really important moment in time, and it's exciting to be part of it.
This is Dottie Smith, a former teacher and principal, and lifelong education leader.
Smith: I taught second grade in Compton, California. I had a classroom of 30 really wonderful kids. Most of my students entered second grade below grade level. Several of them didn't know how to blend individual sounds to make words, which, when we think about the importance of being on grade level in third grade, felt like a really big responsibility. So I remember buying a class set of Charlotte's Web, the novel, and I gave each student a copy at the beginning of the year. And they were very excited, because it was a chapter book and it was a big, thick book and it didn't really have a lot of pictures. It was really a very important moment. And I said to them that we were all going to be able to read the book independently by the end of the year. And we did. Now, it was a lot of work, lot of consistency. They worked really hard. But they did it. And it helped me to truly experience the potential that all kids have when it's unleashed.
Smith had seen that each and every one of her students had the potential to succeed when they were afforded a caring and passionate educator who held high expectations of them. So a few years later, when those students entered middle school, Smith was surprised to learn that some of them were falling behind.
Smith: It just broke my heart because I knew what they were and are capable of. And I just wondered what the adults at their school were doing to support them, and why this was happening, because it didn't make sense to me. So then I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to be a principal. And I also knew that I was not prepared and not ready to take on such a big responsibility.
She trained for a year as a teacher coach, working to design math and reading intervention programs.
Smith: Most importantly, I mentored under an amazing principal who showed me first how to create a loving, beautiful school community where kids are happy, they're healthy, they're challenged, where teachers are focused and valued, and then the results follow. So I then became a principal of a struggling high school full of super smart kids with tons of potential, but their test scores were very low and people complained about discipline problems on the campus.
In her first year, Smith focused on instruction and school culture, guided by a set of high expectations.
Smith: We did a lot of training. I did a lot of coaching. I was in classrooms observing teachers every single day, all day long, and we put some rules into place to make sure that the school ran efficiently and that the instructional time was held precious, and it was not rocket science. It was the un-sexy work of consistency and follow-through.
And it worked. Student success climbed.
Smith: To this day, the best day of my career was my first high school graduation, where I got to shake the hand of every single senior and hand them a high school diploma, and every one of them was accepted into a two- or a four-year college and had a plan to get there. So again, just another lesson in the potential of kids when they're given what they need. This experience made me want to focus more heavily on how we can prepare and develop educators in a way that translates into student achievement. And since then, I've been focused on that.
That focus led Smith to her current role as managing director of the DFW-based Best in Class coalition.
Smith: The Best in Class coalition was created to ensure that all of our classrooms and schools in the region are led by excellent educators, the kind of educators who are really good at growing student learning in a way that prepares them for college and career. Specifically, how we can attract, prepare, develop, and retain the very best educators. We're lucky to work alongside 50 different educational organizations in the area to align on how to collectively build a vibrant, best-in-class educator workforce. And we believe that if we work together, we can live up to the promise of a quality education that opens up opportunities for all of our kids.
According to decades of educational research, teachers are the number one in-school factor determining the success of a student. That may seem obvious, but the real-life implications of having a quality educator show up in some surprising ways.
These are critical outcomes for all of our kids, right? Like, I want that for my daughter. But this is especially powerful for students who are growing up with limited financial resources. So then the question is, how do we increase the number or the proportion of highly effective teachers? We know we have to attract great talent, we have to ensure that our educators are well-prepared when they step foot either in their classroom or to lead their school on day one, that educators should experience meaningful growth over time. We also need to find ways to retain great teachers. But to do any of that well, systems need to unapologetically focus on student achievement, build cohesion, and have access to strong data connecting student achievement and teacher performance in a way that can then fuel continuous improvement.
That’s why the Best in Class coalition works with school districts throughout the region to locally develop and adopt multi-measure evaluation systems to identify the district’s strongest educators, reward the practices that create the best results, and spread these strategies throughout the teaching corps.
Smith: A good evaluation system is not about the evaluation, it's about growing and rewarding educators and improving the entire system. Teaching is dynamic. It's a dynamic profession, and a multiple-measure evaluation system typically includes components that assess overlapping, but different aspects of the craft: student achievement and growth, student perception, how kids feel about their teacher and the classroom environment, instructional competencies, how strong is a teacher at designing lessons, and then executing and facilitating student discussion, and in some cases, evaluation systems include professional growth. Are you improving as a teacher? Are you developing expertise in certain areas? How are you giving back to the field? Including all of these components ensures a more holistic picture of what makes a teacher great and it reduces the chances of human bias.
Simply put, a multiple-measure evaluation system provides a more fair evaluation of teachers. And the benefits are multiplied when school leadership participates in the system as well.
Smith: Strong evaluation systems for principals typically include school performance, climate surveys, how well the teachers perceive the principal, whether or not the principal is accurate in observing teacher performance, and even parents surveys. Most importantly, a good multiple measure evaluation system helps districts clarify and operationalize their vision for excellent instruction. For example, building strong, caring relationships with students is one element that makes a teacher great, right? I think we can agree on that. Incorporating student surveys as one of several components of an evaluation system allows the teacher to know if his or her students feel like they're cared for by their teacher, if they're challenged, and they get credit for that.
By collecting and providing data across the wide spectrum of a child’s educational experience, multi-measure evaluation systems allow educators to continuously improve upon their craft. That’s true even of long-time teachers, according to recent analysis out of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Smith: And that's important because the results of this analysis contrast pretty sharply with the widely held belief that the effectiveness of individual teachers can't be changed after the first few years on the job, suggesting that there's a really important and new role for teacher evaluation beyond selective retention. And that role is growth.
This vision contrasts sharply with a fear often associated with any measure of teacher effectiveness: that it will erode job security and morale.
Smith: I've been doing this evaluation work for over 10 years, and it often gets criticized as a way to fire teachers, a way to get rid of teachers, get rid of the bad teachers. And the reality is that the percentage of teachers that technically fall into that category is so small that if we think the lever is to fire our way to greatness, we're wrong. We're wrong. An evaluation system helps, with precision, understand where teachers are, and clarifies where they need to go.
By precisely understanding a teacher’s effectiveness, school district’s are able to provide more personalized professional development (an important policy priority highlighted in our last episode).
Smith: So, for example, a school leader may see that students in math are struggling to understand multi-step word problems because the students don't know the academic language used in math. So the leader may set a goal to have 70 percent of teachers reach the proficient rating in a particular competency using content-specific language and tools, which is part of the rubric, part of the evaluation, by the end of the year. So that goal not only aligns to what the students in that building need, it focuses the coaching that's happening on campus. It focuses the teacher's development, it focuses the principal on what he or she is going to work on, and it is part of the evaluation. So it's all cohesive.
This knowledge also allows districts to have a better understanding of who their very best educators are and encourage them to teach at historically underserved campuses where they’re needed the most, a practice known as “strategic staffing.” These key policy shifts have had a demonstrable impact on student achievement in districts that have implemented such systems. Districts like Dallas ISD.
Smith: Dallas has seen great growth in student achievement. They are the fastest growing urban district in the state. They are being showcased right now across the state as an example of not only multiple measure evaluation but strategic staffing.
This success is due in part to the fact that, much like the educators it evaluates, the system itself is constantly developing and improving.
Smith: Dallas, every year, does an evaluation of their evaluation system to use the data to make it better and stronger and they publish it. And you can see how the data is helping the entire system evolve and improve. And it is certainly not perfect, but the data that they are getting from the system is helping it become stronger over time.
Legislators and advocates have been paying close attention to growth experienced in districts like Dallas for over a year. Now, they’re working to bring it statewide.
In its report released late last year, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance recommended the creation of an Effective Educator Allotment which would provide new, optional funding to school districts that develop their own multi-measure evaluation system.
While obviously influenced by the success of DISD, the final recommendation was decidedly not to take any specific program statewide. Commission members instead wisely recognized that needs, resources, and opportunities vary across Texas’ diverse student population, and that any evaluation system should be generated locally, with the buy-in of that community’s educators.
But now that session is well underway, the Commission’s report is only one of many school finance proposals. In late February, the Texas Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 3, which would provide an across-the-board raise of $5,000 to teachers and librarians. As a former teacher herself, Smith isn’t opposed to this idea in theory- but worries it may come at the cost of real systemic reform.
By treating every educator equally, the unique needs of each of our communities are ignored, and the extra effort put in by our hardest working educators goes unnoticed. Instead, Smith wants to see Texas teachers supported, and rewarded, like the professionals they are.
Smith: It feels good to be held to high expectations and to be supported to get there. It does. Every job that I've had, if I have had high expectations, support and encouragement, I am more satisfied in my work, right? And every teacher I've met is in it to see students learn, to see students excel, to live out the life of their dreams. And a multiple measure evaluation system can enable both, clearly defining excellent instruction, so we know exactly what the goal is, and enabling the system with data to help teachers improve and know concretely that they've gotten there. That, to me, matters more, and has more potential for improving systems than an across-the-board raise.
Another option currently available to state lawmakers is House Bill 3, authored by House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty and modeled on the school finance commission’s recommendations. It strikes a positive balance, both substantially raising the state’s minimum teacher salary schedule, and allocating an additional $140 million to reward the top third of the Texas teacher workforce in districts with a multi-measure evaluation system. Part of that $140 million would be used to further reward effective teachers who teach in high-poverty or rural school districts.
There’s also Senate Bill 4, another variation on the commission’s recommendation, authored by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor. It allows districts that choose to locally craft their own multi-measure evaluation system to draw down additional dollars to attract, develop, and retain effective educators. Both of these bills have the potential to make a significant and strategic investment in teacher quality and student achievement.
Fewer and fewer top high school graduates are choosing teaching as a profession. The teachers we currently employ don’t feel supported, in terms of pay or professional development. And our most effective educators are not distributed equitably across campuses and districts. By encouraging the creation of locally-crafted multi-measure evaluation systems, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 4 begin the process of addressing each of these complex and critical issues.
So the systems, when they include things like student achievement and growth, allow districts to reward educators who make the biggest impact on students. We have the ability to know which teachers are making the biggest impact on students, and we want them to stay, we want to expand their reach, we want them to continue to ensure that their students get on grade level, are prepared for college. The words that come to mind are equalizer and opportunity and excellence for all kids. And I think that's pretty powerful.
The Twisted Saga of Texas School Finance is powered by InvestEdTX, and produced by me, Joshua Kumler. It is executive produced by me, along with Kathryn Mikeska and Rob Shearer. Mixed and mastered by Adrien Palmer. Music by Trevor Yokochi. Special thanks to Dottie Smith and her entire team at Best in Class. You can learn more about the incredible work they do by visiting their website, bestinclass.org. Our website is InvestEdTX.org, where you can sign up for action alerts that will keep you up to date on school finance reform this legislative session. This podcast is dedicated to two groups of hard-workers who don’t get paid enough for all they do: teachers and Texas legislators. The future is in both of your hands. We’ll be back soon with more of the Twisted Saga.