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March 13, 2019

Reform Trends Too Often Miss the Real Difference Maker: The Teacher 

By NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen

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The difference maker is and always has been the teacher. New ideas will trend and then fade, but the teacher is the constant.

Over the past several years, I've had the opportunity to visit hundreds of schools and talk with thousands of teachers across the country. It does not matter the state, the district, or the classroom: All of us face the challenge of ensuring that our human capital—our teachers and principals—are equipped to advance student learning and meet the expectations that have been set.

This challenge is made harder because we as leaders (state, university, district and school) often fail to help our teachers develop a strong foundation for how to teach. We see too few educators ready for the work they are asked to do as new teachers, and professional development and support often are woefully lacking in setting up systems that will have a deep and lasting impact on teachers and students. Some of our new approaches to attacking this problem continue to be lackluster—and, I would argue, they miss the most important element: the teacher.

One of the ways I have seen school leaders try to support their teachers and students in meeting higher expectations is by investing in new and better curriculum. This is quite popular right now among education reformers and traditional school leaders alike—and that's in part because it actually does make sense. Better, deeper and more aligned curriculum should provide teachers with greater support for meeting better, deeper standards that boost student achievement. The problem is this: While the likelihood of success is there, the way in which these new materials are understood and used by teachers matters even more. It always, always comes back to teacher quality and support.

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A one-time, sit-and-get professional development session on how to use a new textbook series does not provide the support needed to fully utilize these new materials, nor do ill-conceived notions that scripted curriculum will engage and develop teachers in such a way that creates a no-miss solution for kids. Both of these notions fail over time—as highlighted in a recent study released this week—without deep attention to implementation with the teacher.

These curriculum approaches are predicated on the idea that teachers all start in a certain place and are robotic in how they approach their craft. Like students, teachers start in different places with their own understanding of the deeper content they are being asked to teach. They are also dynamic, creative individuals who bring their own individual knowledge, experience and interests to what they are teaching. Simply put, they need ongoing support to meet, understand and personalize the expectations of new curriculum.

Another popular approach that school leaders take is hiring academic coaches. This is usually done with the best of intentions, as school leaders understand both the value of educators teaching their peers and the value of ongoing support. The challenge with coaches is that what they do and the way in which they do it varies dramatically, and therefore does not always add the desired value to student improvement. This is typically because leadership has not spent the requisite time on defining goals that the coaches are directly responsible for, or adequately developing coaches to maximize their potential, or making clear how teachers are expected to engage with coaches to continue to improve their craft.

I am convinced that these well-intentioned ideas wain and fail over time because they lack what we know accelerates progress—coherent systems of focus and support that put educator expertise and growth at the center.

This is the approach I have observed across the country and that NIET has found to be most successful. Our systems of support are centered on helping teachers and students understand the greater purpose behind their learning, push themselves to greater levels of excellence, and make those connections that ultimately help everyone improve. Because of that, our work has led to success in classrooms across the country—all with different settings, but all of which face that same challenge. 

Where leaders set aside time for professional learning focused on teaching practices connected to greater expectations and then evaluate teachers based on these practices, trust is built.

Where school leaders offer robust levels of teacher support and opportunities for teacher leadership (not just one academic coach) along with defined goals and measures to understand success, then new curriculum reforms have the ability to flourish.

Where academic coaches are learning alongside other teacher leaders and their principal, teamwork begins to evolve as a core value.

And, most importantly, where this robust system of support is created, all students begin to grow. While a new curriculum or adding an academic coach can be a powerful tool for improvement, it must be coupled with a direct focus on the real difference maker: an effective classroom teacher.