Transforming Teaching

A Harvard white paper analyzes teaching problems and suggests a ‘system’ to build teachers’ expertise

The Transforming Teaching Project, a Harvard-based initiative allied with education organizations across the nation, has released a white paper offering a comprehensive analysis of the problems with American teaching and detailing “Twelve Design Challenges” to transform the teaching field.

The white paper, entitled “From Quicksand to Solid Ground: Building a Foundation to Support Quality Teaching,” written by Harvard Graduate School of Education associate professor Jal Mehta and his colleagues, argues for the development of a reliable and integrated set of mechanisms—a functioning system—to build teachers’ knowledge, skills, and expertise. The paper’s authors also challenge the education sector to codify current and future research and practical knowledge about quality teaching to improve teacher effectiveness in every classroom and to advance the field of education overall. The paper is the result of a two-year effort to assess the state of the field, drawing on interviews with 60 sector leaders and 25 teachers, and initial pressure testing of ideas with several hundred educators.

“The quality of a teacher is the most critical school-based factor in student success. But we do not have a reliable system to build teachers’ knowledge, skills, and expertise,” comments Mehta. “These Twelve Design Challenges are critical first steps toward transforming the teaching field into one that is professional, consistently high quality, rewarding, and revered.”

The paper has been endorsed by those seeking to improve and professionalize teaching across the political spectrum. Organizational endorsers include the National Education Association, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future, Deans for Impact, and Teach Plus. Individual endorsements include Norman Atkins, president of the Relay Graduate School of Education, Orin Gutlerner and Michael Goldstein, founding directors of Match Education, and Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and emeritus professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

“This paper powerfully describes the challenges we must address to create the systems that our teachers deserve and our students need,” said Darling-Hammond. “In an era in which we are committed to helping all students think, reason, collaborate, and participate in democracy, we need to develop the kind of systems in which teachers are similarly supported, challenged, respected, and given opportunities to work together to develop deeper skills that will create a better future for their students.”

The paper argues that there are three interrelated dimensions of the problem and the solution. The first is what the authors call the “missing R and D (research and development) system,” the absence of usable knowledge about good teaching and the lack of intermediary organizations to get what knowledge there is into the hands of teachers. “There is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom in the heads of many practicing teachers. Almost every problem in teaching has been solved by someone somewhere,” said Mehta. “But that knowledge is largely invisible. There is no way for other teachers to access it. We need to create mechanisms by which teacher knowledge is shared, vetted, and made accessible to other teachers.”

The second dimension is the systems supporting teacher learning, the mechanism for getting knowledge into action. The paper argues that teacher learning at all stages of the pipeline needs improvement, and that we need more alignment between teacher preparation, induction, and ongoing professional development.

“Historically, the incentives in America have been for teacher preparation to be ‘fast and cheap’ rather than longer and higher quality,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of Bank Street College of Education and a member of the Transforming Teaching leadership team. “If we want to improve teaching, we need a way to change these incentives so that high-quality residency-like training becomes the rule rather than the exception.”

The third dimension is the policy and political ecosystem that supports teaching. The paper argues that policy changes are needed to make teaching more attractive, affordable, and selective, diversify the teaching corps, create career ladders, and develop assessments that are consistent with 21st-century competencies.

One particularly noteworthy proposal in the paper is the idea that America should develop “teaching hospital” schools that would be centers for the training of new teachers, as well as places where researchers and master teachers could collaborate to develop new knowledge. Jesse Solomon, the executive director of Boston Plan for Excellence and a leadership team member, is working to create “Teaching Academy” schools in Boston which are modeled after teaching hospitals.

Collectively, the Twelve Design Challenges seek to attract the most talented students to teaching, providing them and their practicing peers with support and actionable information about what good teaching looks like; ensuring introductory and ongoing training that provides them with the requisite skills and knowledge for classroom and student success; identifying certification methods that are rigorous and performance based; and forging new career pathways where master teachers anchor both teacher training and ongoing knowledge development.

Many of the elements within the proposed system and addressed in the design challenges are happening in pockets across the nation. What makes the Transforming Teaching Project’s approach unique is that it calls for greater collaboration and cohesion across the higher education, P12, and policy environments. By bringing together representatives from the field of education, state and district agencies, nonprofits, philanthropy, and teachers unions, disjointed or siloed efforts are identified and opportunities for greater collaboration can emerge. Transforming Teaching held its first two convenings last May, bringing together many of the top organizations in the nation to work on these problems. Many of these individuals are part of a leadership team for the Transforming Teaching Project.

The Transforming Teaching Project’s next steps include widely disseminating the Twelve Design Challenges to the field; continuing to collaborate with education, academic, and political leaders on the creation of the proposed system; and building capacity to share information and knowledge about teaching excellence.

Visit www.ToTransformTeaching.Org to download the report.