Nan Austin

TeachStrong envisions a new way to train and treat teachers

A campaign with support from many sides is being unveiled to improve teaching and elevate the profession. Its vision is a career arc, starting with raising the bar to get into teacher education programs, and giving better training, better teaching support, and a career ladder within the profession.

Labor leaders, school reform groups and industry organizations have signed on with the coherent plan and goals of Teach Strong, unveiled Tuesday by the nonprofit Center for American Progress. The 40 groups named stretch from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, the two largest teacher unions, to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“Though many initiatives to support teachers have been launched, it is time to make a comprehensive effort to modernize the teaching profession a national priority,” said Carmel Martin, CAP executive vice president for policy. “Campaigns to recruit good teachers have been waged before – but recruiting talented people into the same weak system will never result in significant gains for students.”

The organization details the change and recommendations to achieve it in a report, “Smart, Skilled, and Striving: Transforming and Elevating the Teaching Profession.” The report leads with this 1997 quote by a former dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, Judith Taack Lanier:

“Imagine a school where teaching is considered to be a profession rather than a trade. The role of teachers in a child’s education – and in American culture – has fundamentally changed. Teaching differs from the old ‘show-and-tell’ practices as much as modern medical techniques differ from practices such as applying leeches and bloodletting,” wrote Taack Lanier.

The quote seems to illustrate both a grand vision and an ivory tower perspective. The fact is that a key component of Common Core is getting teaching out of the lecture and quiz regimen. And part of the resistance to Common Core is resistance to that change. Though research shows students get the least out of listening, many teachers still primarily lecture to classes and many parents still expect it.

And while teaching is widely considered a profession, it retains the option of training like tradesmen.

Take the typical teacher salary schedule, its rows showing longevity steps and its columns education credits for higher pay. So-called step and column pay increases continue every year, no matter what is won or lost at the bargaining table. Though no longer as widespread, many schedules still have a first column showing the pay levels for a teacher without a bachelor’s degree.

That baffling designation is for teacher interns in a combined degree and credential program, who learn on the job under a supervising teacher, much as an apprentice learns under a journeyman.

There is another large but largely unnoticed group of on-the-job trainees: substitute teachers. Some subs are credentialed teachers, but a credential is not required. Those who have a bachelor’s degree and pass a test and a background check get a 30-day permit.

That allows them to teach up to six weeks in any classroom before they move on to the next classroom, and the next, and the next. While most people think of a sub as someone working a day here, a day there, itinerant instruction is a full-time, career position for many. Schools with a teacher on leave or an unfilled teaching position can use subs to teach a class for months at a time.

The fill-in system when fully credentialed teachers are not available will figure heavily in internal administrative discussions over at least the next five years as a large number of retirements intersects with a gap in teacher education enrollments. California enrollments in teacher preparation programs have dropped 48 percent from 2009-10 through 2013-14.

It is a good time to rethink entry into the profession, which is the first of nine points emphasized in the TeachStrong campaign.

1. Identifying and recruiting more teacher candidates with great potential to succeed, with a deliberate emphasis on diversifying the teacher workforce

2. Reimagining teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates

3. Raising the bar for licensure so it is a meaningful measure of readiness to teach

4. Increasing compensation in order to attract and reward teachers as professionals

5. Providing support for new teachers through induction or residency programs

6. Ensuring tenure is a meaningful signal of professional accomplishment

7. Providing significantly more time, tools and support for teachers to succeed, including through planning, collaboration and development

8. Designing professional learning to better address student and teacher needs and to foster feedback and improvement

9. Creating career pathways that give teachers opportunities to lead and grow professionally

The cost of every one of the points is not even hinted at in the campaign rollout. The sheer scale of K-12 education means big money is tied to competing interests at every point. Higher pay (No. 4 above) is just the tip of the iceberg.

Then there are the perennial sticky wickets:

▪ The first teachers to make it across the higher bar will enter a system geared to reward seniority first, putting them last in the pecking order for placement and retention.

▪ Though not explicitly mentioned, teacher evaluation would have to factor into support and professional development for either to be worthwhile.

▪ Moving teacher tenure from automatic to being “a meaningful signal” promises a robust discussion, as does creating career pathways within teaching instead of administration.

The robust discussion, however, is long overdue, and California, with the highest percentage of children in poverty, has the most to gain from an elevated and diverse teaching profession.

TeachStrong is a good start on a grand plan. Time will tell if the collective vision is strong enough keep 40 organizations marching forward together.