Intuitively, we've always known that teachers have a tremendous impact on student learning. Recent research that tracks individual student progress demonstrates that if students consistently have high quality teachers, we can make real progress in closing achievement gaps.
Unfortunately, at every point in the professional pipeline to teaching, America is failing to attract and retain the brightest candidates. Young people with high SAT and ACT scores are much less likely to elect teaching as a career than other professions, and those who do are twice as likely to leave the profession after only a few years. Teacher shortages and sloppy assignment practices have resulted in many secondary school teachers being assigned to teach classes outside of their areas of expertise. One federal survey conducted in 2000 revealed that fewer than half of the teachers surveyed felt "very well prepared" to implement new methods of teaching or to teach the state or district curriculum, while only one in four felt very prepared to integrate technology into their instruction.
To make matters worse, the best teachers are not evenly distributed among schools. No matter how qualifications are measured – by experience, subject matter expertise, academic skills, or proven effectiveness in raising test scores – low-income, African American, and Latino children consistently get less than their fair share of good teachers.
The Center for American Progress has responded to this challenge with a detailed plan for federal action to support state and local efforts to improve teaching – Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force.
A critical component is the creation of a sophisticated career advancement system that recognizes teaching as a clinical profession similar to medicine. Such a system would require substantial practical training: classroom teaching time monitored by skilled instructors – just as is required of medical students. Also, much like medical students, graduates of teacher training programs (including alternative certification programs) would be required to participate in a two-year "residency" during which they would be closely supervised, regularly evaluated, and provided with on-the-job training and mentoring.
The American Progress action agenda also recommends offering experienced and successful teachers the opportunity to take on supervisory roles as mentors and master teachers (similar to attending physicians and chief residents). This will enable high-quality educators to be promoted without having to leave the classroom. Teachers would be paid on a competitive compensation scale that rewards results and a willingness to take on tougher assignments. Our plan also would enable schools to move away from the industrial-age model of one teacher lecturing to 30 or more students and toward an information age model that incorporates team teaching and more individualized instruction.
The American Progress plan also spells out concrete actions for the next Congress that address the gross inequities in teacher quality between schools in low- and high-income neighborhoods, increase retention by improving working conditions for teachers, and strengthen preparation programs for educators. We also call on Congress to fund development of the data and testing systems needed to measure student needs and progress.
If we are to meet the goal of leaving no child left behind, we must ensure that a child's address does not determine the quality of instruction he or she receives. In order to do that, we need to recruit and keep in the profession highly trained and motivated individuals and get them to the schools that need them the most. With professional development, improved working conditions, opportunities for advancement and recognition of teacher excellence and results, we can accomplish these goals.
• Read the Progressive Priorities chapter, 'Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force'
Carmel Martin is the associate director for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress.