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As the Department of Education continues to review states’ plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act, goals for student achievement are once again under the microscope. An article published earlier this year by the Pew Research Center highlighted results showing that U.S. student achievement trails behind many other developed countries.
Last October, we asked Dr. James Stronge, Heritage Professor in Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership at the College of William and Mary and President of Stronge and Associates Educational Consulting, LLC, why this might be — and how it should inform our thinking about professional learning in K-12.
Note: This interview from October 2016 has been edited for brevity and clarity, and opinions held by individuals may not necessarily reflect Frontline Education. Portions of this interview have appeared elsewhere on this site.
DR. JAMES STRONGE: Let me give you a precursor response about the impact on student achievement. That should be the gold standard for professional learning. If it’s not, why are we doing it?
Now, to answer your question: number one, I think we’re behind in achievement based on international analyses because of some of the issues with our student body. The US is very diverse, but so are some other countries. Singapore has, for example, 40% of students who are non-native English speakers. Canada has about 20%; the US has about 10%. We can’t just claim that we’re the most diverse nation in the world — it’s not true; there are other diverse countries. But we are diverse, and we also have a high percentage of disadvantaged, low-income kids. And it’s not just low income — it is essential to have both family and government support. The first five years of education are the most impactful, the most important. What is happening with early education? There are a lot of issues that are occurring if children are not receiving quality preschool education, such as that which is that being provided in Japan or Finland, or in South Korea.
There’s another reason, and that is education has not, politically, been the highest priority throughout our history. Teachers and educators are not valued in the US the way they are in Japan, South Korea, and so forth. In South Korea, for example, teachers are paid about double what American teachers are paid in terms of relative dollars, compared to other professions.
Next: How are we defining “being behind in achievement”? We’re using international comparative data on short-term measures such as PISA and TIMSS; those are short-term, what kids have learned in 4th grade, by 8th grade, et cetera, in certain subjects. But if you look at long-term indicators of success that relate back to how kids are educated, the US is doing exceptionally well. We have the world’s top system of higher education, and that can’t occur without a foundation from lower education, from pre-K-12; it simply cannot.
“But if you look at long-term indicators of success that relate back to how kids are educated, the US is doing exceptionally well.”
If you look at economic competitiveness, which is built upon the shoulders of an educated workforce, the US is one of the top countries in the world in providing an environment for innovation. If you look at long-term measures, we are not doing poorly at all. We are still the world leader. Now, we’ve got to do better… we have many flaws with our education system. On the other hand, if you look at long-term measures, we look good.
DR. JAMES STRONGE: One of the things that I’ve found in a study that I’ve been doing on the world’s best school systems is that the best schools figure out what works, what has promise for working, and they stick with it. Japan is a really good example. They determine what innovation they want to invest in, and they will invest in that for maybe a decade or longer, and they stay with it. That’s not the US model.
We think we must have something glitzy every 18 months, and constantly are trying something new. We’re constantly reforming and never changing.
DR. JAMES STRONGE: The intention is to make professional learning impactful. That’s a good thing for certain. But how do we know if all of those attributes will make professional learning impactful? If you could operationally define and document those attributes, is one more powerful than the other? I don’t know. I think a lot of what is being said in ESSA regarding professional learning is still a bit speculative.
DR. JAMES STRONGE: Who cares? If we weren’t getting results from professional learning five years ago, and we’ve decreased it today, that’s probably a smart move. If we’re not getting any better results, stop doing it. I am being only slightly facetious. Of course, professional learning is desirable — but only if it improves teaching and student learning.
DR. JAMES STRONGE: [Districts need to be] more focused on outcomes. Looking at results and never letting up on that is the right thing to do. “Is it making any difference? Does it work?”
DR. JAMES STRONGE: My concern is that we may be just simply cycling back around and talking about the same things again, giving them different titles. If we go back five years previously, it’s not so different than what we’re talking about today. If we go back 10 years ago, 15 years ago, what have we learned and what have we put into practice? Are we any better?
James H. Stronge is President of Stronge and Associates Educational Consulting, LLC, an educational consulting company that focuses on teacher and leader effectiveness with projects internationally and in many U.S. states. Additionally, he is the Heritage Professor in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership Area at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia. His research interests include policy and practice related to teacher quality and teacher and administrator evaluation. His work on teacher quality focuses on how to identify effective teachers and how to enhance teacher effectiveness. Dr. Stronge has presented his research at more than 350 regional, national, and international conferences and conducted workshops for educational organizations throughout the U.S. and internationally. Additionally, he has worked extensively with local school districts on issues related to teacher quality, teacher selection, and teacher and administrator evaluation. Dr. Stronge has been a teacher, counselor, and district-level administrator, and has authored, coauthored, or edited 30 books and more than 150 articles, chapters, and technical reports.
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