During the Obama-Biden Administration, there was much talk about teacher quality, closing the achievement gap, and ensuring our communities have the systems in place to drive the levels of improvement we have sought for so long. But with all of that rhetoric, there was little attention paid to the research, evidence, proof, and data that should be separating the good ideas from the great ideas.
As he begins his presidency, President Joe Biden enters after campaigning on the belief that we improve public education by lifting the profession and investing in teachers. And Biden rooted his entire campaign in the need to trust the science, to follow the very research and evidence that has long been lacking in education policy.
Twelve years ago, the Obama transition team was led by Linda Darling-Hammond, then a professor at Stanford University. Today, the Biden education transition was led by the same individual, only this time Dr. Darling-Hammond did it as the founder and head of the Learning Policy Institute and the president of the California State Board of Education.
Between these two stints, Darling-Hammond penned the book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. It has now been 10 years since the publication of the book, but the lessons it outlines offer a clear and compelling primer for comprehensive school system improvement. And it may just offer a blueprint for how Education Secretary-designate Miguel Cardona and his to-be-assembled team at the US Department of Education will pursue issues such as education improvement and teacher empowerment.
Darling-Hammond provides one of the strongest and most passionate discussions regarding the opportunity gap in the United States and the downright destructive impact it is having on both the educational quality and long-term value of our public schools. Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. Her writings provide specific action steps we can take (at a federal, state, or even local level) to implement the sort of comprehensive systemic reforms that may be required to truly address the opportunity gap problem, including:
Implementing stronger induction programs for teachers — We can’t ask new teachers to row our children to the promised land while only giving them half a broken oar. New teachers entering the classroom need strong content knowledge and pedagogical background and even stronger clinical preparation. Believe it or not, we can learn a great deal from our global competitors about how to properly prepare a teacher candidate, ensuring they have the knowledge, skills, and direction necessary to succeed in even the most challenging of classrooms.
Supporting quality educators — Teacher quality is not just about VAM scores or financial incentives for those who are boosting student test scores. New teachers (even the best of them) need mentors and a strong support network. School districts and states need to use tools like National Board Certification to both identify quality instruction in their classrooms and share that best practice with other teachers in the building, the district, and the state.
Designing effective schools — School structure does matter. When we look at the problems — resource inequities, getting good teachers in the classrooms that need them the most, and providing the necessary targeted interventions (particularly for ELL and special needs populations) — we need to create and support the school structures that are most effective in serving 21st-century students.
By looking to establish strong professional practice in all schools and promoting equitable and sufficient resources across the board, Darling-Hammond identifies a clear route to ensure that all students — including low-income students, students of color, and English language learners — have the teachers, curriculum, and level of resources necessary to achieve … and to make sufficient gains to begin to close that daunting achievement gap.
Does The Flat World and Education provide all of the answers? No, and it shouldn’t. This book provides some important lines of inquiry and thinking that should be front and center as we discuss the implementation of new funding streams as we recover from Covid and as we look at new investments that will come in Title I. As Cardona and his team look to completely reinvent Title II (both under ESEA and, likely, the Higher Education Act), Darling-Hammond’s data and conclusions on teacher induction and ongoing teacher support need to be central to the discussion. They may not be adopted whole cloth (and probably shouldn’t) but if they aren’t part of the debate, we are missing a central point to meaningful education improvement. We have ignored or avoided these discussions for too long. But if we are going to emphasize the science, then we should be looking to the data and the real-life case studies that can be pointed to in able to demonstrate true impact.
For too long, we talked about education improvement as if it is a lab experiment where we can substitute one ingredient for the next, and just move on to the next test. Darling-Hammond reminds us that teachers are at the core of our public schools, both good and bad, and need to be central to any school improvement effort. More importantly, though, she makes clear that we are not operating in an experimental vacuum. There are very real children who are affected by our decisions and those kids impacted the most are the ones that are neglected in the decision-making far too often.
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