Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Teaching Commissions, Then and Now

By Michael D. Usdan — March 31, 2004 6 min read
Is it ‘déjà vu all over again?’

In January, yet another blue-ribbon commission on education released its report. Like so many before it, “Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action” focused on the acute national need to prepare, recruit, and retain high-quality teachers. The commission that released the report, aptly named the Teaching Commission, was a distinguished group of leaders from many fields, headed by Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the former chairman and chief executive officer of IBM.

As I listened to the commission members’ sensible, yet hardly innovative or new, recommendations, I experienced a profound sense of what that noted philosopher Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.” A panel of distinguished, nobly intentioned Americans was once again asking the nation to make improved teaching a national priority. Even the rhetoric was familiar: “The nation will not continue to lead or to create new jobs if we persist in viewing teaching—the profession that makes all other professions possible—as a second-rate occupation,” Chairman Gerstner said forcefully.

While speakers detailed the recommendations, my thoughts drifted back more than 40 years to a time when I had served as a very junior (and luggage-carrying) staff member of the late James B. Conant, who was then researching and writing The Education of American Teachers (1963). The former Harvard University president (1933-1953) had long been interested in public education and had played an important role in the development of Master of Arts in Teaching programs at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. When Conant somewhat reluctantly undertook the task of studying how teachers were educated, he recognized that it was among the most complex and controversial issues in public education. He relied heavily on the opinions of classroom teachers, personally visiting many schools and teacher education institutions throughout the country. In fact, this eminent scientist regarded the realm of teacher preparation as an area of higher education of “baffling complexity.”

In The Education of American Teachers, Conant addressed the perplexing issues that still persist in the education and preparation of teachers. He analyzed, for example, such issues as teacher certification and quality, accreditation, and the need to bridge the “quarrel” (or chasm) between liberal arts professors and professors of education. He stressed the importance of an all-university, joint-responsibility approach to teacher education. In his recommendations, Conant focused on the centrality of practice (a rare area of consensus in his field visits) and the importance of a high-quality student-teaching experience as the sine qua non of an excellent teacher-preparatory program. One of Conant’s major recommendations, it should be remembered, was that methods courses be offered by clinical professors who had public school teaching practices analogous to clinical professors of medicine. Conant also called, like so many contemporary critics of lock-step certification practices, for the states to have freedom to experiment with alternative approaches.

As I set out to read the current teaching commission’s report, I wondered what, if anything, had changed during the intervening 40 years (other than that I was older, grayer, and perhaps more cynical about meaningfully changing such an entrenched enterprise). Initially, I found myself agreeing with Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, who, when asked to react to the new report, was quoted in The New York Times as stating: “It’s a trite rehash of 45 years of recommendations—we’ve wasted another year instead of acting upon these recommendations. Once again, we’ve studied the problem.”

Upon further reflection, however, I saw hope that finally some progress might be made. Our current situation differs dramatically from what James Conant faced more than four decades ago. There is a new politics of education, one in which the country’s most influential civic, political, and business leaders have demonstrated a surprising persistence in staying the course—and in driving home to Americans the importance of education issues. Conant had great national—even international—standing and wielded remarkable influence, yet his teacher education recommendations received only short-range attention and, unfortunately, faded after a few years.

Today, education is a salient, hot-button issue in politics as well as public policy. We are replete with deeply involved education presidents, education governors, education mayors, and education-oriented corporate leaders. Our most influential policymakers from both the public and private sectors are drawn to education issues in unprecedented ways, and evidently remain committed to making reform a reality. This could not have been imagined in the early 1960s.

A major test of the commission's strategy—and credibility—will be how well it does in going beyond the customary rhetoric.

Particularly surprising has been the sustained involvement of the business community, with its unique political leverage. Through two decades and numerous national, state, and local initiatives, private-sector leaders have played a critically important role in influencing elected officials and the general public to accept the concepts of accountability and standards-based reform. Influential organizations like the Business Roundtable (and its state counterparts) and the Committee for Economic Development continue to project the saliency of education to their constituents.

Back in January, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. said that “the Teaching Commission will not measure its success by what it recommends.” Its effectiveness, he said, “will be determined by its ability to bring these ideas to life at the federal, state, and local levels.” Over the next few years, partnerships will be formed with governors and chief state school officers, with business leaders, and with other reform advocates in a number of states, Mr. Gerstner pledged, to push for implementation of the commission’s recommendations. These are the kinds of coalitions that have been so successful in implementing standards-based reform throughout the country. Whatever one’s feelings about the accountability movement, it cannot be denied that its advocates have rapidly implemented a dramatic, output-focused sea change in a public education system not known for transforming itself easily or quickly.

A major test of the commission’s strategy, as well as its credibility, will be how well it does in going beyond the customary rhetoric and mobilizing key public- and private-sector stakeholders to support the investment of the billions of dollars required. Recommendations like elevating the competitive base pay of teachers, developing performance-based pay incentives, creating new career tracks, and providing premium pay in high-need areas will be very costly and not easily achievable politically in the current era of budget cuts and fiscal restraints.

So, while sharing some of Art Levine’s skepticism, I also share his more optimistic view: “If Gerstner can pull this off, it would be an enormous boon to the country.”

If our most influential business and political leaders remain committed to the difficult task of building the political will it will take to make the financial investment called for in this latest report, then perhaps there finally will be a chance to convert decades of rhetoric into meaningful action to improve the status and quality of America’s teachers.

Michael D. Usdan served as the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, in Washington, from 1981 through 2001. He is now a senior fellow at the organization. Before joining the IEL, he was Connecticut’s commissioner of higher education.

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