Reporter’s Notebook

August 06, 2003 4 min read
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Teacher Quality Shares Center Stage At ECS National Conference

Governors, state legislators, and researchers gathered here last month to debate new federal education legislation, share ideas on recruiting better teachers, and reflect on the legacy of the groundbreaking A Nation at Risk report issued 20 years ago.

The National Forum on Eduwcation Policy, organized by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, drew more than 500 education policymakers to the group’s annual national gathering July 13-16.

Improving teacher quality and finding more teachers to fill often hard-to-staff urban and rural schools emerged as one of the most important themes at the conference.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, argued for an increased federal role in helping to move highly trained teachers into high- needs schools. Her proposal, modeled after federal “medical manpower” programs that for years have helped address physician shortages in low-income communities, includes pay incentives for teachers in hard-to-staff subjects such as mathematics and science, as well as providing more student scholarships and forgivable loans.

“There is an important need for a federal manpower policy,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said during a panel discussion. “We are still treating teacher supply and demand as a local issue.”

She provoked a round of sustained applause by declaring that for just 1 percent of the cost of the war in Iraq, the federal government could fill all of the nation’s K-12 teacher shortages.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, has chosen to focus his two-year tenure as the ECS chairman on improving teacher quality and teacher retention in hard-to-staff schools.

“Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say?” is available form ECS. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“We have to raise the national attention on this in plain language and suggest policy solutions,” he said in an interview at the conference. Providing financial incentives to attract qualified teachers to urban and rural schools, the governor said, is one of several ways to address the teacher gap.

But a new ECS report released in Denver shows that despite the importance of teacher quality in improving student achievement, there is a lack of solid research on what makes a good teacher. “Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say?” recommends improving the quality and amount of research on teacher preparation so that it is more practical for policymakers and teacher educators.

The new demands placed on states by the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 also took center stage.

Among other provisions, the law requires states to test students annually in grades 3 through 8, and show progress across demographic groups.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Douglas D. Christensen said that while Nebraska’s NCLB plans have been approved by the U.S. Department of Education, he still has major problems with the law. Asking all students to achieve at a high level is historic and the right way to go, Mr. Christensen emphasized. But, he continued, federal mandates that dictate down, rather than reforms that grow from the bottom up and reflect the experiences of teachers, are inherently flawed.

“One of the risks of No Child Left Behind is that the policy debate is over and we never got engaged in it,” he said. “What a poor way to make policy. Policy questions are about, ‘What is this for?’ We need to keep that conversation alive.”

A panel of academics and education leaders also reflected on the legacy of the 1983 A Nation at Risk report.

Milton Goldberg, who 20 years ago was the executive director of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which issued the landmark report, spoke about the origins of the study.

Mr. Goldberg, now an ECS distinguished senior fellow, said the national commission held hearings every few weeks around the country with educators, parents, and business groups to develop the report. “This wasn’t a group that sat in Washington and produced a fancy report,” he said. Fancy or not, the 36-page report did anything but collect dust. In 1983 alone, 6 million copies were distributed around the world, according to Mr. Goldberg.

James W. Guthrie, the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and a distinguished senior fellow with the ECS, described the report as possibly the “father of No Child Left Behind. ... It shifted the paradigm in which we appraised education. We measure outcomes now, not incomes.”

Saying that he was playing the devil’s advocate, Mr. Guthrie also argued the report was based on a false premise. The performance of students in 1983, he said, was no lower than in previous eras, and even though the nation was going through rough economic water at the time of the report, the U.S. economy emerged as the most vital in the world.

“Despite its flaws, it’s done so much good,” he said of the report.

—John Gehring


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