How can we ensure better teacher quality?

I’m a big fan of the New York Times’ Room for Debate series, in which a central question is asked of five different folks.

Today, the question was about how to ensure and improve teacher quality. And although they didn’t ask me, here’s what I would have said:

The problem — and the solution — has to do with the way teachers are currently trained and prepared for the classroom. Most teacher preparation programs, whether they’re public universities or private organizations, still act as though what matters most is subject expertise and behavioral management skills.  Those things do matter, of course, yet most of the new teachers I know have said they felt unprepared for the actual challenges of the classroom, and for understanding how to meet the myriad needs of her students. As a result, it’s typical to hear stories of young teachers spending late nights reading books or searching for resources online – a result of the sizable disconnect between our theories and their realities.

The amount of turnover most schools endure is also anathema to the establishment of a healthy, sustainable culture. Take the two schools I spent a year observing for my most recent book, Our School. Bancroft Elementary lost an average of 25% of its faculty every year, and Mundo Verde’s inaugural staff was almost entirely made up of first- or second-year teachers. More significantly, by the time Our School was released, only one of the four teachers I wrote about – Mundo Verde’s Berenice Pernalete – was still teaching at the same school. Rebecca Lebowitz is now in Boston, getting her PhD; Molly Howard is there now, too, helping set up the elementary school program for a charter school in the Expeditionary Learning network; and Rebecca Schmidt is now working at a non-profit in D.C. It’s encouraging that all four of these talented women still work in education – and it’s notable that the reason three of them left their previous posts was because each felt it had become impossible to do the job effectively and sustainably. And no wonder, when one considers that teachers today are being asked to customize their instruction for every individual child, and do so with minimal experience or relevant training. “If you are a student in an American classroom today,” writes Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, “the odds that you will be assigned to an inexperienced teacher are higher than they have ever been. In fact, right now there are more first-year teachers in American classrooms than teachers at any other experience level.”

The response to this “capacity gap” is not to stop hiring the young teachers or keep employing the old ones, but to start ensuring that all teachers can diagnose and meet the developmental needs of every child. And the good news is there are already valuable models we can look to as our guides.

Take America’s medical schools. As any M.D. knows, different schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.

In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs give short shrift to the two most important things a teacher needs to know: how children learn, and how they develop.

Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach. But there’s nothing preventing teacher-training programs from adapting the Medical School model – as Yale University’s James Comer has suggested – and establishing a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Developmental Sciences, which would give teachers a foundation in the cognitive, social, emotional, ethical, physical, and linguistic needs of children; and Learning Sciences, which would give teachers a solid foundation in understanding how people learn.

Meanwhile, to better support the millions of teachers who are already in classrooms across the country, we must craft evaluation programs that honor the art and science of teaching. One of the few things all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.

In too many places, however, efforts are underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up, and they continue to act as though the intellectual growth of students (and a narrow definition of it at that) is the preeminent measure of an effective teacher.

We should blow them all up and start over.

A prerequisite of any evaluation system should be its capacity to help teachers improve the quality of their professional practice via shared, strategic inquiry into what is and isn’t working for children in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative reports, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And they should assess teachers by their effectiveness to support children across the entire developmental continuum.

There are several illustrative efforts underway. If you’re a policymaker, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a program called Peer Assistance Review, or PAR, uses senior teachers to mentor both newcomers and struggling veterans. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (nbpts.org), a teacher-run organization that uses a performance-based, multiple-measure, peer-reviewed process to identify and acknowledge the definitive standards of accomplished teaching and the process by which the profession can certify whether or not a teacher meets those standards.

It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.

We can do both. And we can start immediately.

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