Group Signs Off With Progress Report on Teacher Quality

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A high-profile group formed to boost the quality of the nation’s teaching corps says progress toward that goal has been just middling over the past three years.

The Teaching Commission, a privately organized group led by former IBM head Louis V. Gerstner Jr., graded teaching-profession reform in a final report released last week. The four marks for results ranged from a B-minus for strengthening school leadership and better supporting teachers to a D-minus for “reinventing” teacher preparation.

Calling teacher preparation “the most disappointing in results,” Mr. Gerstner said, “We have got to get the university presidents and trustees to understand that most education schools are vast wastelands of academic inferiority.” At a press conference here, he went on to blast the officials for shortchanging teacher-education programs, allowing them to serve as “cash cows” for their universities.

The report closes out the work of the New York City-based commission, which Mr. Gerstner founded in 2003 soon after his retirement from the computer-technology giant.

Among its 18 members, the commission included four former governors representing both major political parties, four current or former heads of major corporations, one university president, and one teacher.

The 64-year-old businessman said the report also likely marks the end of his highly public efforts in behalf of K-12 education. Mr. Gerstner also played a leading role in the movement for academic standards.

Commission leaders said plans always called for the group to disband after three years, though that may have been hastened by the death of its executive director, R. Gaynor McCown, in November.

‘Signaling Effects’

The report also grades progress on changing teacher compensation and teacher licensing, giving both a C.

Mr. Gerstner cited the work of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota as “good news” on the school improvement front, not only because state lawmakers in 2005 adopted a framework for alternative ways of paying teachers, but also because the governor’s legislative package reflected the Teaching Commission’s recommendations as a whole. The former IBM chief said it was not enough to change teacher pay, for instance, without making it easier for qualified people to get into the classroom or for principals to hire and fire teachers.

But many governors, he added, “have been reluctant to lean on entrenched interests and bureaucracies” to make way for change. He said that while the commission “feels pretty good” about the progress so far, little of the sustainable change that would make a big difference in the nation’s schools has occurred, including in the hardest-pressed urban communities.

Stature and Visibility

Observers generally agreed that the commission’s work was valuable in giving stature and visibility to new directions in teacher policy.

“The Teaching Commission did a good job of harvesting, from a group of key stakeholders, a bipartisan statement on the teaching profession and a set of action steps to improve it,” wrote teacher-researcher and advocate Barnett Berry in an e-mail.

Nonetheless, Mr. Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C., faulted the group’s initial 2004 report for failing to address several important issues, such as the “abysmal” working conditions many teachers face and ways to finance their salary increases.

Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a nonprofit Washington think tank, praised as an achievement the commission’s release of a set of forceful recommendations, the centerpiece of the 2004 report.

“That a diversity of viewpoints could rally around these directions—that had important signaling effects,” he said.

But, Mr. Rotherham added, the group was far less successful with its next step—persuading officials to turn those recommendations into policies. “They weren’t able to move that very far,” he said.

Vol. 25, Issue 29, Page 14

Published in Print: March 29, 2006, as Group Signs Off With Progress Report on Teacher Quality
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