Educator Quality

The Current Situation

The Massachusetts Working Group for Educator Excellence

The vast majority of American teachers are under-prepared, under-skilled, and under-supported. This is true in communities of all social strata, but it has tragic consequences for children of poverty, who start off behind in school and lose the chance to catch up that skillful teaching could provide.

The Expertise Gap

The data from numerous studies of the 90s and early years of the millennium were conclusive that what a teacher knows, believes, and can do is the dominant variable in student achievement, dwarfing all others. What has been absent from the conversation on school improvement, however, is this point: The knowledge and skill to teach really well is far beyond what we provide or expect in our educator workforce. Teaching expertise is as complicated and as wide-ranging as the expertise it takes to do architecture, law, or engineering. You can’t just pick it up on the job because you’re a decent and literate person who cares. Thus not enough of our teachers have enough of this expertise to reach all children, and it is not their fault. They have not had the access to the knowledge, and neither the pressure nor the support to acquire it. We have legions of highly skilled teachers across this country anyway who have gotten there by personal effort and commitment, not professional training and accountability. Skillful teaching can no longer be optional and isolated. It has to be systematic and demanded.

The Magnitude of the Problem

The knowledge and skill to teach at a proficient level is missing in well over three quarters of our workforce—more in some locales. The Pianta study in Science (2007) finds a 1-in-14 chance that a child will have a chance for a rich, supportive learning environment. Fifth graders in their sample of 2,500 classrooms in 400 school districts across the United States spent 91% of their time listening to the teacher or working alone, usually on low-level worksheets. 75% of classrooms are “dull bleak places.” These findings mirror those of John Goodlad 50 years ago in A Place Called School. Nothing has changed. Reform efforts that focus on improved curricula, more testing, better governance structure, choices plans, longer school days . . . none of these have in the past or will in the future get the large scale improvement of student achievement we need. We need skillful teachers.

The Solution

There is a large, research proven, and highly sophisticated base of knowledge and skill for successful teaching. Access to this knowledge and skill can be provided. Accountability for using it can be required. And recognition, promotions, and satisfying career paths can be connected to it. Integrate the knowledge and skill for good teaching solidly in all of the 10 processes that influence teacher capacity. Carefully integrate these processes with one another. Put our resources and our energy into developing expertise, accountability, and support for the people who work with the children. Fix the system, don’t blame the people in it.