Across the country, hundreds of thousands of hard-working, committed, and idealistic educators are dedicating themselves to the task of delivering a great education to their students and preparing them for the challenges of college and beyond. But data reveal that only a fraction of American twelfth graders are proficient in math and reading, and a significant portion of students who enroll in college require remediation.
What will it take to close the gap between effort and outcomes?
In a speech in 2018, former teacher Robert Pondiscio made the case that one vital change we must make is to professionalize teaching, which in his definition means changing how we train and support teachers so that mere mortals have a better chance of succeeding at the job. Pondiscio argues that we have made the job of teaching virtually impossible. Not only do our education schools neglect to equip new teachers with foundational knowledge and skills they need to do their job (how to effectively manage a classroom, for example, or teach reading), we also ask our teachers to do far too much.
Imagine you’re a typical third-grade teacher. On a daily basis, your set of to-dos looks something like this: Deliver curriculum in an engaging, effective way. Target instruction so that every student can learn, regardless of their level or particular challenges. Reach out to parents when students are struggling and find out how you can better support them. Oh, and while you’re at it, design your curriculum practically from scratch and assemble all the materials you need to teach it.
We can all agree that teachers are heroes, but is it fair to ask them to be superheroes? Until we address these fundamental flaws in how we treat our educators, it will be difficult to make headway in improving outcomes for students on a broad scale.
A number of charter school networks, including the one I operate, Success Academy Charter Schools, point to a promising way forward. These networks have taken a dramatically different approach to preparing, equipping, and supporting teachers and it is a key reason why they have been so successful in raising student performance.
At Success Academy, for example, we have a team (made up largely of former SA teachers) that develops and continually refines a centralized curriculum based on a clear vision for what we want our students to know and be able do by the time they enter college. This curriculum is used across our 47 schools and is adjusted each year based on educator feedback and student performance data. Teachers receive virtually all of the materials they need to teach each day: readings, assessments, problem sets. This frees them up to spend their planning time on mastering content, studying student work, and preparing to deliver the curriculum in way that is effective, engaging, and individualized to meet student needs.
We also invest enormous time and resources on teacher training and collaboration. Our teachers have up to 450 hours of training each year and continually collaborate with their peers and leaders within and across schools to get better at what they do. The centralized curriculum means that all of this work can be specifically focused on how to deliver great instruction and support for students, rather than on what to teach. School and instructional leaders are able focus their limited time and energy on supporting teachers with the precise skills they need to be effective in their classrooms, including how to study student work to inform instruction and address academic emergencies.
This system is designed around the central premise that teachers are not superheroes: They are ordinary human beings who need and deserve adequate tools and support to do their job well. Only when we make a similar shift across the nation will educators’ success in the classroom reflect the extraordinary love, effort, and commitment they dedicate to our children each day.