Improvements in Teaching and Learning
Publication Date: 2009-07-10
from Harvard Educational Review, Summer 2009. Here is their tagline: From the unique perspective gained heading ObamaĂ˘s education policy transition
President Obama and Education:
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 childĂ˘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 CollegeĂ˘"where his teacher training beganĂ˘"and noted:
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 ObamaĂ˘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,
KĂ˘'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:
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, AmericaĂ˘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 Ă˘majorityminorityĂ˘
(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:
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 AmericaĂ˘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 ObamaĂ˘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.
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 NCLBĂ˘"coupled with the way the law has
been administeredĂ˘"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 programsĂ˘"
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.
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-
Programs like these can solve several problems simultaneouslyĂ˘"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 programsĂ˘"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
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-
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
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 KĂ˘'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 nationĂ˘s future.
1. Federal Law 107-110 (the No Child Left Behind Act) requires that teachers be Ă˘highly
qualifiedĂ˘ 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 schoolsĂ˘"ensuring strong administrative leadership;
reasonable class sizes; and the necessary books, materials, and equipment to support
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