The National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group that advocates for more-rigorous teacher preparation, has named Heather Peske as its new president.
Peske will take over the helm of the Washington-based think tank in May, succeeding longtime president Kate Walsh, who led NCTQ for 20 years. Peske, who has been in education for three decades, is currently the senior associate commissioner for instructional support in Massachusetts’ education department. She will take the job at a time when teacher quality is in the spotlight, as schools try to make up for dips in student achievement while contending with low teacher morale and reported staff shortages.
Peske spoke with Education Week about her policy priorities in her new role, her thoughts on whether there’s a teacher shortage, and how NCTQ can address its reputational challenges that still exist among some in the teacher preparation field. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your work in Massachusetts to improve teacher quality. What have you learned that you’ll take with you to NCTQ?
One of the lessons learned is the importance of coherence across our reforms and policies. For example, as we think about supporting teachers to be effective with students, we have to consider the conditions within which they were prepared, the knowledge they gained during preparation, as well as the materials we provide them once they’re in service—and also things like the kind of feedback that we provide them through our educator evaluation system.
I think that the biggest lesson for me is the importance of bringing to bear all of the levers of the system to improve teacher quality and in doing so, really approaching [this work] both with a support and accountability perspective on improving teachers’ effectiveness with students.
In the announcement of your selection, you were quoted as saying that teacher quality has never been more critical or more challenged. What do you see as the major challenges here?
Well, I think that the pandemic has shown us the critical importance of teachers. Never before have we, as a country, had the opportunity to see so personally how demanding it is to be a teacher as we did in the spring of 2020 and the ensuing school year when school closures meant that dining rooms and family rooms became classrooms.
And we’ve also never before seen academic progress in such peril as we see now. The instructional loss for students over the past three years is significant, and we see real consequences for students. Where we had opportunity and achievement gaps before, now we have these increased yawning academic and opportunity gaps for students that need to be addressed. And the best way to address them is with quality, effective, well-supported teachers.
But at the same time, I’ve spoken to district leaders who say they might only get one or two applications for a teaching position, and they’re having trouble filling vacancies. How can we ensure teacher quality when there are shortages?
We have to consider the best ways to ensure that we have a highly skilled, diverse, and well-supported educator workforce. And we cannot institute measures that would cut off our nose to spite our face. I understand how stressful it has been this year and the last two years to ensure that classrooms are staffed with quality teachers who are well-supported. Of course we are hearing about shortages, particularly in areas of substitute teachers and school support staff, such as bus drivers. We know that school districts have been using federal relief funds to raise pay to attract more of these individuals to fill these positions.
NCTQ has been working to track which states collect and report on this data about the educator workforce. But the bottom line is that we don’t have a national up-to-date source of teacher workforce data that we can usefully disaggregate by state, by district, by certification area. So though we hear anecdotally about principals trying to ensure that they have high-quality teachers in their classroom, we just simply don’t know right now what the national picture is in terms of staffing. There have been acute shortages in some localities and for some grades and subjects for some time, even pre-pandemic, like STEM, special education, multilingual-learner teachers. Increased pay and strategic pay, as well as real attention to retaining those teachers, can both attract and keep them, particularly in those shortage areas.
But really, I would say one of the greatest impediments to strengthening and diversifying our teacher workforce is the poor quality of data on the teacher labor market. We simply can’t fix what we don’t see. NCTQ is spearheading an effort to solve this data problem, beginning with a three-state pilot of the supply and demand database. And the hope is that we can aim to scale this to a national database within the next five years.
Teacher-prep programs have reported declining enrollment over the past decade. Even alternative programs like Teach For America have seen their applications significantly decline. How worried are you about the pipeline into the profession?
I’m always concerned that we have a strong pipeline. My work and my career has been to try to ensure that we have a strong supply of effective teachers in classrooms, particularly classrooms where students most need effective teachers. This question about the pipeline—right now, it’s still a question for me. The reports that you just described, they’re still anecdotal. In Massachusetts, for example, we have not experienced a teacher shortage across the board in the same way that that other states are reporting. We have experienced the shortage in particular subject areas. The teacher labor markets are particularly local. So the solutions have to be particularly customized to the local markets.
We know, for example, how important it is that teacher-preparation programs are preparing teachers to enter schools and districts that are very close to them geographically. For that reason, I’m excited to come to NCTQ and continue the work on teacher preparation and continue the work around recruiting while supporting and retaining effective teachers. Am I worried? Of course—that’s what I’m committed to doing is working on this issue. I think we just need more and better data to understand the problem. And there are lots of interesting solutions out there that we can lift up and employ.
What other policy issues do you think NCTQ will be focusing on in the coming years?
We as an organization will continue to push hard on several different issues. One of them is advancing teacher knowledge and skill in early literacy, early reading, and also in math. There’s nothing more important to children’s success academically than being able to read and to problem-solve. And we know that whether or not children attain on grade level literacy proficiency by 3rd grade is a predictor of a number of variables related to their life trajectory. Far too many elementary teachers are not learning the evidence-based strategies they need in order to develop those skills in their students. This will be a major area of focus for NCTQ going forward—how we can work in partnership with states, districts, and teacher-preparation programs to enact the policies and practices that will really prepare elementary teachers in reading and in math.
The second focus area, which is probably unsurprising, is the importance of cultivating classrooms where students experience a sense of belonging and where there are high expectations for their success, particularly for students of color, but also for all students. We know that there’s no question that a key component of a high-quality teacher workforce is a racially diverse teacher workforce. And we know that a racially diverse teacher workforce benefits all students. NCTQ will continue to advocate for policies and practices that will allow teacher-prep programs, states, and districts to better attract and support teachers of color. For example, we’ll continue to do the teacher prep review, where one of the dimensions is tracking the diversity of teacher-preparation programs and highlighting those that are achieving more-diverse cohorts in an effort to share lessons learned that could be applied in other teacher-preparation programs.
We will also continue [our work looking at] the licensure pass rates, because we know from our research that this is a leaky point in the pipeline at which we lose far too many candidates of color. And we want to support states—such as the one I’m coming from, Massachusetts, among others—to examine their own data, to identify preparation programs in their states that can serve as models for successfully supporting students of color through licensure and ensuring that they have the content knowledge they need to be able to teach students the standards.
In 2013, there was a lot of controversy with NCTQ’s inaugural teacher prep review, which grades programs on different standards. Even today, there’s still some mistrust among teacher educators about the organization’s work. As the incoming leader, what do you see as some of the reputational challenges and how would you address them going forward, if at all?
Well, I wasn’t at NCTQ [then]. I don’t actually have good information about that, but I think the transition of me coming on board as president presents an opportunity for NCTQ to deepen partnerships with future preparation programs and also deepen partnerships with the state. My understanding is that in the past, if there’s been misunderstanding, it’s come from a lack of understanding and perhaps a lack of transparency around how the teacher-prep programs had been rated. NCTQ has been working hard to address this, and that work will continue. I know NCTQ has been publishing detailed methodologies and rubrics for each of the standards within the teacher-prep review, and also working with leaders from higher ed to make sure that they’re both clear about the methods and the rubrics, but also to engage them in the description of the standards.
Right now, NCTQ is refreshing the teacher-prep review standards. This provided a real opportunity to engage stakeholders, to strengthen the standards as well as the methodology. I know that the team has also assembled external advisory panels that include content experts, measurement experts, higher ed leaders, and state policymakers to guide and approve the development of the revised standards. And I know this from a very practical perspective because my team [in Massachusetts] gave feedback on some of the standards that are being developed. We were delighted to be asked to give that feedback.
In general, NCTQ is working with the field, especially with teacher-preparation programs, much more so than in the past in order to drive meaningful change within the field. And as a state policymaker myself who has been successful because of collaboration and partnership with folks who are in our teacher-preparation programs in Massachusetts, I’m very committed to continuing those kinds of collaborations and partnerships in order to make additional and deeper impact for students.