For more than two decades, policymakers have undertaken many and varied reforms to improve schools, ranging from new standards and tests to redesigned schools, new curricula and new governance models. One important lesson from these efforts is the repeated finding that teachers are the fulcrum determining whether any school initiative tips toward success or failure. Every aspect of school reform depends on highly skilled teachers for its success. This is especially true as educational standards rise and the diversity of the student body increases. Teachers need even more sophisticated abilities to teach more complex curriculum to the growing number of public school students who have fewer educational resources at home, those who are new English language learners, and those who have distinctive learning needs.
One of the few areas of consensus among education policymakers, practitioners, and the general public today is that improving teacher quality is one of the most direct and promising strategies for improving public education outcomes in the United States, especially for groups of children who have historically been taught by the least qualified teachers. Teachers can have large effects on student achievement, as suggested by a recent large-scale study in North Carolina, which found that the differences in achievement gains for students who had the most qualified teachers versus those who had the least qualified were greater than the influences of race and parent education combined. These very large differences were associated with teachers’ initial preparation for teaching, licensing in the field taught, strength of academic background, level of experience, and demonstration of skills through National Board Certification, all of which are variables that could be directly addressed through policy.
Unlike most high-achieving nations, however, the United States has not yet developed a national system of supports and incentives to ensure that all teachers are well prepared and ready to teach all students effectively when they enter the profession. Nor is there a set of widely available methods to support the evaluation and ongoing development of teacher effectiveness throughout the career, along with decisions about entry and continuation in the profession. Meeting the expectation that all students will learn to high standards will require a transformation in the ways in which our education system attracts, prepares, supports, and develops expert teachers who can teach in more powerful ways—a transformation that depends in part on the ways in which these abilities are understood and assessed.
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