USA TODAY - Shortly before school started this fall, New York parents got some grim news. Student scores on old tests looked decent, but once the state aligned its tests with the more rigorous Common Core standards, proficiency rates plummeted.
Most likely, it will happen in your state, too, because 45 states have signed on to the Common Core idea. Soon parents nationwide will see just how much more students need to learn to succeed.
The good news is that changing one variable could change a lot. A growing research consensus finds that teacher quality matters more for student achievement than any other school-based factor (such as class size). Economist Eric Hanushek has calculated that replacing the bottom 7%-12% of U.S. teachers with average teachers would rocket the U.S. to the academic company of the world's highest-performing countries.
The bad news is that finding a way to guarantee an effective teacher in every classroom has vexed reformers for decades. If American schools want to clear the new bar set for them, they'll need a new idea, and they have at least one promising option. A few innovative programs are tying teacher certification not just to completing a degree or program, but also to classroom performance.
Alternative certification programs (think Teach for America) have blossomed in recent decades, but most new teachers still come from traditional schools of education where course work in these programs covers the theory, history and politics of education. Even great grades don't give principals insight into whether a new teacher will command the attention of 30 third-graders.
"Every time principals hire a teacher, they make a gamble," says Christina Hall, co-founder of the Urban Teacher Center. "They don't know if a teacher will improve student performance or not."
As the stakes get higher, that matters. Students deserve teachers who are "competent in the real challenges they will face," says Stig Leschly, of Match Education, a training program in Boston. How do you explain complex content clearly? What does it mean to have high expectations for students in terms of how you comport yourself Monday morning?
These skills can be taught and measured.
Match Education, for instance, puts its trainees through an intense program involving hundreds of student simulations. Halfway through the first year, these prospective teachers are scored on mini lessons presented to students. After several months of student teaching, they become full-time teachers but are granted a "Master's in Effective Teaching" only after an assessment of their first year on the job using principal evaluations, student survey data, expert evaluations and student achievement data.
The Urban Teacher Center trains teachers in math, English language arts and special education, then places them in about 50 schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. To be certified, these new teachers must demonstrate student achievement over their first few years on the job.
For principals looking at a UTC-certified teacher's résumé, Hall says, they'll know "we cut the tail off the bell curve."
To be sure, such accountability puts pressure on rookie teachers, but "there's this mythology in education that your first year is just something you live through and then you become a real teacher," says Tim Daly, head of TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), which trains thousands of new teachers across the country. In reality, performance in training and your first year is fairly predictive of future performance.
Of course, what "performance" means for teachers is an ongoing debate. While UTC focuses on math and English for which there are tests that show whether a teacher has added value not all subjects have such assessments.
That doesn't mean accountability can't happen. TNTP evaluates teachers based on student surveys, principal evaluations and feedback from observers who score teachers on classroom performance. These scores are compared with other teachers teaching similar students. The goal is to certify only those TNTP teachers who are "better than most of their peers," says Daly. If teachers are not on a trajectory to be effective, "we part ways."
Used broadly, such accountability will help students meet the Common Core's standards. The key is to recognize, as Ellen Moir, founder of the New Teacher Center puts it, that "we don't have to certify every person that goes into a program."
Students deserve teachers who have data to show they can bring out their best.
Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)