How Can States Help Teachers Improve?

In our recent report, The Mirage, we found that in spite of a huge investment in teacher development efforts, most teachers are plateauing before they master critical teaching skills. Our current approach to helping teachers improve just isn’t all that helpful. But what can we do about that?

Because professional development is frequently offered at the district or school level, state education leaders and policymakers may not immediately see a role for themselves in remedying this problem. But in fact, states can play a critical role on two fronts: driving innovation in teacher improvement strategies and creating the conditions to improve teaching at scale.

What does that mean? Rethinking how states measure and track progress, provide incentives and ultimately allocate resources toward what works in teacher development. Here’s a set of starting points to consider:

Leverage the state’s unique position to focus local efforts on outcomes and encourage innovation.

One of the obstacles we uncovered in The Mirage to quality teacher development was a failure to set clear, measurable goals for district initiatives. States are in a great position to encourage districts to establish measurable goals for teacher development. They can start by:

  • Eliminating arbitrary development requirements, like time spent in professional development or limiting the use of state funds to specific types of professional development. Any requirements coming from the state should focus on the measurable impact of professional development on teacher practice and student achievement.
  • Leveraging the state’s funding authority and powers. States should offer incentives to districts to identify (and expand) successful teacher development initiatives supported by state or federal funding, by providing additional funding for initiatives that produce impact on teacher practice and student achievement.

Explore bolder, holistic changes to teacher preparation, teacher roles, and the classroom.

Professional development is just one strategy among many to improve the quality of instruction. Rather than focusing exclusively on conventional teacher development, states should also support pilot programs that rethink how to deliver great teaching to all students by testing changes to traditional school models and roles. As a starting point to encourage innovation in workforce and school design, states will need to allow for flexibility from prescriptive and rigid systems. They can start by:

  • Creating innovation zones that offer districts a path to test new approaches to improving instruction. States can use waivers and additional funding to incentivize districts to create non-traditional ways of preparing and certifying teachers, such as through in-house district programs designed around district-specific visions of excellent instruction.
  • Allowing districts to create new entry-level positions. New roles would offer a way to progress toward a full teacher role over time, such as through on-the-job training of paraprofessionals or teaching assistants. States should also encourage districts to articulate clear expectations and measures of effectiveness for each instructional level.
  • Removing or relaxing class size restrictions to support alternative school design models with flexibility around class size, schedules, and student seat time requirements, among other structures to ensure more students have access to excellent instruction.

In addition, states should examine their funding structures. In order to ensure they do not create barriers to realizing a reimagined role for the teacher, states can start by:

  • Eliminating pay scale restrictions to encourage districts to pay teachers and teaching candidates based on their performance, specialized skills, and the needs of the district rather than strictly based on seniority.

States should also examine the barriers to entry to the profession that may exclude urgently-needed talent, e.g. candidates with math, science, and bilingual skills, without resulting in higher quality by:

  • Removing arbitrary teacher training requirements like seat time requirements and increasing innovation in the field, through waivers from requirements that don’t improve the performance of new teachers.  
  • Rethinking educator preparation accountability systems so that they reinforce new expectations for the role of the teacher and the needs of schools and students in their state (like preparing teachers in chronic shortage areas).
  • Replacing inputs-based licensure requirements like courses taken, where teachers are trained, hours spent on specific activities, and advanced degrees with a system that is competency-based and reflects progression on the teacher career pathway.

These ideas are a starting point—not an end point. What’s most important is that state leaders, like the rest of us, shift away from the assumption that we know what works when it comes to teacher development, and instead create systems that remove barriers to innovation and end policies that have not been shown to improve teaching and outcomes for kids. That will look different in different places—but everywhere, state leaders and policymakers have a clear role to play in efforts to unlock the full potential of our teachers. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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