Q and A with Daniel Weisberg of TNTP

Great teachers are great because they want to get better

NEW YORK — Is there a better way to recruit, train, evaluate and retain public school teachers?

As much of the country shifts to new Common Core standards, Daniel Weisberg, named CEO last week of the alternative teacher-certification and advocacy group The New Teacher Project (TNTP), thinks that question is more important now than ever.

It’s one reason the former private sector lawyer and chief labor strategist under New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein believes giving teachers proper support, training and compensation will keep them effective during the transition to new standards, which aim to deepen critical thinking and enhance problem-solving skills.

In 2009, Weisberg, a New York City public school graduate and the father of two current city public school students, joined TNTP, which was started in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, who went on to become schools chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Weisberg helped TNTP author two major studies on teacher evaluations, including The Widget Effect — which concluded that teachers are rarely, if ever, dismissed, and that far too many teachers receive little to no feedback on their performance, but are simply rated satisfactory or unsatisfactory. A second report, The Irreplaceables, offered suggestions for solving a retention crisis in urban districts.

Related: Debate over value-added rankings hits New York City

Since publication of The Widget Effect, dozens of states and school systems have overhauled their evaluation systems. Over the past four years, nearly 40 states have adopted laws linking teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. Many states made these changes in response to President Obama’s school-reform grant competition, Race to the Top — which also prompted big changes in the way teachers are assessed.

The timing of the new evaluation systems, though, has angered some teachers in places like New York, where harder tests linked to the Common Core are fueling a backlash.

Liz Willen, editor-in-chief of The Hechinger Report, spoke with Weisberg about some of the major issues, obstacles and challenges the teaching profession and the new evaluations face, and what TNTP’s role and potential solutions may look like going forward.

Question: Why do we still have such a hard time getting the best teachers to schools that need them most?

Answer: The system is broken. We have a persistent problem in making sure the kids who most desperately need excellent teachers get them on a consistent basis. Teachers want to work in schools with the best working conditions, the strongest leaders and the best reputations for success, and they are typically not schools with high concentrations of poverty and students of color.

Related: Will test-based teacher evaluations derail Common Core?

Q: So how can we make it more desirable for teachers to work in high-needs areas?

A: In education, the typical career path is to get further away from kids with the most challenges. We are fortunate we have many teachers committed to [teaching in tough schools] but they pay a price, in terms of conditions and compensation — and we should reward them the most. Part of this is about money, part of it about working conditions, part of it about resources. We have to make sure our resources are allocated in ways that give those schools dealing with poor kids and kids of color the ability to compete with more affluent schools. So that means great teachers should be compensated at a higher rate. Principals who are able to build and maintain strong teachers [in schools with] high-need kids should be compensated, celebrated and rewarded at higher levels, with accelerated career paths.

Q: How is TNTP trying to address this problem?

A: We provide direct support to principals to attract, build and maintain excellent teams — you have to know how to recruit teachers, tell the story about [the school] and communicate a strong vision for excellent instruction. We are working with district leaders to make the system more equitable and set up clear pathways for teachers targeted to high-needs schools, so you have great teachers there. And the principal has to find a way to make it attractive for them to stay (compensation, more earning potential, etc.).

Q: Your organization recruits and trains teachers. So does Teach for America, and they are apparently receiving fewer applications these days. How do you differ?

A: We don’t recruit for our alternative-certification programs from college campuses. We are targeting potential applicants who are already in the working world. We haven’t seen a drop-off in applications. We still have teaching fellows and teacher certification programs, but we also do a pretty diverse set of work with districts, charter management organizations and state departments of education that don’t involve alternative certification.

Q: How is the Common Core changing your work at TNTP?

A: It’s a huge opportunity for our field. We work directly with teachers in high-needs schools and provide direct support to help them make the shift, so they are not having to figure out all the new demands on their own. We’ll continue to advocate for rigorous, coherent standards in all subjects. These entail big changes. It’s not just what is being taught, it is how it is being taught. We are deeply engaged with districts to get them from where they are to where they need to be to succeed. Teachers are leading the way. We have teachers on video, doing incredible things to change their practice and succeed under these new standards. If teachers are successful, we’ll see tremendous gains in achievement. There is no question it [the Common Core] is controversial, but the bulk of classroom teachers’ time is spent away from political arguments, and they are interested in trying the best ways to teach their students.

Q: As you know, teachers in New York State are battling with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over how they should be evaluated and what role test scores should play. Any thoughts on how TNTP feels teachers should be evaluated and if their evaluations should be linked to the standards?

A: We think teachers should be evaluated using multiple measures. Academic growth as measured by test scores should be significant — not a magic number, but significant. Observations of principals and classrooms should be significant. In many cases, student surveys are a really valuable input, and we think getting independent observers makes it more valuable and accurate. It’s important that teacher performance be evaluated in part based on how well students grow academically as measured by growth in test scores, including New York’s Common Core-aligned tests. They are harder than the old tests, but they’re also a much better measure of whether kids are on track for college. That’s important for students, teachers and parents (of whom I’m one). And there are many teachers across the state helping students — including poor students and students of color — to meet or exceed the new standards. Shouldn’t they be recognized? Teachers want regular, honest feedback. Great teachers are great because they want to get better.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Cross-posted at the Hechinger Report]

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute.