Commission on Teaching Appoints New Leadership at Critical Juncture

By Jeff Archer — November 28, 2001 10 min read
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Tom Carroll has been passed a heavy torch indeed. The National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future named him its new executive director this month, five years after setting the goal of ensuring a “competent, caring, qualified” teacher for every classroom in America by 2006.

As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, the former federal education official comes to the job at a paradoxical period in the country’s quest to upgrade the skills of its teaching force.

The issue has moved to center stage in the policy arena, with heavy-hitting business groups and politicians of all stripes now embracing teacher quality as a top priority. But the tight market for teachers in recent years has spurred many districts to seek new recruits through the kinds of accelerated training programs the commission sees as a major threat to quality. And the commission’s approach itself faces newly organized opposition from groups that support deregulating teacher licensure.

Mr. Carroll says he’s not looking to win a rhetorical debate over the best way to train and recruit teachers. Instead, he predicts, the value of the commission’s blueprint for change will be proved in the next few years as more states and districts move to carry out its recommendations.

“I think in education we tend to get into an atmosphere in which every public discussion becomes an argument or a war, and I don’t think it’s productive to pursue that,” he said. “I’m looking for ways to build a consensus around the priorities that the commission has established, and I’m looking for ways to test those priorities in action.”

A New ‘Road Map’

Launched in 1994 with money from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the national commission two years later offered a scathing assessment of the state of the teaching profession in the United States with its influential report, “What Matters Most.”

At the outset, officials in seven states signed on to work with the commission to find ways to carry out its proposals for retooling the way teachers are trained, licensed, and supported in their jobs. Since then, the list of “partner states” has grown to 19. The organization—based at Columbia University’s Teachers College—also started a similar district-level initiative that now includes nine school systems.

“When the commission first took on this issue, I thought we would do this report and that would be it,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, its former executive director.

“But what we discovered was there was much more demand for ongoing work on this agenda,” said Ms. Darling-Hammond, who stepped down to devote more time to her work as an education professor at Stanford University and to help run a charter school in East Palo Alto, Calif.

The commission’s imprint can be seen in many of the strategies put in place by its partners. Last year, Washington state established a “professional- standards board,” made up mostly of educators, that’s leading an effort to devise new teacher-licensing tests. Starting next fall, Ohio districts will be required to provide extensive coaching to all new teachers, who will also be evaluated on their performance in the classroom before earning a full teaching credential.

And like many other states working with the commission, Maryland has enacted requirements that teacher-preparation programs become nationally accredited, and that educators who earn National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification receive salary stipends. The national board recognizes educators who pass a voluntary, yearlong assessment of their skills.

“The commission gave us a sort of road map for the first time to look at what we were doing to create a cohesive strategy for ratcheting up the quality of teaching in Maryland,” said Lawrence E. Leak, an assistant state superintendent in Maryland.

As just one sign that the commission’s influence has spread to the national level as well, the National Alliance of Business early this year led a coalition of business groups in unveiling a campaign for new policies aimed at improving teacher quality. Many of its strategies, outlined in a report called “Investing in Teaching,” draw on the commission’s plan.

“I think it’s been a real mark of the commission’s impact and a credit to its work with a lot of other groups that now there’s a broad consensus that quality teaching matters,” Mr.Carroll said.

Supply Problems

On many scores, though, the status of teaching still is a mixed bag. Last week, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards announced that some 6,500 new teachers had earned its certification. The record-high annual increase brings the total to 16,030. But it remains uncertain if the commission’s goal of having at least one such teacher for each of the country’s 105,000 public schools can be met in five more years.

While the growth has been propelled by new financial incentives, a state budget impasse recently led Virginia to cut drastically its bonuses to board-certified teachers.

Also, the number of schools and colleges of education that meet the commission’s recommendation of being approved by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, has grown from about 481 to 535 since “What Matters Most” came out; another 100 programs are seeking such status. But more than half the country’s teacher-preparation programs still are unaccredited.

In some places, meanwhile, the situation is worsening. Take New York state, where officials decreed three years ago that by 2003, they would no longer issue “temporary licenses,” which allow teacher recruits to begin working without having met the state’s initial requirements. Since the 1998-99 school year, the number of New York teachers with such licenses has risen from 14,218 to 16,151.

In California, where an ambitious class-size-reduction plan further added to the need for new teachers, the number of teachers working under similar permits grew from 18,600 in 1996 to 39,000 in 2000.

“One of the ironies is that in a number of states, they’ve raised the standard for getting a license, so there are more people coming in meeting high standards than ever before,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said. “However, they’ve also increased the loopholes.”

Many blame the law of supply and demand. Record-high levels of student enrollment, coupled with a wave of teacher retirements, have squeezed attempts to hire only qualified teachers. The commission also faults a lack of political will.

“What I think the commission did not anticipate was the degree to which teachers’ salaries would be unresponsive to market conditions, and that policymakers would be unable or unwilling to pay what would be necessary,” said Arthur E. Wise, a commission member and NCATE’s president.

Given economic realities, though, some states and districts have sought answers in strategies that run counter to those the national commission promotes.

The past two years have seen a proliferation of programs modeled after Teach For America, through which non-education majors from highly competitive colleges are recruited and trained over the summer before receiving their first teaching assignments. One of the largest TFA-inspired efforts so far has been used by the New York City school system, itself a commission partner, to hire some 1,500 recent college graduates and recruits from other professions.

Under Ms. Darling-Hammond, the national commission has been one of the harshest critics of such fast tracks into the profession. The concern stems from the view that, in addition to a solid background in their academic subjects, new teachers need ample training in instructional methods.

“At the core is the belief that there is a knowledge base for effective teaching,” Mr. Wise said, “and that it is important that new teachers have it, and demonstrate it, before they are licensed.”

Commission officials acknowledge the need for alternative paths into teaching, but maintain that the Teach For America model puts novices on the job too soon and without enough continuing guidance to ensure success.

From the beginning, the commission has argued that traditional teacher-training programs should be improved, not skirted. In “What Matters Most,” the group even called for shuttering schools of education whose graduates fail to meet state teaching standards.

But many policymakers and experts say that current teacher- preparation programs still aren’t producing enough graduates willing to work where they’re needed: in urban and rural schools and in subjects plagued by shortages, particularly mathematics, science, technology, and special education.

In Georgia, for instance, recent reports show that the state’s colleges and universities graduated 3,800 teacher-candidates this year, but its schools had to hire nearly 11,800 recruits. Georgia, also a commission partner, launched a statewide accelerated teacher-training initiative this summer to address the problem.

“There’s no way they can meet the needs with conventional approaches,” said Jim Watts, a vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

A Different Premise

At the same time, new organizations have begun to pit their own ideas about teacher quality squarely against those of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. A central premise for such alternative groups is that the best way to tackle the problem is to lift the barriers to entering the profession, not to create new ones.

“What NCTAF wants to give to America is more regulation and bureaucracy, and we have a decade of experience that shows that that will not get us better teachers,” contended Michael B. Poliakoff, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Mr. Poliakoff’s group, which bills itself as “America’s leading source of common sense on teacher quality,” is highly critical of current state teacher-licensing requirements, which the council says offer little guarantee of yielding teachers who are successful in the classroom. Instead, the group suggests that principals be given wide latitude in hiring, and that teachers be evaluated based on gains made in their students’ test scores.

“The faster we get away from the idea that dictating inputs will dictate results,” Mr. Poliakoff said, “the faster we will get to having a competent, caring, qualified professional in every classroom.”

Adding deeds to its words, his organization last month announced that it has begun work on a new teacher-evaluation system with the help of a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Called the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, the venture will assess teachers mostly on their performance on standardized tests and on their ability to raise student performance. The measures it will use to do so are under development.

Into this thicket has stepped Mr. Carroll, whose résumé sharply contrasts with that of his predecessor as the national commission’s executive director.

Ms. Darling-Hammond has been an education professor, a RAND Corp. researcher, and a classroom teacher. Mr. Carroll, 56, is a cultural anthropologist by training, and has never taught at the K-12 level. He’s spent most of the past 20 years managing grant programs at the Education Department. Most recently, he ran the federal agency’s Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers for Technology initiative, which underwrites projects aimed at infusing the latest technology into teacher training.

“Linda has been a real policy thinker, a prolific writer on these issues, and she’s set a very strong agenda,” said Mr. Carroll, who plans to stay in the Washington area while running the New York- based commission. “I’m a much more action-oriented person.”

The commission’s new leader wants to throw more energy into parts of the organization’s plan that he thinks haven’t gotten enough attention. Specifically, he says schools need to be restructured to promote professional growth. To do that, he plans to explore new ways to use the Internet. But on the mainstays of the commission’s framework, Mr. Carroll plans no retreat, and he shares the group’s long-standing concerns about fast-track routes into teaching.

“I don’t think the priorities of the framework need to be modified,” he said. “But within the framework, we need to do some work.”


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