Education Opinion

Investing in Teaching

By Linda Darling-Hammond — May 27, 1998 9 min read
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We still have a long way to go, but the subject of teacher quality has climbed to the top of the reform agenda.

This spring, a mother in Las Vegas talking with other parents about Nevada’s proposed academic standards for students put her concerns this way: “My advice regarding the setting of standards is to make sure the teachers are capable of teaching them. Include something that tests teachers’ skills and abilities.”

We hear comments like this all the time. And we agree. If students are to learn more, teachers must have both the subject-matter knowledge and the teaching skills required to help their students reach higher standards.

Twenty months ago, the bipartisan National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future--a 26-member panel of governors, legislators, business and community leaders, and educators--issued a set of recommendations designed to provide every student with a teacher who is competent and qualified. Those recommendations are taking root across the country.

The commission assembled research that clearly demonstrates what many American parents already believe: Teacher quality is the factor that matters most for student learning. The Las Vegas mother’s common-sense argument for well-prepared teachers is supported by extensive data demonstrating the connection between good teachers and improved student achievement.

And, study after study shows that while teachers make the most profound difference in student achievement, poor and minority students are far less likely to have access to qualified teachers--a major source of unequal achievement.

Not only does teacher education matter, but more teacher education appears to be better than less--particularly when it includes well-constructed practical experiences interwoven with coursework on curriculum, learning, and teaching. Recent studies of redesigned teacher education programs--those that offer a five-year program including an extended internship--find their graduates are more successful and more likely to enter and remain in teaching than graduates of traditional undergraduate programs.

Despite the obvious importance of teacher knowledge, U.S. school systems provide too few teachers with the opportunity to fully master the subjects they teach and develop a range of teaching strategies that can reach all of their students.

In its 1996 report, “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future,” the commission found a teaching profession suffering from years of neglect, including:

  • Slipshod recruitment, with few supports for getting well-qualified teachers into the jobs that are available;
  • Uneven teacher training in colleges that often treat schools of education as “cash cows,” providing too little preparation in content and effective teaching methods and too little linkage between theory and practice;
  • Sink-or-swim induction of new teachers, who rarely receive mentoring and are routinely assigned to the most difficult classrooms; and
  • Outdated systems for evaluating, rewarding, and developing teachers, which fail to ensure quality or reward excellence and which reflect little consensus about what most people would consider good teaching.

The commission offered a practical set of recommendations that included setting standards for teachers linked to higher academic standards for students; more-rigorous preparation of teachers still in college and professional development for veteran teachers on the job; rewards for expert teachers; improvement or removal of incompetent teachers; and schools redesigned to support student and teacher learning.

The commission argued that if reforms are to work and students are to learn to higher standards, we need a system full of skillful teachers and schools that support high-quality teaching and learning.

Since the report was issued, the extent and quality of those investments have improved, and they are being made with more information about what matters and what works. We still have a long way to go, but the subject of teacher quality has climbed to the top of the education reform agenda. Every promising practice described by the commission is being used in at least some places. The challenge, we believe, is to turn those promising practices into a system of supports for teaching that become the norm everywhere rather than the exception in rare places.

Consider a few accomplishments:

  • A partnership of a dozen states and seven local districts has been working with the commission and with each other to put together all the pieces of the teacher-improvement puzzle, starting with an analysis of their own needs and developing strategies that are locally appropriate. They are improving teaching quality through a comprehensive rather than a piecemeal approach.
  • More than 20 states have enacted significant new laws based on the commission’s recommendations. Some, such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Arkansas, passed omnibus legislation. Others, such as California, Maryland, and Montana, passed laws making important but less sweeping changes.
  • The U.S. Congress is considering a number of bills to improve teaching, including substantial investments in teacher recruitment and training, and the creation of professional-development school partnerships. The U.S. Department of Education invested $35 million in two major research and development centers organized around the commission’s recommendations.
  • Many of the colleges that train teachers have raised their standards, both for entry into their programs and for their own courses. In Indiana, Ohio, and Maine, for example, prospective teachers are now studying student work in reading, mathematics, and other subjects and examining their teaching with the goal of increasing student achievement.
  • Organizations within the education community have debated and endorsed key aspects of the commission’s agenda. The governing board of the National Education Association, for example, endorsed the principle of peer assistance and, in an unprecedented move, will hold a joint conference on teaching quality with the American Federation of Teachers in September. Associations of teacher-educators have developed standards for their own members.
The intransigence of the establishment is to be expected. Less anticipated have been the attacks of two economics professors.

Beyond these, an elevated level of conversation around how to improve teacher quality is occurring across the country in states from Alabama to Minnesota and from New York to California.

The commission’s follow-up report, “Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching,” shows how states that invested in teacher quality during the 1980s experienced among the largest gains in student achievement. Their success stands in sharp contrast to other “reforms” that have been mandated without a corresponding investment in the skills of front-line educators.

We still have a long way to go. These are difficult changes, and trying to alter the status quo often causes “the establishment” to push back. There are those who have a vested interest in the system as it is. Some are universities that can keep their costs down and their revenues up by continuing to offer minimal programs. Some are government officials unwilling to rethink regulations. Some are school systems that would rather hire cheap teachers than those who are well-prepared. Some are teachers who do not feel the imperative of increasing their skills.

The intransigence of the establishment is to be expected. Less anticipated have been the attacks of two economics professors, Dale Ballou of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri.

On the one hand, they attack, often inaccurately, the research linking student achievement to teacher quality. But the research is sound and consistent in its findings. Repeated studies from Texas, Alabama, New York, Tennessee, and elsewhere have found, using a variety of measures, that what teachers know and do has an important influence on student achievement. The commission presented research covering more than 200 studies which found that teachers with greater training in both their subject matter and in education (knowledge of teaching methods, learning, and development) are more highly rated and more effective with students in fields ranging from science and mathematics to elementary reading and early childhood education. The research is also supported by what we believe to be common sense. If all children can learn, certainly all teachers can, too.

On the other hand, these critics attack the commission as a tool of the establishment, a charge we might otherwise find amusing given the resistance we have met from many who would prefer no change at all. Professors Ballou and Podgursky find particular fault with four of the 26 commission members representing teachers’ unions or the organizations that accredit teachers or colleges. Frankly, we believe these groups need to be at the table if change is going to take place. We make no apologies for the membership of the commission or for our work with those who are trying to produce a better teaching force.

The critics argue that the commission’s agenda could make it more difficult for potentially good teachers to join the profession through alternative routes. On the contrary, we want to make it more likely that bright, caring people from various career paths will become teachers. The performance-based licensing systems we recommend would ensure that irrelevant requirements are replaced by demonstrations of real competence.

But if our work makes it more difficult for unqualified people to teach, we plead guilty. Individuals who do not have both the subject competence and the necessary understanding of learning and teaching should not be teachers, regardless of whether they have graduated from accredited teaching programs or come through alternate routes.

We are not interested in preserving the status quo, which we see as unacceptable, particularly in much of urban America, where the most vulnerable students are consistently assigned the least qualified teachers. We are committed to making sure that teachers meet rigorous standards, ensuring they have access to high-quality professional development, creating pay systems that emphasize and reward knowledge and skill, and reorganizing schools to put more resources into classrooms.

Our hope is that, within our lifetimes, we will be able to ensure that every child is provided with access to caring, competent, and qualified teachers working in schools organized to support their success. We are committed to helping America invest wisely, not blindly, in teachers. It is an investment that will pay long-term dividends for us all.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, is the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. Barnett Berry is the commission’s associate director of policy and state relations.

A version of this article appeared in the May 27, 1998 edition of Education Week as Investing in Teaching


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