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Deborah Loewenberg Ball

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Can Teachers Make a Difference?

Posted: 02/02/11 04:28 PM ET

Education matters. President Obama was emphatic: We do big things. America's success depends on the success of our youth. Calling on parents, policymakers, members of the business community, and teachers at this, our generation's "Sputnik moment," the president called for hard work, discipline, and commitment to the quality of our nation's schools. Teachers were on center stage -- again.

Fifty-four years ago, at the launch of Sputnik, Americans were similarly worried about mathematics, science and being passed by other nations. But we were younger and more naïve. We were only three years past the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that we thought would put an end to segregated schools. Decades of education reform and programs lay ahead of us, and yet to come was the Coleman report that challenged our faith in the power of schooling. Although we had thought we could win the space race with better education, we did not know how to get it for our students at scale.

But, despite disappointments and failures, Americans have always pinned high hopes on schools. We have had teachers who inspired us. We saw teachers change people we thought lost. President Obama praised teachers and lauded their impact three separate times in his speech, and called for people to contemplate becoming teachers, to be like the "nation-builders" of South Korea: "Your country needs you."

President Obama is right. Having an effective teacher can make several months of difference in a student's learning gains across even one school year. But creating our own cadre of nation-builders here in the United States is not something we have ever done.

To build a skilled teaching force, we must face facts. First, being successful academically is not enough to be effective at helping children succeed. Second, teaching requires specialized knowledge and skill. Third, these skills can -- and must be -- taught. It is unacceptable to expect new teachers to acquire the skills they need to effectively teach by learning on job. There are real children sitting in classrooms while well-intentioned adults try to invent the practice of teaching on the fly. Nor is it responsible to expect new teachers to simply figure it out, and then measure the extent of their on-the-job training after the fact.

To meet the president's call to action, we must do something different this time. What we need is reliable, effective teaching for all students, not just those who win lotteries, live in affluent communities, or are lucky. We will need about 1.7 million new teachers across the next five years. Even if we become much more selective as other high-performing countries are, we will still need to prepare those recruits to understand academic content in the special and flexible ways that teachers need to, to motivate reluctant pupils, and to explain complicated ideas to children from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. Getting this teaching is a problem of training, both initial and continuing, and not merely one of sanctions, rewards or other incentives.

We need to agree on a common core of the most essential capabilities for skilled teaching. Examples include being able to diagnose common student difficulties, explain core ideas and procedures understandably, lead a productive discussion, manage a classroom for learning, and work effectively with students with special needs. On this central core, we need to build assessments, using the best technology and tools available, that enable us to determine candidates' readiness for practice, and to monitor teachers' capability and continued development over time. And the settings for teaching matter as well: the success of our best schools shows the need for organization that enables teachers to work with others to examine data on students' progress, to analyze the efficacy of particular lessons or approaches, to plan instruction, and to adjust lessons to students' needs.

Training. Assessments of practice. Continuous improvement and attention to results. This is what we do in the other professions and skilled trades. But we put students at risk every day that we maintain the myth that teaching is a natural act, or believe that it is efficient to figure it out one classroom at a time.

We know a great deal about skillful teaching and about how to develop it. Some of what we know comes from the practices in other countries, and in other professions.There are people and programs around the country building promising new approaches. We also have learned lessons from some successes in school reform. In addition, 47 states have signed on to support, for the first time, a common core in English language arts and mathematics.

Teachers can make a difference. But for this to happen at scale, we need to stop leaving to chance what is involved, and instead, set out to build the system that can produce effective teachers. We can do this big thing: We need to pool what we know and put it to use.