This op-ed was originally posted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet.
By Linda Darling-Hammond and Michael Honda
It is no secret that U.S. educational outcomes have fallen behind those of many other nations, in large part because of the yawning achievement gap between rich and poor students. This achievement gap is more appropriately understood as an opportunity gap, fed both by our growing poverty rates for children — now by far the highest in the industrialized world — and by unequal educational resources across schools.
This week the U.S. Department of Education released a historic report — “For Each and Every Child” — written by a congressionally appointed Commission on Equity and Excellence that one of us helped to launch (Honda) and on which the other of us served.(Darling-Hammond). The commission’s charge was to identify how to eliminate disparities in educational opportunities that give rise to the achievement gap, and to recommend ways in which federal policies can offer solutions.
In addition to reforms of school funding and investments in preschool education and other services children need to be ready to learn, the report focuses heavily on how to ensure that teachers can enable our diverse student body meet 21st century standards of learning. These measures go far beyond the current obsession on teacher evaluation, which cannot, by itself, ensure that teachers have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful.
Unfortunately, current federal policy focuses on identifying teacher deficits, rather than building up a vibrant, highly qualified and competent teaching corps. To build up an effective teaching workforce, therefore, it is clear that teacher preparation — even more than evaluation — may matter most for meeting the 21st century learning needs. For those concerned with the quality of educators coming into America’s public schools, we recommend three policy proposals to revolutionize the teaching profession. The first recommendation is to create a national talent strategy initiative that targets potential teachers into the profession and then retains them in the classroom as career educators.
Next, the rigor of clinical preparation programs needs to be ramped up and include a one-year teacher residency combining practice with pedagogy. Last, salaries have to be competitive with those of other career fields so that prospective candidates can consider teaching as a viable career option.
First, to recruit and retain quality teachers, we need policies that incentivize a diverse and vibrant pool of talented and committed individuals to become teachers. Top-performing Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries like Finland, Singapore, and South Korea recruit top candidates through a rigorous selection process and pay for their preparation. By investing heavily on the front-end of the educational system, these high-achieving countries create a highly vetted, prepared, and skilled teaching workforce. Not surprisingly, their children rank among the top in international math and science scores.
America should be making at least an equivalent investment in the quality of preparation our teachers receive. A National Talent Strategy should become a major priority to help identify and underwrite the preparation of top candidates. Investing in their training will pay dividends further down the road.
Second, America’s national education policy should include comprehensive clinical preparation, including a one-year residency at a school site, much like the training doctors receive in teaching hospitals associated with their medical schools. These programs, offering guidance and feedback from successful master teachers to complement coursework on teaching, would be nationally accredited based on their ability to produce quality teachers through program models that emphasize research and practice. Specialized residency programs could also focus on training teachers who plan to work with low-income, limited English proficiency, and other populations of students with particular needs.
Where such professional development schools already exist, entering teachers are better prepared, more effective, and more likely to stay in the profession, because of their greater expertise and content knowledge. If America’s clinical teacher preparation programs were highly competitive, rigorous and thoroughly vetted, teachers would be entering the classroom expertly trained, in a fashion comparable to doctors who have completed residency programs.
Finally, the salary of classroom teachers needs to be competitive with that of other professions. For doctors, engineers, and lawyers, attractive starting pay and societal respect beckon young adults into their new fields of work. However, despite the importance of their work, American teachers earn only 60 percent as much as other college graduates — much less than teachers abroad — and often enter the profession with a mountain of educational debt. By removing the financial hurdles facing teaching candidates and subsidizing high-quality clinical preparation, America can persuade talented people to enter teaching and help them develop and hone their skills. By making these commitments to teacher preparation and retention, America will be equipping and supporting career educators to thrive in their increasingly diverse classrooms.
As a first step toward this goal, Rep. Honda (CA) and Sen. Jack Reed (RI) recently introduced the Educator Preparation Reform Act. This bill creates a one-year residency program for teachers and principals through the Teacher Quality Partnership Grants found in the Higher Education Act. This clinical teaching residency will allow novice teachers to be mentored by master teachers and to collaborate with peers. By increasing collaboration among universities, high needs schools, and community organizations, the Educator Preparation Reform Act will create successful clinical teacher preparation sites and an educator workforce who will remain committed to their community’s schools and students.
If the American public sees education as an investment in children and communities, then the educational policies of our nation must place a high value on a skilled and committed teaching profession. Americans must view teaching not only as a noble vocation, but one for which the preparation and compensation are commensurate with the challenges teachers and our children face. Just as our society expects the highly able, intensively-trained people to go into important professions such as medicine, so too should we expect the best and brightest to be the well-prepared teachers to whom we entrust our children. Our investment in this critical cause will ultimately contribute to a thriving 21st century economy that is driven by the graduates of excellent and equitable public schools.