‘Country Prepped for Conversation on Education’

Symone James '16 (ED), a student teacher at W.B. Sweeney School in WIllimantic helps students with reading on April 26, 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Former Neag School dean Richard Schwab discusses a new national report that calls for greater support for teachers in order to improve learning for all students. Currently, more than 25 percent of teachers leave the profession after just four or five years. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

On Wednesday, the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF) released a report aimed at helping educators reorganize the nation’s education system in ways that support teaching, drive learning, and provide all students with the foundation needed to build a successful future. Building on a report the Commission issued 20 years ago, it addresses current challenges facing the nation’s educators and makes recommendations focused on improving teaching and learning in the U.S.

Professor Richard Schwab, former dean of the Neag School of Education and now Raymond Neag Endowed Professor of Educational Leadership, helped shape the new report, “What Matters Now: A New Compact for Teaching and Learning.” He describes it as a call to collective action ultimately intended to ensure that all students have access to great teaching.

Schwab is a longtime commissioner with NCTAF, a Washington, D.C.-area-based non-profit, and a current member of its board of directors. He spoke with UConn Today following a presentation Wednesday in Washington, D.C., where he and other practitioners and policymakers discussed the details of their latest report and the current education climate.

Q. What are the current challenges this report is intended to address?

A. Today, between a quarter and half of new teachers in the U.S. leave the field of teaching within their first four or five years on the job. This turnover incurs costs of more than $2 billion each year. At the same time, a mere five percent of high school students say they intend to pursue careers as educators, according to recent findings, and this is happening at a time when the achievement gap between high- and low-income students has been expanding over the past 25 years.

We have spent billions, passing endless pieces of reform legislation at the state and national level, yet still we have not succeeded in supporting or enhancing the teaching profession to the degree we must if we are to achieve the lofty goals all of us have for our nation’s schools.

Q. To what do you attribute this turnover?

A. My fellow commissioner, Jal Mehta, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, summed it up well: For so long, we have asked teachers to do too much. The system is radically over-invested in student test scores as the only indicator of success and teacher evaluations as the primary lever of improvement. Those things are important, but it’s a matter of emphasis, and the result of this overemphasis has been a narrowing of curriculum and a lowering of teacher morale.

The bad press on education is giving teachers mixed messages and, in many cases, teachers are the victims. People don’t understand the challenges teachers face every day, and the lack of resources. And not every education program prepares teachers adequately. The report points out that most of the 66 million public school children in the U.S. are students of color. A quarter of those students live in poverty and more than half qualify for free and reduced lunch. More than four million of today’s students are not native English speakers, and more than six million have identified disabilities or special needs. Many more are undiagnosed. This diversity of students and their needs presents new opportunities and challenges for educators.

Q. The focus of your remarks was on teacher preparation, your area of expertise. The report calls for action around a new vision of teaching and learning. What part does teacher preparation play in achieving that vision?

A. I was there to talk about what it takes to do quality teacher education. I believe we’ve made great strides. At UConn, w have a five-year integrated bachelor’s and master’s degree program that provides a variety of professional experiences and puts our students in diverse settings, from Hartford and East Hartford to Mansfield. We have higher than average placement, and retention rates that are among the highest in the nation.

But here’s the rub for me: Teacher preparation has to be built in partnership with schools. If we are really going to do deeper learning and we are setting up these teachers and preparing them, we can’t then put them in schools that are not going to help them become the teachers we have worked so hard to prepare. You can mentor all you want, but if you are teaching well over 100 students in a day, and half of those kids are English language learners, how are you going to do deeper learning from 8 to 2 and still get in a 20-minute lunch? We have to somehow take a look at schools in this country. We have to look at both ends of the continuum.

Q. To help teachers stay in the profession and thrive, the report outlines a new compact that puts teachers at the heart of systemic change. Can you elaborate?

A. In this environment, we need to ensure that teachers have the time and opportunity to shift their methods from encouraging students to find the “right” answers to helping students “own” what they learn and apply it in their everyday lives. This new way of thinking about teaching and learning will drive a new system that asks much of teachers but gives them the supports they need to be successful throughout their careers. Essentially, the new system will establish a new compact between teachers, states, and districts; between teachers, students, parents; and the education system as a whole.

Q. How does this report build on the one 20 years ago?

A. The first one, “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future,” changed the national discussion about what must be done to improve America’s schools so that all students experience success. The Commission drew attention to the overlooked fact that the most important variable affecting student achievement is the teacher. It made recommendations affecting every aspect of the teaching career, from recruitment and induction, to retention and recognition.

Since then, the traction created by that report has eroded. We have made great strides meeting the challenges, but then the political winds changed and the emphasis shifted. That’s why we felt the time was right, with all the talk of reform and when policy is shifting toward more engaging and relevant teaching and learning, to take a deep breath and look systemically at what we have to do.

I think our country is ready for a new conversation. If we could get 50 states to take a look, to breathe deeply for a year or two, and say let’s look comprehensively at what works and what doesn’t. To listen to all the voices and say okay, what do we know from research-based practice and what do we know teachers are doing every day.

We must move the focus from doing things to teachers that have no effect, or worse, make their jobs more difficult, to providing support that is research-based, consistent, and focused, and that fully engages teachers in designing the support they need and deserve.