Our Narrowing Focus on Teacher Quality

I'm only in my first full week of classes and I'm already fascinated by some of the coursework. One such class is Pursuing Teacher Quality, taught by Susan Moore Johnson. In preparation for our first class we were asked to read a number of documents that discuss the challenges of American education and their root causes, with a special focus on teachers. Our readings included A Nation at Risk and A Nation Prepared, two seminal reports from the 1980's, but they also included more recent reports from domestic and international policy groups.

I had two main reactions to these readings. The first was just a tremendous excitement to be reading (a lot!) about a topic that I found so interesting. This was exactly what I was looking forward to about my experience at Harvard, the chance to focus entirely on studying and learning about the issues that matter most to be.

The second reaction was one of demoralization. A Nation at Risk didn't provide much in the way of policy prescriptions, but it definitely nailed a lot of what was ailing American education 28 years ago, and sadly, still today.

This was a common thread as I read all of these documents. One the one hand, I felt it reassuring that there was some clarity identifying the myriad of factors affecting teacher quality: recruitment, retention, training, incentives, professional development, autonomy, opportunities for growth and advancement, school supports and structures, salary... On the other hand, I couldn't help feeling frustrated at the virtual lack of progress since these ideas first gained attention.

Here we are, three decades removed from A Nation at Risk, and the words haven't lost any of their relevance or urgency. We find ourselves mired in an economic recession. We are facing growing global competition, and there's a desperate need to move toward a knowledge-based economy. Meanwhile, our students are falling behind at an alarming rate, and seem increasingly unable to perform tasks that require critical thinking.

Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to have changed in response to these challenges is that policymakers have narrowed their focus. There is lip service paid to the need to revitalize our education schools, but little action. There's some discussion of how to better recruit and reward our teachers, but again, little action.

Almost all of the efforts by district, state, and to a certain extent, federal policymakers seems focused on accountability, without an iota of attention expended on the continuum that goes improving the quality of teachers in our classrooms. Some of these changes, like more holistic teacher evaluations, will improve the professionalism of teaching, but not unless we address other fundamental questions. How are we going to change our approach so that we're recruiting the most talented students in our schools, adequately training them, supporting them in the classroom, rewarding them for their efforts, and providing opportunities for growth and leadership?

These aren't new questions. They haven't changed in 30 years, but our approach is getting more confined when it needs to expand.


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