Conceptions of Teacher Effectiveness and Its Implications for Educational Policy and Practice in the United States

Conceptions of Teacher Effectiveness and Its Implications for Educational Policy and Practice in the United States

James H. Stronge (School of Education, William & Mary, USA), Xianxuan Xu (Virginia Department of Education, USA), Leslie W. Grant (School of Education, William & Mary, USA), Yanping Mo (School of Education, William & Mary, USA) and Ke Huang (School of Education, William & Mary, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7908-4.ch010
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This chapter provides an overview of the educational system from the founding of the country to today. Like Australia and Canada, the governmental structure involves the national government with smaller units in the form of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This structure means variation of educational systems across governmental units. The authors provide an overview of the influence of conceptions of teaching effectiveness including the development of professional organization standards, passing of national legislation aimed at defining teacher effectiveness in terms of student outcomes, and standards-based teacher evaluation systems. Unique features of the United States perspective include a focus on differentiation to include getting to know the needs of individual students and meeting those individual needs. The authors describe the cultural basis for these unique features.
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Background: How Education in the United States Is Structured

In order to understand teacher effectiveness in the United States, first, it’s important to understand background and the organizational structure of education in America. When we consider educational policies and practices in the U.S. on almost any issue and, specifically as it applies to our discussion of effective teaching in this chapter, the creation of American education must be taken into consideration. Public schooling was embraced even before America became a nation. The Puritans who landed in 1620 and settled the Massachusetts colony provided rudimentary free public schools shortly after the colony began to be settled. Each of the other colonies made similar efforts, but at varying times and in varying ways, some of which were under the guidance of the prominent religion in the colony (e.g., Catholic education in Maryland) and others that were provided in the form of private schooling (often only for boys). What is interesting for our discussion here is that education was embraced by the new states following independence from England and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, but in varying forms and under the auspices of the individual states – not the federal government. Thus, from the very beginning, education was – and remains – a highly segmented and individualistic enterprise. And this individualism continues to reflect the values and culture that influence how education is conceived, organized, and provided, including for all matters related to teachers and teaching.

America doesn’t have one single educational system; it has at least 51. Each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and various U.S. territories, exercise their legal prerogative to establish, design, and operate the public, government-supported, school organization that it deems to be most appropriate within its jurisdiction. The legal foundation for this level of diversity and individualization arises from what the United States Constitution does not say – that is, the Constitution doesn’t communicate a single word directly related to education, public or private. And in this silence, specifically as it applies to the 50 U.S. states, the Constitution’s 10th Amendment holds precedent for control of American public education:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

As each U.S. state was created, through its own state constitutional and legislative processes, it developed its own unique brand of public schooling. The only substantially limiting factor outside the control of the individual states is that state functions - including education - must comply with equal protection of the laws and due processes of the laws (U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV). In essence, if a state deems in its wisdom to provide public education (which all 50 U.S. states, of course, do provide), it must do so with fair and equal treatment of all its citizens. Thus, within this decentralized model of state control, the role of our federal government primarily plays a supporting role in our public schools.

Even beyond the decentralized state-by-state educational model that defines the legal framework for American education, operationally, most of the states have chosen to create local school districts1 within their boundaries.2 For instance, based on data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (U.S. Department of Education, 2018-2019), on the upper end California provides 2,134 districts, Texas 1,230, and Illinois 1,056; on the lower end Maryland operates 25 school districts, Nevada 21, and Hawaii 1. Depending of the authority delegated by a given state constitution or its state laws, the approximately 13,598 school districts nationwide function with a degree of decision-making and local autonomy, even within their own states.3

Added to the above state-local school district configuration, there are more than 32,000 private schools enrolling about 5 million students, accounting for approximately a tenth of all K-12 schools, in the U.S. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Further, it is estimated that more than 1.6 million school-age children are homeschooled and, thus, not enrolled in public or private schools (Redford et al., 2017).

So what does this organizational picture of American education paint? And the answer is one of state and local government autonomy, parental choice, and wide variability in the design and delivery of American K-12 education. This focus on variability and individualized choice carries over to virtually all facets of K-12 education, including matters related to teachers, including teacher training and licensure, teacher employment, teacher development, teacher evaluation, and, ultimately, teacher quality.

Despite the clear and undeniable control of education resting at the state – and not the federal – level, there is a paradox in the operation of American public policy that gives the federal government leverage to strongly influence the direction of schools in each of the states. While each individual state has a great deal of latitude in designing and implementing its practices related to schooling, including in matters of teacher effectiveness (e.g., licensure, evaluation), the states are still required to fulfill certain requirements from the federal government if the states accept funding that includes various mandates. For example, the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESSA), first enacted in 1965 and reauthorized multiple times since, has attached to it billions of dollars each year that are made available to states IF they embrace the requirements of the Act (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1965).

As another example of federal influence on educational policy and practice across all U.S. states is the highly influential report, A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). The report asserted that American schools were failing and, if left unchecked, the end result would be catastrophic for America’s prosperity and success as a nation. A Nation at Risk was released during President Reagan’s administration almost 40 years ago, but the influence of the report still reverberates across educational decision making today, particularly, as it relates to the importance of quality schools and quality teachers. This report led to significant reform efforts in America’s public schools. Now, four decades later, the concerns expressed are never far from the thinking and decision making of politicians, policy makers, educational leaders, and the general public regarding American education.

As reflected in these examples, the federal government has carved out a way for directly influencing the design and operation of schools throughout the country. We will see later in the chapter how this federal approach to intervention in the educational policies and practices of states plays out in terms of teacher effectiveness issues.

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