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Teaching Matters

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The single most important strategy for achieving America's education goals is to recruit, prepare, and support excellent teachers for every school, concludes a report released last month by a prestigious national commission. Policymakers must embrace what parents have always known, it says: Good teachers are the most important element of successful learning. Instead of being recognized as the linchpin of reform efforts, however, teaching frequently has been ignored.

What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future offers a scathing indictment of current practices, including inadequate teacher education, bureaucratic hiring procedures, and the placement of unqualified teachers in classrooms. The 151-page report is the result of two years of study by the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a 26-member panel chaired by North Carolina Governor James Hunt Jr. and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

"This is not an insiders' report," says Linda Darling-Hammond, the commission's executive director and an authority on the teaching profession at Teachers College, Columbia University. "It doesn't pat everyone on the back and say, 'We're all doing fine, and what we need is more money and respect.' It says we have to get serious about the tough stuff."

Seven states--Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio--have signed on as partners to put the commission's recommendations in place. Each will receive $25,000 to convene the stakeholders whose involvement is necessary to overhaul teaching.

In its report, the commission proposes that by 2006 every student in America be given what it calls a new birthright--a competent, caring, and qualified teacher. It sets the price tag for reaching this goal at nearly $5- billion in new federal, state and local money. Billions more should be reallocated from current expenditures. This money should be spent on upgrading teacher education, subsidizing people to teach in high-need fields and locations, reforming licensing and induction, and creating more focused and effective professional development.

"Our society can no longer accept the hit-or-miss hiring, sink-or-swim induction, trial-and-error teaching, and take-it-or-leave-it professional development it has tolerated in the past," the report says. "What is required is a great national crusade united behind the proposition that competent teaching is a new student right."

This daunting challenge comes at a time of opportunity, the document states. Because of enrollment growth and retirement, the nation's schools will need to hire more than two million teachers in the next 10 years. If policymakers seize the moment, it says, this new generation of teachers can be armed with the knowledge and skills to help students reach ambitious academic goals. Terry Peterson, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard Riley, applauded the report. "This is not something that has a political solution or merits a quick fix," he said. "We have to stick with this for five to 10 years."

The commission urges action in five key areas: setting high standards for teaching; reinventing preparation programs and professional development; overhauling recruitment; developing pay policies to reward teachers' knowledge and skill; and creating schools that are structured so students and teachers can succeed.

Substantial work launched over the last decade has begun to address the serious problems, the report notes. These efforts include the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the development of new standards for teacher licensing. Important policy steps now should be taken to move from "a panoply of individual, disconnected efforts to a coherent system of supports for high-quality teaching," the report says.

But in order to make progress on this agenda, the nation must confront what the commission calls "fatal distractions" that hamper thoughtful, long-range solutions to teacher improvement. Among them are the myths that anyone can teach, that teacher preparation is not much use, that teachers don't work hard enough, that tenure is the problem, and that unions prevent reform. These persistent beliefs, the report says, "substitute bromides and platitudes for the hard work required to improve teaching."

Standards for students and for teachers should undergird efforts to improve teaching, the commission argues. As in other professions, it states, accreditation, licensure, and advanced professional certification should make up a "three-legged stool" of teacher quality. It calls on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to certify 105,000 teachers this decade, enough to put a board-certified teacher in every school.

The report also urges states to create professional standards boards to set rigorous requirements for teaching; to close inadequate education schools and insist that others become nationally accredited; and to license teachers based on demonstrated knowledge and skill rather than accumulated coursework. It endorses moving teacher education to the graduate level, noting that extended programs produce teachers who enter the field and remain in the classroom longer than four-year graduates.

The commission also backs peer-review programs that give practicing teachers responsibility for ensuring that their colleagues are meeting standards. Teachers deemed incompetent, it says, should be removed.

Copies of the report are available for $18 from the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, P.O. Box 5239, Woodbridge, VA 22194-5239. For further information, see the commission's World Wide Web site http://www.tc.columbia.edu/~teachcomm.

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