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Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
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Teacher Equity, Teacher Preparation, Teacher Success

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued a call, under its Excellent Educators for All initiative, for every state to provide an “equity” plan detailing how they would ensure that effective teachers were in every school. In doing so, ED implied we can no longer stand by policies or practice that shortchanged high-need schools when it came to excellent educators.

In recent years (or even in recent decades), it has become all too common for folks to accept that our “best” teachers are the ones going to the well-funded, suburban schools, while our high-need schools – be they in urban or rural communities – are left wanting.

Of course, it is unfair to say that the schools that need great teachers the most are the ones least likely to get them. Even in our most struggling public schools, there are excellent teachers who are transforming the lives and futures of the students they are entrusted to educate.

But ED’s call for equity action was not based on fairy tales or urban legends. Whether it be because of lack of resources, lack of support, or a host of other personal reasons, it is harder to keep excellent teachers in high-need schools. Some leave for “easier” schools or districts. Some leave for administrator positions. And far too many leave the profession entirely, worn down by the job itself.

Yes, it is important we have excellent teachers leading every classroom, particularly those that need extraordinary teachers the most. Yes, it is important that good teaching is not defined solely by student test scores or classroom resources. And yes, it is important that we recognize our societal shortcomings in building strong, long-term pipelines of excellent educators.

So while ED is asking states for plans to ensure a fair distribution of good teachers, shouldn’t we be asking what we can do to dramatically increase the number of said excellent teachers? Shouldn’t we look at how we can best improve teacher preparation, boosting it in ways that keep exemplary teachers in even the most challenging of classrooms? Shouldn’t we take a close look at what is needed to help teachers excel (and stick around) those high-need schools?

This summer, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (where I serve as chief communications and strategy officer) took a look at some of those questions. In examining the federal government’s call for equity in teacher placement, we looked at our own work transforming teacher education in five states. As part of our Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship program, we work with 28 universities, transforming their teacher education programs for the specific purpose of developing excellent teachers for high-need classrooms.

In examining what was most effective in preparing educators for the challenges and opportunities of high-need classrooms, we found a number of lessons that could be derived from our efforts in states like Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio:

  • Teacher preparation programs must be selective and must focus on the recruitment of excellent teacher candidates;

  • Rigorous coursework, extensive clinical preparation, and substantial mentoring through the first years in the classroom are the essential components of strong teacher preparation;

  • Accountability for all stakeholders is essential, but good data is a prerequisite to make accountability real; and

  • Improvements to existing teacher education programs need to be developed for the long term, with clear plans for sustainability if proven effective.

Additionally, we found that strong collaboration was necessary to transform a program from meeting the needs of the little red schoolhouses of yesteryear to meeting the demands of the digital information centers of today’s schools. That means higher education and k-12 working together to identify needs and improve programs. It means the SHEEO and the state chief partnering to improve teaching. And it means to governor and the legislature, regardless of political party, working together to prioritize both teacher education and effective teaching across the state.

As I recently told American Youth Policy Forum, “If you have a good teacher in charge of a classroom to do what is necessary to educate the kids, the kids learn. There’s no getting around that.” And if you have a good teacher education program preparing those teachers, equity and success soon follow.