Twenty years after the nonprofit National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future released a report that pushed teaching to the forefront of the education-policy landscape, a new report seeks to revitalize the national discussion around teacher quality.
“What Matters Now: A Call to Action,” released at a forum in the nation’s capital today, offers several policy and practice recommendations to support and improve teaching and learning, while also serving as a retrospective of the teaching profession following the 1996 report, “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future.”
Back then, NCTAF’s commissioners, led by James Hunt, Jr., the then-governor of North Carolina, issued an urgent call for education leaders and lawmakers to reevaluate the scattered policies governing the teaching profession and ensure that all students had access to effective teachers. They called for a serious revamp of teacher-preparation programs, the creation of compensation policies that reward teachers’ knowledge and skill, and the development of higher standards for both initial licensing and continuing development.
The original report’s recommendations included establishing professional standards boards in every state, licensing teachers based on demonstrated performance, creating and funding mentoring programs for new teachers, and enacting incentives for National Board certification in every state and district. Schools of education should all be accredited and preparation should be based more on clinical practice, the report said, advocating for extended graduate-level programs that place preservice teachers into a yearlong internship.
In the two decades since the original report was released, the 2016 commission notes in the new report, there has been “significant but uneven progress.” More schools of education have added a full year of student teaching to focus more on clinical practice in their curriculum; most states have adopted teacher mentoring and induction programs in some form; and most states have adopted higher standards for teachers entering the classroom.
But the reforms have been piecemeal, and have been subject to political winds. For example, in a speech at the new report’s launch event, NCTAF commissioner and Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond praised Connecticut and North Carolina, a state where teachers have recently protested for more education funding and higher pay, for their extensive teacher reforms back in the 1990s:
“North Carolina and Connecticut both raised their teachers’ salaries and equalized them so there was capacity for districts to compete in the labor market for teachers, added money for National Board Certification for teachers, added mentoring for all new teachers. Both of them closed their achievement gaps. Connecticut became the highest-achieving state in the nation at that time because of the teacher reforms, North Carolina was the first Southern state to break the glass ceiling of achieving above the national average, [they] had the biggest closure in achievement gaps during that period of time,” Darling-Hammond said. “Now, politics are different, but that foundation was really based on this sets of reforms.”
The recession of the late aughts also caused a slide in progress, she said.
“We’re not building on all of these advances as much as we could be,” Darling-Hammond said. “Higher standards are often ignored for teachers when hiring for high-needs schools .... salaries have in fact fallen. Fewer teachers had mentoring in 2012 than had it in 2008 because of the cutbacks from the recession—now only 59 percent of teachers say they’re getting mentored, it used to be over 75 percent.”
There is now less collaboration among teachers and more one-hit professional learning sessions, rather than the sustained professional development that is more effective, she said.
The years since the original report have also seen the rise of alternative-certification programs, which have sometimes been characterized (including by Darling-Hammond) as giving short-shrift to pre-training and destabilizing the teaching profession.
“We have a lot of rebuilding to do,” said Darling-Hammond, who was executive director of the NCTAF during the 1996 report’s release. “We are really good in the United States at innovating and inventing things and creating things—many people here have created wonderful, successful programs and models and schools and then watched them either fade away when the political wheel turned or fail to get scaled up. We need to get good at scaling and systems.”
In 1996, the commission proposed that every child in the United States have a “competent, caring, and qualified teacher” by 2006. This time, commissioners stopped short of naming such an explicit goal, instead focusing on systemic change.
Still, the commissioners offered several policy recommendations that build on the original report—including more relevant and clinically-based teacher preparation, with an emphasis on social-emotional learning and culturally knowledgeable and responsive practices; state-supported and required multi-year induction and mentoring for new teachers; established indicators for states to track whether schools are “organized for success;" and more teacher-led professional development.
And in what Darling-Hammond said was the most important recommendation, the report called for each state to establish a commission on teaching, learning, and the state’s future to review statewide learning assessments and accountability systems for schools, as well as other policies and practices related to teacher recruitment, preparation, retention, and practice.
The adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives more control to the states, allows policymakers to reimagine how schools are organized, how accountability is structured, and how teachers are supported, the report said.
“We have a window of opportunity right here,” said former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who co-chaired the 2016 commission, along with former Deputy Education Secretary Ted Sanders. “The conditions in which teachers teach and students learn are a’changing and must be addressed.”
The commission, which also called for improvement in teacher diversity, emphasized that teachers must be involved in these reforms.
Geneviève DeBose, the sole commissioner who is a current teacher, said in an interview that being involved in policy discussions has given her a new set of tools and a sense of agency.
“We can’t make decisions about teaching and learning if you don’t have teachers and, I think, students at the table,” she said. “I’ve sat in a room with policymakers who are former teachers and who are well-intentioned but maybe have been out of the classroom for a couple of years — things are changing [constantly], that doesn’t work anymore because of this.”
It’s important to create structures and systems for current teachers so they can leave the classroom to participate in these policy talks while having their students covered, DeBose said. And being engaged, she said, can help keep teachers in the profession.
During her keynote speech at the event, DeBose, who teaches at the Bronx Studio School for Writers & Artists in New York City, sang a short song: “Why do I teach? I teach to transform society, create a new urban reality ... create a new world reality.”
“This is our opportunity to disrupt the current system that only educates some of our students,” she said, calling for a more equitable system and adding that the teaching profession is at a “crucial and unique point.”
Source: Image from the 2016 NCTAF report
Read more on the original report and its progress, from our archives:
- Teaching Matters (the 1996 news story of the report)
- Investing in Teaching (a 1998 opinion piece from Linda Darling-Hammond)
- Low-Ranking Texas Eyes Teaching Reforms (a 1996 news story of Texas’ response to the report)
- More progress: 1999’s National Certifications Triple Since Last Year and 1997’s Standards Boards Touted for Elevating Teaching Profession
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.