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Good schools need good teachers, and here's how to get them

The criteria for judging achievement are out there, and simply need to be applied.

Good teachers are wonderful. Most of us look back on our education and reserve a special spot for the best teachers we experienced.

Myrtle Sherman from Patten was such a teacher for me.

Ms. Sherman taught French at Cape Elizabeth High School in the '50s and '60s. She was a fearsome force in the classroom – autocratic, demanding and abrupt. Hers was not a class that one went to unprepared. I remember classmates on the verge of tears and rumor had it that "Madame," as she was called, had the same effect on parents who complained that she assigned too much homework.

She was difficult, but boy could she teach. I learned so much from Madame Sherman – and not just about French. She set high expectations and, to our surprise, we found we could achieve them.

I saw my own children find such teachers in the Cumberland school system. We have some wonderfully talented teachers in Maine and their competence and dedication makes a big difference.

We need to reward and support such teachers. We also need to develop more of them. One of the most exciting things about K-12 education these days is that we now have available the data and information that allows better feedback to teachers on what works. We also have more practical research on how to be a better teacher.

The son of one of Sally's college classmates is the principal of a highly successful charter school in Washington, D.C. Their success has come from a data-driven approach that tracks the progress of each student on important development outcomes such as reading or mathematics proficiency.

The principal meets regularly with each of his teachers and reviews individual student progress, discussing teaching approaches that will be most effective in each student's situation. In this setting, both teacher and principal have a good sense of how effective the teacher is and what he or she can do to continue to improve.

It is a powerful system. This principal develops a specific sense of how effective each of the teachers is in a collaborative and professional way. Most teachers in this environment learn and grow.

A few find they are not as effective as they need to be. They typically decide to leave, sometimes with nudging from the principal, most times simply as a result of mutual understanding. As this is a charter school, the principal does have both hiring and firing ability – a significant advantage in his ability to lead and motivate.

The teacher and student development approach our friend uses so successfully with inner city youth in the District is how all K-12 education should work.

Central to it is a clear and agreed-upon set of data and assessments that indicate how much progress each student is making, good teacher follow-up and a collaborative approach to assessing teacher effectiveness.

The best news is that such data and information are available. What is missing is having principals and teacher-leaders who are trained and confident in working on the down and dirty details of assessing the progress of each student.

What is also missing is a flexible enough assessment system to motivate teachers to embrace this work and use it to improve their practice.

The first issue, that of trained principals, is being addressed by national groups such as New Leaders for New Schools. The second issue is far more contentious. Many states are addressing it by making student results a significant part of teacher evaluation. This is promising and appropriate, but more is needed.

It is time to rethink the issue of teacher tenure. It is outdated and has become a significant block to achieving better student results. What we need is a system that encourages teacher and principal to work together but also is flexible enough to allow outplacement if a teacher is not effective. The irony of having this power is that it is unlikely to be needed very often because the absence of tenure adds additional incentive for teachers to improve their practice.

In Maine, we have thrown all kinds of resources at K-12 education over the past 20 years with disappointing results. Data-driven approaches provide new insight. We need to give them a chance to work by addressing teacher tenure.

Changing Maine's current law to allow evaluation for teachers that includes student results and defines a clear exit path for teachers who do not measure up should be a priority of the LePage administration.

It will provide the single most effective gateway to better student performance.