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Op-Ed: Somerset ISD model for teacher development

San Antonio Express News
March 26, 2015

By Hugh Fitzsimons 

According to the Texas Education Agency, 297 public schools in Texas have been failing for two or more consecutive years. Almost 150,000 children are trapped in those schools — 9,249 of them in 20 schools in San Antonio, where we are also battling huge performance gaps between Anglo students and minority students.

We must address these problems with various strategies, but in my experience working on education reform efforts for many years, nothing has more impact on a child’s performance than a good teacher. We know this intuitively, and recent research has confirmed that up to 60 percent of a student’s performance can be directly linked to the quality of his or her teacher. Research also shows that a good teacher can offset the impact of socioeconomic status.

Of course, while an excellent teacher can advance a student’s learning at an accelerated pace, a poor teacher can slow or even erase student gains.

Under Texas law, teachers get little feedback, going as long as five years without evaluations. Professional development opportunities are often one-size-fits-all, with little emphasis on the teacher’s needs or instructional best practices. And salaries are controlled by a rigid tenure-based salary structure dictated by the state. No one believes this is effective.

The good news is that we have an award-winning model for teacher development in our area. Somerset Independent School District, a predominantly Hispanic rural district, just received a TAP award from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching for its development and evaluation program.

Responding to low academic ratings, Somerset launched a teacher development and evaluation program exceeding state requirements. Teachers receive ongoing staff development, including a weekly conference period where an observer and another teacher provide feedback and map out a plan with options that can be employed in the classroom. Teachers are evaluated formally four times a year, with their development and pay scale determined by several factors, including student educational growth and observation.

Teachers and administrators support this program, leading to increases in academic ratings and teacher retention rates.

Within one school year, bilingual students improved from 57 percent proficient to 68 percent proficient across all subjects. The limited English proficient students writing scores improved from 33 percent to 68 percents. When districts such as Somerset invest in meaningful teacher development initiatives, students benefit.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, have introduced legislation to allow districts to institute their own teacher evaluation programs as long as they evaluate teachers at least once a year and include objective measures of student growth. The legislation maintains the current minimum salary for teachers but leaves districts free to design and administer their own compensation and teacher development plans.

Texas was once a pioneer in teacher innovation and accountability, but we haven’t kept up. Teacher evaluation and development reform will help Texas assure every child has an effective teacher.

Hugh Fitzsimons of San Antonio is a member of the Texans for Education Reform board of directors.