Guest Column

What Matters Most: Investing in Teaching

Viewpoint by Linda Darling-Hammond


College graduate with academic major (master's preferred). Challenging opportunity to serve 150 clients daily on tight schedule, developing up to five different products each day to meet individual needs. Adaptability helpful since suppliers cannot always deliver goods and support services on time. Diversified position allows employee to exercise typing, clerical, law enforcement, and social work skills between assignments and after hours. Ideal candidate will enjoy working in isolation from colleagues. Typical work week 50 hours. Nature of work precludes use of telephones or computers, but work has many intrinsic rewards. Starting salary $24,661 with chance to earn $36,495 after 15 years.

This want ad describes a typical teaching position in the United States. It reflects an occupation structured nearly a century ago to process large groups of students through factory model schools. Teachers were treated as semi-skilled labor, with few investments in their education and few supports for their work.

What Matters Most, the recent report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, concluded that a lack of attention to teaching and teacher knowledge has been the missing link in school reform. Research shows that teacher expertise is the single most important predictor of student achievement.

Each dollar spent on more highly qualified teachers nets greater student learning gains than does any other use of school resources. Yet U.S. teacher education historically has been underfunded and uneven in quality. Teacher recruitment is haphazard. Standards for entry are inconsistent and frequently unenforced. Salaries remain well below those of fields requiring comparable education. Hiring and tenure decisions often are disconnected from any clear vision of quality teaching. Mentoring and professional development are the first things eliminated in budget cuts. At a time when hiring demands are greater than they have ever been, 30 percent of new teachers leave within a few years of entry.

Meanwhile, a growing share of educational dollars are spent on staff and activities outside of classroom teaching. Whereas classroom teachers comprise 60 to 80 percent of education personnel in most European and Asian countries, they are only 43 percent in the United States. By investing in teachers rather than educational bureaucracy, other countries pay teachers more, provide serious induction, and ensure ongoing professional development. Rather than fund add-on programs to compensate for the failures of teaching, they spend their resources on what matters most: well-trained teachers who work intensively with one another to improve their work.

Recently, many school districts have launched serious efforts to restructure schools and invest in teaching. Proactive superintendents are working with school boards and unions to improve hiring and aggressively seek out well-prepared recruits, partner with local universities to improve preparation and professional development, provide mentors for beginning teachers, create time for teachers to work and plan together, and provide supports for teachers to pursue advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

In Cincinnati, for example, teachers now are prepared in a 5-year teacher education program at the University of Cincinnati, the final year of which includes a full-year internship in professional practice schools created with the school district. New teachers receive a mentor in their first year and are seriously evaluated for tenure, which is no longer a pro forma decision. Teachers engage in ongoing professional development at the Mayerson Academy. And they progress through a career ladder that rewards knowledge and skill, encouraging excellent teachers to stay in the profession and share their abilities with others.

Progressive school leaders realize that mandates cannot transform schools. Only teachers, working with parents and administrators, can do that. If students are to be well-taught, it will be because they have knowledgeable and well-supported teachers, who are the central investment of schooling and the linchpin for school reform.

Linda Darling-Hammond is professor, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, New York, and directs the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.