Why improvement efforts often fall short (despite good intentions)

This post originally appeared on the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s blog, Thoughts on Public Education.

Recently, I visited innovative charter schools in the Bay Area. At one school, physical spaces and teachers’ schedules are designed to encourage collaboration. Another school involves community organizations and parents in student learning during and after the school day. One is well stocked with technology. At another, teachers take on leadership roles.

And yet, everywhere I looked I noticed elements that didn’t quite connect. I saw missed opportunities to boost student learning. One of the schools gestured toward important ideas, but because of the lack of experienced teacher leaders, missed the mark when it came to implementing them. The other one greatly valued teacher leaders, but still had a long way to go in spreading teaching expertise from one classroom to another.

This points to a truth that is tough for reformers to swallow: America’s schools will be transformed only when we tackle the complexities of teaching and learning. We can’t rely on isolated policies or initiatives to sustain a highly functioning school. Few, if any, innovations can be implemented successfully over time unless other interlocking set of elements are in place—connected by  collaboration (not competition) among universities, school districts, charter networks, and nonprofits.

What I saw

So where do we start? Here are two situations I observed during my investigation:

  • School A is known for “blended learning.” Yet there was little pedagogical coherence between how teachers taught in a regular classroom and how students were expected to learn in a high-tech lab staffed by low-cost tutors. School A teachers, who tended to have only a few years of experience and little clinical preparation, had limited interaction with the lab tutors. It was unclear whether many teachers were familiar with the technological tools so central to their school’s identity.
  • School B is known for hiring new recruits who have extensive clinical preparation. Teachers know how to differentiate instruction and work with second language learners. But School B’s teachers did not always know how to effectively analyze student learning data and needed more training in how to use the collaborative planning time wisely provided to them (approximately two hours a day).

What would help connect the dots in these schools – and all schools? Teacher preparation programs could lead the way by readying pre-service teachers for a transformed public school system.

Accountability for teacher preparation programs

Recently, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that too many education schools are “not up to the job.” He highlighted recruitment and accountability as key areas for improvement, and noted that few of today’s programs offer “rigorous, clinical experience that prepares future teachers for the realities of today’s diverse classrooms.”

And then there are the emergent realities of tomorrow’s classrooms—which few teacher preparation programs are adequately addressing. For example, tomorrow’s teachers will likely need to teach students who are “digital natives,” spread their expertise to colleagues through collaboration and leadership, connect families with community resources, and develop and use sophisticated assessments to measure student progress.

The federal government should hold teacher preparation programs accountable – but should look at more than the twentieth-century standardized tests currently in place. For example, what if teacher preparation programs (whether university-based or “alternative”) were judged on how long their graduates remained in the classroom, working effectively as leaders in schools and communities? What if programs were assessed on how well their graduates used student data to improve instruction? What if the accountability system considered graduates’ abilities to provide effective blended learning opportunities?

My organization, the Center for Teaching Quality, works with thousands of teachers nationwide to improve the teaching profession and our nation’s schools. Later this month, talented teachers who are part of our Bay Area New Millennium Initiative team will release a report with specific recommendations about how to ensure new teachers are ready for their roles. Watch for it!