Wednesday, November 5, 2008


There has been quite a bit of debate about highly qualified teachers (HQT) and I want to share my thoughts on the issue. But, before I do that, some background might help us better understand the HQT debate.

When President George W. Bush entered office in 2001, he launched the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), an education reform initiative influenced by similar initiatives he had introduced as governor of Texas. The basic premise of NCLB is to push for more accountability in education by linking federal funding for school districts to student performance and teacher competence, both of which must be measured by quantifiable data like standardized test scores.

One key requirement of NCLB is that all teachers must be highly qualified teachers by 2010. In the CNMI, the BOE has determined that in order to be HQT, among other things, one must pass the Praxis, a standardized test of content knowledge (i. e. how much teachers know about basic subjects like math and reading). To “motivate” teachers to acquire HQT status, the BOE laid out carrots (i. e. rewards) for teachers that pass the Praxis, and sticks (i. e. penalties) for teachers that fail. In short, if you passed the Praxis, you got a pay raise. If you failed, you got a pay cut.

Critics of HQT and the Praxis have argued that this system of sticks and carrots demoralizes the profession, especially for those who fail the Praxis. These critics point to the Western cultural bias of the Praxis and note that some very smart people are just not good test takers.

Furthermore, some have argued that rather than focus on highly qualified teachers, we should focus on highly effective teachers (HET). The argument goes that just because a teacher knows her subject matter, does not mean that she can teach it well or that students can and will learn it from that teacher. The current Praxis only tests one’s mastery of subject knowledge, but does not test for one’s ability to teach that knowledge.

As one who works closely with my own teachers, I believe that the HQT-HET debate kind of misses the point. Good teaching, and, in turn, good learning, come in many shapes and forms, shapes and forms that cannot and should not be limited to just HQT or HET. Just as good teaching and learning require a multi-faceted assessment that evaluates diverse aspects of student learning, we should use a multi-faceted assessment model of teachers that evaluates the many different aspects of teaching.

To be sure, our teachers should be highly qualified. But we should not limit ourselves to just one measurement instrument, the Praxis. We should consider alternative assessments of a teacher’s qualifications. We could, perhaps, require teachers to maintain current portfolios that reflect the many dimensions of that teacher’s skills, abilities, experience, and education.

Likewise, our teachers should be highly effective. However, we must move beyond standardized tests and use a variety of measurements to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. For example, how many of a teacher’s students participate in an extra-curricular activity? Or how many of a teacher’s students graduate, go off to college, or acquire meaningful employment after graduation? Standardized tests are just one reflection of a teacher’s effectiveness. We must consider all the ways in which a teacher is effective.

Furthermore, how we measure HQT and HET is as important as what we measure. In this regard, perhaps we should balance the end-product—student learning—with the growth process—teacher learning. While I am a big proponent of student learning, I also know that unless a teacher is growing personally and professionally, student learning will not happen. To grow, though, a teacher needs coaching and feedback from supervisors, mentors, peers, and students. For that to happen, we need to make time for principals and master teachers to conduct meaningful classroom observations, and encourage constructive student evaluations of teachers. Just as good assessment is not a penalty but a tool for student learning, good assessment of a teacher should not penalize her. It should help that teacher grow.

Beyond HQT and HET, though, lies the more important benchmark of a great teacher: HPT: Highly Performing Teachers. These are teachers that go above and beyond their lessons to advise extra-curricular activities, tutor students after school, and volunteer to help the school in other ways needed. These are the teachers that honestly assess themselves and are constantly looking for ways to grow and improve in their craft. These are the teachers that make great schools. These are the teachers that we need.

(For more information, check out this great article by Bess Keller for Education Week that reports on a teacher evaluation instrument that's helping teachers improve their craft.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A New Era of Expectations

Now that the fanfare of campaigning, elections, and inaugurations are over, it’s time to get to work. Still, I recall that late Saturday night and early Sunday morning following November 3rd. I’ll admit that I stayed up all night, glued to my T. V., watching all the results come in. To be honest, I was truly surprised by the results, and not just for me. Across the board, the candidates that had the most votes were younger candidates and fresh new faces, which was our community’s way of telling us that it’s high time for meaningful change.

However, while I was (and am) excited, I was (and am) also very scared by the expectations that our community had invested in this “new” generation of elected leaders, including myself.
Expectations can be a curse, especially when they’re too high for anyone to realistically achieve. We are not disappointed by those from whom not much is expected. Those who disappoint us the most are those from whom we expect the most.

For my part, I am humbled by the expectations that this community has invested in me, and I will do everything I can to meet those expectations. I certainly do not want to disappoint anyone.

But perhaps it’s time for a new era of expectations. Rather than expecting so much from government, we should expect more from ourselves.

To be sure, we should expect much from government. We should expect our government to pass legislation that serves the general welfare of our community in a just manner for all--citizens and non-citizens alike. We should expect our government to spend its limited resources on those things that really matter, like education, rather than on things that don’t really matter, like tents and picnic tables.

And you, the public, should expect your public school system to provide the best possible education that it can. You should expect your education officials to lobby more aggressively and effectively for the funding and resources our educators need to do their jobs. You should expect your board of education to do more with less, making the most of our limited resources. And you should expect your board to rise above the fray of petty politics and stay focused on our children’s education.

That said, we, as a community, should expect more from ourselves. In the business sector, I applaud the efforts of organizations like the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors annual scholarships and holds an annual Career Exploration Day. However, I call on the business sector to do more for education and get more involved with our schools. Scholarships and career days only scratch the surface. We need to consider internship and mentorship programs that allow students to earn high school credit while learning from valuable, real-world experience. We should revive Junior Achievement so that our students can rediscover the value of entrepreneurship by running their own companies. And we should bring business leaders to the education round table to help inform and transform our education policy and goals.

In the parent community, I applaud the efforts of our parent-teacher associations, which provide much needed financial assistance and policy input to our schools. But PTA officers can not do everything on their own. All parents need to take an active interest and an active role, not only in their schools, but most especially in their children’s education. Sadly, schools have become surrogate parents for much of our community, and it is all too common to hear of report card nights where less than 10% of parents show up. Parents must always remember that they are the primary educators of their children. Our schools cannot and should not ever take the place of parents. And research shows that when parents work hand-in-hand with schools, students succeed. It is time for all our students to succeed. It is time for all our parents to fulfill their roles as primary educators.

Lastly, I appeal to the student community. I applaud those students who work hard and achieve great things. But I call on all students to do the same. Students must remember that education is not a passive, spectator sport where your teacher does all the work to “teach” you. In fact, I would argue that it’s not about teaching but about learning, and that requires that you do your part as well.

I also call on your student leaders to step up. For example, I honestly wish that the CNMI Youth Congress would do more. Critics have every right to question the legitimacy of funding a Youth Congress that does nothing. I challenge the current Youth Congress to prove those critics wrong. Can you imagine, come budget time, how powerful it would be for Youth Congress Senators to storm the hallways of the CNMI Legislature, lobbying for education?

The youth have power. It’s time to make good use of it.

This is a time of change that carries the heavy burden of high expectations. Indeed, we have many problems that need fixing. However, government should not be the solution to our problems. We should be the solution to our problems.

The bottom line is that education is everyone’s business. It’s definitely my business, and it’s definitely the business of the Board of Education. But, most importantly, speaking to our entire community, it’s your business. And believe me when I say that it’s time to get down to business.