Joe Morton: Attracting and retaining the “best and brightest” teachers is key

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Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal, all of us want to see improved student achievement year after year after year across all grades and in all schools in Alabama.

Attracting and retaining talented educators is a key to achieving that goal, so, in 2015, the Business Education Alliance of Alabama (BEA) commissioned a research report titled “Teachers Matter: Rethinking How Public Education Recruits, Rewards and Retains Great Educators.”

A key section of our report concentrated upon teacher evaluations and compared Alabama’s methodology to those of other states across the nation.   We discovered that virtually every state, including ours, uses student improvement in academic achievement as a portion of their teacher evaluations. In some states, student achievement counts for as much as half of a teacher’s evaluation, while in Alabama the pilot program that has not been fully developed comprises just 25 percent, but our study revealed that all states feel it is integral to the overall score.

Any state utilizing student academic growth for teacher evaluations must have quality assessments that are fair, relevant and remove any hints of bias. Alabama currently utilizes three such assessments – the ACT exam given to all high school students; the ACT Aspire given to all students in grades 3-8; and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) funded by Congress and given to a fair sampling of students in grades 4 and 8 in all 50 states.

The NAEP is called the “Nation’s Report Card,” and it is the only assessment that measures student progress in every state against a true national norm, but it cannot be used for teacher evaluation purposes since it is a “sampling” assessment. The high school ACT and the ACT Aspire can be used for the student academic growth portion of teacher evaluations, and both are already adopted by the State Board of Education.

Alabama has a good student assessment program that provides excellent insight into our areas of strength and areas needing improvement.

The latest ACT results from Alabama high schools show that roughly 16 percent of our students were ready for college-level coursework by scoring at benchmark levels in English, Mathematics, Reading and Science. The national average of students making benchmark scores on the ACT is 28 percent.

The RAISE Act, which stands for “Rewarding Advancement in Instruction and Student Excellence,” is being sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R – Anniston) and calls for several “firsts” in Alabama while also supporting actions already taken by the State Board of Education.

If enacted into law, the RAISE Act will make first year teachers the highest paid in the Southeast and attract more young people to the profession of teaching, provide funding to a first year mentoring program to ensure our new teachers are supported by a veteran teacher, create a rewards program for entire school faculties which gives incentives for either maintaining or improving already high quality results or for schools that show notable improvements in student achievement gains and provide bonuses to teachers who work in hard to staff positions in low performing schools, rural schools or both. It also changes the length of time provided for new teachers to attain tenure from the current three years to five.

By combining quality teacher evaluations, a recruitment plan for hard to staff teaching jobs, a program for enhancing first year teacher success with a mentoring program, and a school-based rewards program based upon results, the RAISE Act can build a solid pathway to improved student achievement. If we continue to implement needed education reforms and innovations like the RAISE Act in Alabama’s public schools, every student can one day become career and college ready, and the better prepared workforce that results will allow our state’s economy to continue to grow. Teachers Matter!

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Dr. Joe Morton is a former state superintendent of education and currently serves as chairman and president of the Business Education Alliance of Alabama. He may be reached at jmorton@beaalabama.com.

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