Actionable solutions for Improving teacher quality

We need teachers to be good and we need them to stick around and continue to be good. Education can’t improve unless this happens. Most of what I read or hear about education reform doesn’t directly address how to pursue these goals on a large scale.

Waiting for Superman told me that unionized labor is the great bureaucratic evil in schools. Michelle Rhee told me that bad teachers are ruining children’s lives. Michael Bloomberg just told me that you don’t need to know anything about public education in order to be in charge of it. Most newspaper articles about schools tell me that student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and high-stakes test scores are all the same thing.

The conventional wisdom is off-base, and it’s distressing and disheartening. I don’t see these messages helping teachers to get good and then stick around.

A new report from the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), though, addresses this keystone issue head on, and it’s a must-read. Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System that Students and Teachers Deserve lays out the real-on-the-ground issues that constrain teachers from reaching their potential and that push them out of the profession. More importantly, it offers an array of clear-eyed solutions.

More than 17 percent of the U. S. Department of Education’s budget— $7.3 billion— is spent addressing teacher turnover. While many would-be great teachers drain out of the system, so too does important budget dollars. Investing in better conditions for teaching and learning makes common sense and dollars and cents.

So what does CTQ and its team of 14 teacher/researcher/authors from across the country suggest? There whole report demands to be read (and it’s a clear, enjoyable read), but here are a few incisive excerpts on curriculum, a topic that often gets the short shrift in the discussion teacher quality. My comments are italicized.

Schools and districts should…

  • Offer students opportunities to pursue curricula that are relevant and rigorous.

In the push for improving student test scores (a misbegotten pursuit) teachers are pressed to just try harder and be better (a misbegotten means). In so many cases, teachers are forced to work with stale or scripted curricula that don’t best build students’ capacities. I doubt many defenders of scripted curricula would stand for their children to sit through them. A quality curriculum— what the students are actually experiencing— is everything. The most dynamic and innovative teacher in the world slams into a pretty low ceiling for student learning if the classroom is saddled by rote drilling, test prep, or a bad textbook. 

Teachers should…

  • Have the opportunity to make decisions about instruction in their classrooms and schools in order to reach students with diverse and unique needs.

If you can’t trust teachers to lead their classrooms, you can’t be serious about improving education. Period. Attempts to standardize classrooms on a large scale with scripts and rigidly codified scheduled are counterproductive. Schools and classrooms aren’t about product and profits. They are human places with human leaders. In order for students to learn and unlock their potential, they need their leaders empowered to learn and unlock their own potential as well.

 School and district administrators should…

  • Be accountable for ensuring teachers are in teaching assignments for which they were prepared, and have opportunities to develop the skills they need to meet new pedagogical challenges.

This is a key idea that doesn’t get much air time at all. Playing out of position isn’t a recipe for success for teachers, although Michael Bloomberg seems to think it works for corporate executives. Anecdotally, over the course of my career I’ve spoken with a handful of teachers who have been consciously banished by administrators into uncomfortable teaching assignments. They hate teaching unfamiliar subjects or age groups and typically leave the profession or become so disillusioned that their teaching potential goes unrealized. This shouldn’t happen.

When I was a first-year teacher, the unofficial ritual at my Bronx elementary school was trial-by-fire. I left that school after a year. I had potential at the time to grow as a teacher, but the working conditions at the school flattened me. If the school had been an environment that embraced the TeacherSolutions in this report, I am confident that the school would be a much more successful learning environment for the kids, and a place with significantly less attrition and greater institutional knowledge.

The report also presses for expanded access to urban teacher residency programs, an induction into the teaching profession that works. (More on that in a future post.)

Enough from me. Go read this report!