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Strengthening the Teaching Profession

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This week, Jack Schneider and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville are discussing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In this post, they look at how Congress might approach ESEA reauthorization in a manner that strengthens the teaching profession.

Schneider: In our last post, I mentioned the fact that I'd like to see ESEA reauthorization address the nature of the teaching profession. Specifically, I'd like to see Congress craft a bill that would make teaching more rewarding and that would build teacher capacity for professional growth.

I'm wondering where you stand on this. As former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts, what do you think the federal government can do to strengthen the profession? 

Reville: I agree with the idea that we need to build a more attractive, sustaining teaching profession. But I don't have a lot of confidence that federal policy is the best strategy for accomplishing that objective.

So much of what defines our current teaching profession is determined at the local and state levels. It may be that the feds can insist that states have strong, clear policies, and practices in the areas like induction, professional development, supervision and evaluation. But I don't think federal policy should specify exactly what states and communities should do. Rather, they should enforce baseline requirements for robust systems to support teachers in becoming more effective at the challenging work of educating children. Incentives would be helpful also. We have too many people, these days, exiting the teaching profession because they are inadequately supported while on the front lines of some very demanding teaching assignments.

Schneider: Clear policies and practices would help, certainly. So I agree with you that the federal government should, at the very least, encourage states and communities to develop those. But why not aim for something bolder like a national teacher strategy? Isn't that what other high-performing countries do?

Obviously the federal government has very real limits to its direct authority. And that's fine. But the hodgepodge of state and local policies that shape the teaching profession leave a lot to be desired.

Now, some of those—like the state-based approach to teacher licensure, which is fairly nonsensical in the twenty-first centuryare beyond the scope of federal control. But many of them aren't.

Why, for instance, couldn't the federal government create loan forgiveness programs for aspiring teachers? If students knew that post-baccalaureate training would be paid for, we might get more upper classmen considering teaching by the end of their college careers.

Or why couldn't the feds create a program, like the now-defunct Teaching American History (TAH) grants, designed to bring teachers together around key content issues? Obviously you would want to improve on the TAH model, which had some real weak points. But there's been no action on that front whatsoever.

I'll offer a third point of attack: federal support for instructional coaches and teacher mentors. We know that such personnel can be critical in the development of young teachers, so why aren't we doing more to encourage states and districts to take initiative?

Reville: I've grown cautious about inflated expectations for federal policy. I also think the mood of the country is to shift the policy initiative back to the states after the excesses of No Child Left Behind. However, I do believe that nothing is more important in the quest to improve education than improving the quality of teaching. You raise the possibility of some targeted federal initiatives. Assuming adequate funding could be raised, I'd certainly support greater federal initiative at strengthening the teaching profession. I'd set priorities though since funding is scarce and our achievement problems are concentrated. I'd like to see the federal government provide major financial incentives for top college students to be fully prepared and supported to teach in the nation's most challenged schools. I'd start a major program targeted at inner city and poor rural schools where the needs are greatest.

I can also imagine the feds taking the leadership in promoting a new model of the teaching profession and the preparation required for it. For example, what if ESEA sponsored a model of teaching that required year round service, fewer direct teaching hours, more collaborative planning, more data analysis of individual student learning needs, more time counseling individuals and groups of students, more time interacting with parents/families and communities, more time arranging learning experiences for students in their communities, and greater utilization of technology tools to enhance student learning. This profession would require deeper, broader preparation than currently offered and more ongoing support of novice teachers in their early years. If the feds could offer a cadre of such teachers as a demonstration project in a variety of targeted districts, this could trigger a revolution in the way we conceptualize the profession of teaching.

Finally, I'm skeptical of the getting the federal government involved in teacher induction. As important as it is to support our novice teachers, I think that work is best left to state and local authorities. We have, for example, many mentoring programs that have been developed in the past decade but their performance has been very uneven. The federal government would be ill suited to regulate quality in this area and apparently, state and local authorities already recognize the importance of high quality support for teachers.

Schneider: I'm also skeptical of what could realistically be accomplished. At the same time, I don't think it's impossible to imagine federal programs that picked up on—and in fact improved upon—much of the work being done around teacher recruitment, induction, training, and support.

Imagine Teach For America, but with real training. Or imagine taking the smattering of teacher residency programs we have and infusing them with greater funding and providing more coherence. Imagine the kind of work being done by organizations like the New Teacher Project, but with a greater reach and more transparency. Or imagine projects currently being funded by the Gates Foundation, instead being funded by taxpayers—with full public oversight and control.

Would it be easy? No. But there are some projects that make more sense when pursued nationally. And the support of teaching is one of them.

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