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Improvements in Teaching and Learning

Posted: 2009-07-10

from Harvard Educational Review, Summer 2009. Here is their tagline: From the unique perspective gained heading Obama’s education policy transition
team, Darling-Hammond describes President Obama’s commitment to making the
education of every child a collective responsibility and reviews the major tenets of
the new administration’s plans for education. She reflects on the importance of
suggested policy changes, particularly focusing on the importance of legislation to
improve teacher capacity and retention. Finally, she considers how the field of education
might look in 2016 should the Obama administration’s education agenda succeed
as planned.

Darling-Hammond skips Obama's 2005 education speech, written by the Center for American Progress, "Teaching Our Kids in a 21st Century Economy."

There is plenty to discuss here--under the high-sounding rhetoric. Critiques welcomed.

President Obama and Education:

The Possibility for Dramatic

I write this article just as I am concluding my work heading President Barack

Obama’s education policy transition team, able finally to contemplate the

implications of the road map he has adopted for educational reform and

investment. Although there will be much politics and many competing pulls

as his plans roll out, I believe Obama’s administration has the opportunity to

transform our nation’s schools. The reasons have as much to do with the president

himself as with his plans, as comprehensive and strategic as those might

be. In this essay I touch on both, describing the potential that might be activated

in the coming years.

I volunteered to work with Barack Obama as a policy adviser shortly after

he announced his candidacy and long before most pundits thought he had

any chance of being nominated for the presidency. What attracted me to his

campaign, beyond his refreshingly thoughtful perspective on world affairs,

were his early pronouncements on education. I sensed a sincerity and a depth

of commitment to education, a genuine concern for improving the quality of

teaching and learning, an intolerance of a status quo that promotes inequality,

and a drive to move our education system into the twenty-first century—not

only in math, science, and technology but also in developing creativity, critical

thinking skills, and the capacity to innovate—a much-needed change from the

narrow views of the last eight years.

The early group of education policy advisers comprised of about fifty people

organized in subcommittees around key areas where this energetic young

candidate knew he wanted to make a mark. Over the course of several months,

we talked nearly daily, broached and discussed ideas, researched, wrote, vetted

policy papers, and sent them on to the campaign staff. As Obama decided on

his platform, he asked for further refinement of plans in the areas he cared

most about: the development of a strong teaching profession, math and science

education, citizenship and encouragement of a service ethic, access to

college, and supports for at-risk students to prevent dropping out and to get

kids back in school.

Clearly this candidate was someone who had ideas about education, about

what children are entitled to educationally, and about what is required by and

for our nation. Having worked with many political leaders at the state and federal

levels over many years, I was pleasantly surprised by his appetite for comprehensiveness

rather than a quick-fix approach bound to be partial and inadequate.

I was impressed by his attention to detail and to evidence about what

could actually work to solve the problems we face, rather than what would

merely score political points.

Senator Obama released the most detailed education plan offered by any

candidate in any party on the same day he gave his first major education

speech in November 2007, long before other candidates began to talk about

education at all. He began this speech with a critical point that sits at the heart

of his leadership on this issue: all of us are responsible for the success of all of

our children. He said:

I was talking with a young teacher [at the Dodge Elementary School in Chicago],

and I asked her what she saw as the biggest challenge facing her students. She

gave me an answer that I had never heard before. She spoke about what she

called "These Kids Syndrome"—the tendency to explain away the shortcomings

and failures of our education system by saying that "these kids can’t learn" or

"these kids don’t want to learn" or "these kids are just too far behind." And after

awhile, "these kids" become somebody else's problem.

And this teacher looked at me and said, "When I hear that term it drives me

nuts. They’re not 'these kids.' They're our kids. All of them."

She's absolutely right. The small child in Manchester or Nashua whose parents

can't find or afford a quality pre-school that we know would make him

more likely to stay in school, and read better, and succeed later in life—he is

our child.

The little girl in rural South Carolina or the South Side of Chicago whose

school is literally falling down around her, and can't afford new textbooks, and

can't attract new teachers because it can't afford to pay them a decent salary—

she is our child.

The teenager in suburban Boston who needs more skills and better schooling

to compete for the same jobs as the teenager in Bangalore or Beijing--he is

our child.

These children are our children. Their future is our future. And it's time we

understood that their education is our responsibility. All of us. (Obama, 2007b)

Barack Obama's belief that every child is "our child," that the education of

each child is a collective responsibility, drives not only his education platform

but his fundamental, unshakeable commitment to making the investments

necessary to ensure each child’s opportunity to learn. This commitment was

visible in all twelve education speeches he delivered during the campaign and

in the transition process, as a dozen of us fine-tuned the implementation plans

and developed proposals for what would become a massive early investment

in education through the stimulus bill. In the short time since he was inaugurated,

President Obama has continually reiterated that he will make the investments

in education, as well as health care and green energy, that our nation

and its children need for a vibrant future. The more than $100 billion for

education passed in the stimulus bill is a sum nearly twice the size of the current

Department of Education budget and a down payment on his substantive

plans (U.S. Department of Education, 2009a).

No candidate has made such intense and consistent rhetorical and financial

commitments to education since Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was deeply

affected by his experience as a high school teacher before he went into politics.

After signing the Higher Education Act in 1965, Johnson returned to Southwest

Texas Teachers College—where his teacher training began—and noted:

I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen

Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing

then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because

they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this

nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any

American. (Johnson, 1965)

Both Barack and Michelle Obama enjoyed educational opportunities that

were, in part, enabled by what Johnson had accomplished forty years earlier.

These opportunities, together with the commitment of Barack's parents to

education and his own children's experiences receiving a high-quality education

at the University of Chicago's Lab School, have allowed him to see firsthand

the benefits of serious educational investments. Further, in his experiences

as a community organizer in Chicago, he witnessed the debilitating

effects of dismal education; and his participation in watching and guiding

school reform initiatives in the city allowed him to see the intense need for

these investments, which hold high stakes for children and communities.

Whatever the reasons, Barack Obama has outlined a set of ambitious plans

to transform American education on a scale not seen since the days of the

Great Society. Here I describe these plans from the vantage point of someone

deeply involved in developing them, and I discuss what I think they

could, under the right circumstances, accomplish. While the details will evolve

over time, with better or worse outcomes depending on the paths they take,

Obama's deep, personal commitment will drive major investments in education

in the United States on his watch. Fortunately, Obama is a thoughtful

and pragmatic politician with a thirst for effectiveness, so I expect midcourse

corrections to address false steps and problematic implementations that may

occur along the way.

A Framework for Obama’s Education Platform

While campaigning for the presidency, Senator Obama repeatedly pointed out

the acute need for dramatic education reform and investment, noting that,

as the bar for education is rising, U.S. performance has fallen further behind

other industrialized nations on every measure: early education enrollment,

K−12 achievement, graduation rates, college-going, and degree attainment,

especially in fields like math, science, engineering, and technology. He often

used an economic frame for these messages to make the case for those concerned

about American jobs and competitiveness. For example, in a May 2008

speech, Obama observed:

In a world where good jobs can be located anywhere there's an internet connection;

where a child in Denver is competing with children in Beijing and Bangalore,

the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge. Education is the

currency of the Information Age—no longer just a pathway to opportunity and

success, but a pre-requisite. . . . In this kind of economy, countries who outeducate

us today will out-compete us tomorrow. (Obama, 2008)

Indeed, U.S. students now rank thirty-fifth out of the top forty countries in

mathematics achievement and thirty-first in science. High school graduation

rates have slipped from first in the world in the 1970s to the bottom half of

industrialized nations as other countries have pulled ahead. The 30 percent of

young people who drop out cause an annual loss of $300 billion in wages and

taxes and additional social service and prison costs. The United States incarcerates

more people than any other nation on Earth, both absolutely and proportionately;

most inmates are high school dropouts and functionally illiterate.

At a time when three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require

postsecondary education, America’s college participation rates have declined

from first in the world to fifteenth. Educational resources and outcomes are

starkly unequal and are growing more so as our nation becomes “majorityminority”

(Darling-Hammond, in press).

While the economic frame often dominates education discourse, Obama

also returns continually to the moral arguments that drive his concerns for

equity and for an education that supports democratic citizenship. For example,

he argued that "this kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children.

It's economically untenable for our future. And it's not who we are as a

nation." He went on to say:

We are the nation that has always understood that our future is inextricably

linked to the education of our children—all of them. We are the country that

has always believed in Thomas Jefferson's declaration that ". . . talent and virtue,

needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth or birth."

That's who we are. (Obama, 2008)

This identification of the American mission with the education of all children

is a theme we can expect to recur as the president marshals the nation

toward a major commitment to educational quality and equity.

The president's broader education agenda combines forward-looking

reforms of teaching, assessment, and school design with critical strategic

investments that can reap large benefits for children's learning and for society.

I list the major elements below to describe why these elements are viewed

as important and how they are intended to fit together so that the educational

community at large can evaluate the platform. The central elements include:

A major investment in early childhood education. A $10 billion commitment

includes new support for states to create high-quality Zero to Five initiatives,

expansion of successful Nurse-Family Partnerships, and significant growth in

child care and Head Start programs. A Presidential Early Learning Council

and Early Learning Councils in each state, along with state challenge grants,

are intended to create a more seamless, high-quality, well-functioning system

out of the patchwork that currently exists. These investments are meant to

ensure that parents learn to support their children well in early life and that

all children have access to high-quality early learning programs, as these can

make an enormous difference in later educational success (for a review, see

Zigler, Gilliam, & Jones, 2006).

Initiatives to recruit, prepare, train, and reward teachers and leaders. As I discuss

further below, a strong professional teaching and leadership force is the backbone

of a strong education system. A comprehensive $6 billion investment

is intended to develop such a cadre of teachers. I expand on this element of

Obama's agenda in the greatest detail for the purposes of this essay.

Investments in innovation and student supports in public schools. Educators must

work in high-functioning organizations in order to serve students well. To provide

incentives to redesign schools still based on a factory-model created a

century ago, a set of investments targets reforms to create more personalized

and engaging middle and high schools, use technology to reinvent education,

invest in extended school days and years, expand afterschool and summer programs

to support healthy development, and foster new, more productive models

of education in charter schools and regular district schools. With a strong

interest in examining and funding effective strategies, the president proposes

to double funding for education research and development and create a new

Grow What Works fund.

Incentives to transform curriculum, assessment, and accountability. In addition to

moving toward higher levels of funding for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and

its successor, when it is reauthorized, President Obama has stressed that he

will seek to dramatically improve assessments, using richer measures that help

teachers teach and students learn. His plans also envision a more thoughtful

accountability system that considers how students and schools are progressing

on multiple measures of learning and performance.

Greater college access. As the United States falls rapidly behind other nations

in college access, Obama wants to turn around the shrinking federal commitment

to student financial aid so that any student who has earned admission to

college can attend. Plans include a $4,000 annually refundable and advanceable

college tuition tax credit for any American who completes 100 hours of

community service, which will cover about two-thirds of the cost of a four-year

public higher education, along with increases in Pell grants and direct

student loans that save money for students and the government. The plans

also include efforts to strengthen America’s community colleges, help them

improve their completion rates, and provide programs that prepare people

for well-paying jobs (Obama, 2007a).

While these programmatic elements may sound like disconnected pieces

when listed in speeches, they are pieces of a larger puzzle that fits together to

address the most pressing needs in our education system in ways that are appropriate

for federal action. In addition, Obama's plans for health care, employment

and housing supports, and community development to reduce poverty

are aimed at creating the wrap-around conditions necessary for children to

grow up in healthy, supportive neighborhoods. We know that the highest-achieving

nations create comprehensive supports for children's health, welfare,

and early learning, while developing a high-quality teaching force, thoughtful

curriculum pointed at higher order skills, supportive school organizations,

and accessible higher education (Darling-Hammond, in press).

Each of these elements is a focal point in Obama's plans, and each is currently

missing in the patchwork quilt of opportunity in the United States. Such

commitments have been either neglected by federal policy since the early

1980s, when the Reagan administration pushed back on most of the Great

Society programs, or undermined by the unintended consequences of No

Child Left Behind. Obama sees these pieces as connected and essential to

achieving his goals, and he has stubbornly resisted pressures to scale back his

thinking about what our children need in order to thrive.

Obama's agenda will require a new and different federal role in education--

not a more intrusive one, but a more strategic one that recognizes the

importance of innovating toward success rather than regulating toward compliance.

This role should encourage state and local innovation and continuous

improvement, enhance research and development to inform investments

in approaches that work, support success through useful technical assistance

and incentives, and create less fragmentation in federal programs.

Policy for Meaningful Learning and Assessment

What is unusual about this agenda, aside from its size and scope, is the extent

to which it goes beyond the usual policy concerns regarding funding, regulations,

and sanctions to consider the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling.

Central themes in Obama’s education plan are improved teaching focused

on the thinking and performance skills needed in a twenty-first-century society,

innovation in the design of schooling, and the reform of outmoded systems.

In what follows, I focus on these aspects of the agenda, which I believe are

both central for transforming schools and a needed antidote to the regulatory

approach of the last eight years, which has often reinforced the factory model

practices our schools have been trying to shed.

Improving Learning Goals

Speaking at an Expeditionary Learning school in Thornton, Colorado, Obama

(2008) talked about the twenty-first-century learning goals to which we should

aspire and the changes in curriculum and testing that those goals require.

As President, I will work with our nation’s governors and educators to create and

use assessments that can improve achievement all across America by including

the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem-solving that our children

will need to compete in a 21st century knowledge economy. The tests our

children take should support learning, not just accounting. If we really want our

children to become the great inventors and problem-solvers of tomorrow, our

schools shouldn't stifle innovation, they should let it thrive.

This statement signals that discussions about school improvement and

accountability will begin to include issues of curriculum, teaching, and learning

that have been ignored in the emphasis on high-stakes testing under No

Child Left Behind. Current state standards are typically a mile wide and an

inch deep, and tests focus on lower-level skills of recall and recognition. While

we increasingly use multiple-choice tests to deliver ever more hard-edged sanctions

to students, teachers, and schools, thus driving teaching to emulate the

tests, high-achieving nations use assessments that focus on disciplined understanding

by emphasizing essay questions and open-ended responses as well

as research and scientific investigations, complex real-world problems, and

extensive use of technology. These assessments are not used to rank or punish

schools or to deny promotion or diplomas to students. In fact, several countries

have explicit proscriptions against such practices. They are, instead, used

to evaluate curriculum and guide investments in professional learning-in

short, to help schools improve (Darling-Hammond & McCloskey, 2008).

Many analysts believe these curricular and assessment differences are

among the reasons U.S. students have fallen further and further behind their

international counterparts on assessments like the Program in International

Student Assessment (PISA). International studies have found that U.S. curricula

provide superficial coverage of too many topics without the in-depth

study, research, and writing needed to secure deep understanding (see, e.g.,

Schmidt, Wang, & McKnight, 2005). U.S. curricula also remain bounded by

the set of courses and topics recommended by the Committee of Ten in 1893

and is largely measured by multiple-choice testing technology that was a "modern"

innovation in the 1950s.

Encouraging more performance-oriented measures of student achievement

is critical to getting the kind of learning we need in schools and to closing

the "global achievement gap" (Wagner, 2008). However, the every-grade,

every-year testing requirement of NCLB—coupled with the way the law has

been administered—has discouraged the use of performance assessments that

motivate ambitious intellectual work. Several states abandoned performance

measures because of the law's requirements; others have had to fight to keep

those tasks that meaningfully engage students in writing, analysis, open-ended

problem solving, and scientific investigations.

There are also serious problems

with the use of inappropriate tests for evaluating English-language learners

and special education students, who require more sophisticated measures to

show what they know and more sensitive accountability tools to monitor their


To address these problems, Obama has pledged to provide funding for

individual states and consortia of states to develop higher-quality assessments,

including an Innovation Fund that encourages a "Race to the Top" among

states (U.S. Department of Education, 2009b) to adopt better assessments

that drive richer curriculum and instruction. Investments would enable states

to make sure such assessments are reliable, valid, and practically feasible by

supporting teacher professional development and training for scoring assessments,

developing moderated and audited scoring systems, and establishing

calibration processes that help ensure that scores are fair and consistent, like

those in high-achieving countries. Investments in assessment development in

a renewed research and development enterprise within the Institute of Education

Sciences could support not only more performance-oriented approaches

but also more appropriate assessment for special education students and


language learners. Efforts to develop, test, and disseminate more valid

assessments in the content areas for these students would help states include

them more appropriately in accountability systems and provide more useful

information to their teachers and school systems.

Finally, the federal government can also model higher-quality items and

tasks that better measure standards by accepting and refining the newly developed

blueprints for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which

are designed to evaluate students' abilities to solve problems and explain and

defend their ideas. Together these efforts could finally and firmly point the

United States toward twenty-first-century knowledge and skills rather than

holding it hostage to the nineteenth-century conception of learning and

mid-twentieth-century testing technologies that currently render much of the

knowledge acquired in school inert and unused.

Improving Teaching Capacity

Of course, a more ambitious curriculum requires a strong teaching force able

to engage in sophisticated practices. Although NCLB requires that all teachers

be "highly qualified," strategies for producing and equitably distributing a

strong supply of well-prepared and effective teachers have been lacking since

the 1970s.1 Shortages of teachers in high-need urban and rural schools have

grown worse as inequality in school funding and salaries has grown. Concerns

about the quality of preparation are widespread, and demands made on teachers

for sophisticated knowledge and skills to meet the needs of diverse learners

are growing, but little has been done to improve most teacher preparation programs—

either through investments or strong accountability that could leverage

productive change (Darling-Hammond, 2006; in press). High-


nations routinely prepare teachers to very high levels at state expense, pay

them competitively and equitably, and support their learning throughout their

career (Darling-Hammond, in press). By contrast, the United States makes no

systemic investments on this scale, and teacher quality is both haphazard and

unequal across the country.

President Obama has emphasized the need to recruit, prepare, retain, and

reward a strong, equitably distributed teaching force; to improve the quality

of preparation for teachers; to develop compensation systems that reward

and develop excellent teaching; and to ensure a supply of strong teachers in

all communities. One of the areas of the platform on which I worked most

intensely is the development of a long-term infrastructure for a universally

strong teaching force based on what we have learned from research and successful

practice. These outcomes will depend, however, not only on a systemic

approach that engages states, localities, and institutions in transforming current

practices in sustainable ways but also on the resolution of the deep inequities

in school funding that continue to make teachers the least equitably distributed

resource in our schools.

Recruitment and Retention

To enlist and keep well-qualified teachers in every classroom, Obama's education

agenda includes $1 billion annually in service scholarships that cover all

tuition costs for preparing high-ability teachers who will commit at least four

years to teaching in high-need fields and locations. This investment will underwrite

the training of 40,000 teachers annually, enough to ensure qualified

teachers in all of the classrooms currently filled with untrained teachers and,

by reducing attrition, to stem the churn in these schools. Similar programs

have successfully brought and kept talented candidates in high-need fields in

North Carolina and South Carolina, among other states (Darling-Hammond

& Sykes, 2003). As Obama has stated, "I will make this pledge to all who sign

up--if you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for

your college education" (Obama, 2008). Nations with high-achieving students

routinely offer all of their teachers full financial support for high-quality preparation

(Darling-Hammond, in press). Such support is the least we can offer

those who teach in the schools where they are most needed.

The plan also includes incentives to attract expert veteran teachers to high-need

schools through a career ladder initiative, which will offer additional compensation

to teachers based on their expertise as well as their willingness to mentor

and coach other teachers and to work in the places they are most needed.

The plan will support mentoring programs for all beginning teachers nationwide

through a matching grant to states and localities to upgrade and expand their

efforts to ensure coaching. These programs will draw on the skills of expert

teachers to help beginning teachers survive and succeed, reducing attrition

and increasing the capacity of the teaching force while supporting serious

evaluation prior to tenure.

Teacher Preparation

We must also reinvent teacher preparation so that teachers can meet twenty first-

century learning needs and develop sophisticated pedagogical skills. Providing

strong ongoing learning opportunities for teachers will require incentives

to reform preparation, including stronger national accreditation standards

that evaluate programs through a nationally available teacher performance

assessment, and incentives to drive programs toward the most successful preparation

models that focus on how to teach standards-based content to diverse learners,

including special needs learners and English-language learners.

As I have seen repeatedly since I entered teaching myself, and in the many

years during which I have worked with teachers, a key element of reinventing

preparation is addressing inadequate clinical training in most traditional

and alternative programs. Just as medical education had to invent the teaching

hospital to ensure that doctors would learn to practice more effectively,

teacher education must ensure that candidates learn under the direct supervision

of expert teachers working in schools that serve high-need students well.

Teaching cannot be learned only from books or even from periodic mentoring.

New teachers must see expert practices modeled in all of their complexity

and must practice such pedagogy with ongoing support from coaches in

the classroom (Darling-Hammond, 2006). Where this support occurs, teachers

make gigantic strides in their abilities to serve students effectively and are

more likely to continue in the profession.

However, student teaching often occurs either without models of expert

practice or in classrooms that do not serve high-need students, so what teachers

learn cannot be generalized to meet the needs of the students most new

teachers will teach. Practice teaching under the wing of a veteran teacher is

often reduced or omitted entirely in the alternative programs to which many

urban districts turn. This leaves many teachers trying to imagine what good

practice would look like, and most failing to reach the levels of success their

students need them to reach. This fundamental problem must be tackled and

solved at scale if we are to prepare an adequate supply of teachers who are

competent and confident enough to work effectively in our highest-need areas

across their careers.

Obama has proposed to expand the use of professional development school

models that, like teaching hospitals, offer year-long clinical experiences under

the guidance of expert teachers. In addition, he has proposed to launch a

set of urban teacher residency programs where teacher candidates apprentice

with the city's best teachers while completing coursework in curriculum,

teaching, and learning at a partnering university. Rather than the usual sink-or-

swim model that leaves many urban teachers floundering for much of their

(often short) careers, these recruits watch experts in action and are tutored

into accomplished practice. They receive a salary, master's degree, and teaching

credential and two years of additional mentoring. In exchange, they teach

for at least four years in the city schools--the point at which most commit to a

career in teaching. Models like this in Chicago, Boston, and Denver have kept

more than 90 percent of recruits in teaching for five years or more (Darling-

Hammond, 2008).

Programs like these can solve several problems simultaneously—building

a pipeline of committed teachers who are well-prepared to engage in best

practices for children in high-need schools while creating demonstration sites

that serve as models for urban teaching and teacher education. Obama has

pledged $200 million for such programs—enough to send tens of thousands

of better-trained recruits into high-need classrooms each year and to begin

to turn around the unremitting problems of education for poor children in


Professional Development

We know that effective professional development requires intensive, sustained

opportunities for learning that are embedded in the subject matter and connected

to teachers' work with their own students. Furthermore, teaching

improves when teachers get time to collaborate to share best practices, review

student work, and plan curriculum and lessons together (Darling-Hammond,

Wei, Richardson, Andree, & Orphanos, 2009). Yet, the conditions for this

kind of learning are relatively rare in the United States, where most teachers

typically have only about three to five hours per week for independent planning

and tend to attend short workshops rather than receive sustained, job-embedded

professional learning experiences. By contrast, in most European

and Asian countries, teachers have about fifteen to twenty-five hours per week

to spend on preparing, analyzing, and observing teaching with other teachers.

Teachers do most of their planning collectively, in the context of subject-matter

departments, grade-level teams, or large teacher rooms where their

desks are located to facilitate collective work. This allows them to develop

coherent curricula and well-designed lessons that Stevenson and Stigler (1992)

refer to as "polished stones," as well as to work together to solve problems of

practice. Obama's plan includes incentives not only for designing more effective

professional development but also for establishing common planning and

professional learning time that is the norm in high-achieving nations.

Career Ladders for Teachers

Obama's Career Ladder Initiative is intended to provide funding to districts

that are prepared, in collaboration with teachers, to create opportunities for

high-achieving veteran teachers to gain additional compensation by serving as

mentors and by leading curriculum planning, professional development, and

school reform efforts. Programs in participating districts are intended to build

professional learning and compensation systems that develop and recognize

knowledge, skills, and accomplishment in the classroom, including contributions

to student learning as well as willingness to provide leadership in hard-to-

staff locations.2

Career ladder programs must include differentiated supports and compensation

in ways that recognize and develop growing expertise. Such ladders

would include support for beginners, who will have the opportunity to move

from a novice level of teaching to professional status as they demonstrate competence

and effectiveness, thereby earning tenure and increased compensation.

Professional career ladders would also offer opportunities for advancement

as teachers gain expertise and move into leadership roles associated with

their knowledge and skills. The opportunity to mentor and coach other teachers

creates an incentive for expert veterans to remain in teaching as they gain

from sharing and learning with their colleagues.

Finally, the Career Ladder

model would reward teachers for deep knowledge of subjects, increased skill

in high-need areas (i.e., special education or bilingual education), and expert

teaching performance.

This approach to compensation and recognition can have positive spillover

effects for both individual and organizational improvement that are more

productive than annual merit pay bonuses for a handful of teachers, which

often lead to competition rather than collaboration and discourage growth

in collective knowledge and skills. Schools should also benefit as they become

organized to take advantage of the knowledge of accomplished teachers and

to incorporate professional learning at every stage of the continuum, ending

the teacher isolation that has impaired the improvement of teaching in many


American Education in 2016

While federal policy agendas are invariably reduced to lists of specific initiatives,

Obama's platform takes a much bolder and potentially more productive

approach by tackling key issues at scale, including early learning, strong teaching,

forward-looking curricula and assessment, and college access. The proposed

investments in teaching and school leadership are particularly critical

for K−12 education, where ideas for specific projects, interventions, and fads

constantly swirl, coming and going with dizzying regularity. Studies of educational

reforms consistently confirm that the success of any innovation depends

on the capacity of teachers to carry it out. Schools without a stable group of

competent, committed educators simply cannot get traction on educational

improvement (Fullan, 2007).

If the promise of the Obama education agenda is realized, in 2016 we could

see a nation in which all children have access to the health care, housing, and

high-quality preschool experience that will allow them to start each school

day ready to learn. We could see a nation in which all children enter well-resourced

schools where highly skilled and well-supported teachers organize

exciting learning opportunities that prepare students for this technological,

knowledge-based world. We could see a nation in which young people have

access to the higher education opportunities that will be required to open

doors throughout their lives. If Obama's educational vision can survive and

guide the messy policy process that lies ahead, our children may have the kind

of opportunity to learn that will ensure our nation’s future.


1. Federal Law 107-110 (the No Child Left Behind Act) requires that teachers be “highly

qualified” by demonstrating competence in the subject area they teach and holding a

regular, non-emergency state certificate.

2. Where districts are addressing shortages in high-need schools, they will need to address

the teaching conditions in those schools—ensuring strong administrative leadership;

reasonable class sizes; and the necessary books, materials, and equipment to support



Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Powerful teacher education: Lessons from exemplary programs. San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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