Series Introduction: Helping Our Teachers

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Everyone from President Obama on down seems to agree that a good teacher can make a huge difference in a child's life. American schools have been trying for decades to improve teacher quality. The results are mixed. Over the next year, NPR will explore those efforts and take a look at the latest crop of teachers entering the profession.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Everyone from President Obama on down seems to agree that a good teacher can make a huge difference in a child's life. American schools have been trying for decades to improve teacher quality. The results are mixed. Over the next year, NPR will explore those efforts and we'll take a look at the latest crop of teachers entering the profession.

NPR's education correspondents Claudio Sanchez and Larry Abramson are in the studio to elaborate. Welcome to both of you.



HANSEN: Claudio, I want to start with you. Education reformers have been talking about improving teacher quality for years. What's different about what's going on now?

SANCHEZ: Today, it seems the level of urgency is much higher. Think back to the late 1950s when we were comparing American teachers to that big threat, the Soviet Union and its teachers and how much better they were. We could go to the mid-1960s and the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which made compensatory education, helping poor kids improve in school, and the front and center of that was, of course, improving teaching.

And then we go to the mid-1980s, the 1983 "Nation at Risk" that sounded the alarm as to how mediocre our schools were, in large part because of teaching. 1989: the Summit on Education with the first Bush administration chiming in.

And now, 2000 - in 2001 with the passage of No Child Left Behind, it codified minimum standards for what teachers should have and know before they went into the classroom. And that included a four-year degree or a B.A. before they went into teaching, full state certification before they entered the classroom. And a teacher had to show or demonstrate the subject matter competency, which meant that they needed to understand and know math, science, history before they taught it. This conversation is changing now even more because there is serious money behind it.

HANSEN: Larry Abramson, the Obama administration has boosted education funding pretty substantially. How much is actually going toward programs for teachers?

ABRAMSON: Well, if you ask the administration, they'll say quite a bit. I mean there's a program called the Teacher Incentive Fund, which has over $400 million in it. This is actually a Bush administration initiative, which Democrats like to criticize but now they're trying to rejuvenate it and have actually doubled funding for it. But it's really focused on changing -instituting performance pay in a lot of systems.

It's not really a ground up effort to try to change the way teachers are trained. And it's very difficult for the administration to do that because that is really a state function. It's done by teachers' colleges in coordination with a state accrediting agency. And I think that's something that Claudio and I have seen quite a bit, is that accrediting standards across the country are still different. They're viewed differently. They change all the time. It's very hard for the federal government to have an influence on that process.

HANSEN: Claudio, talk a little bit about the teachers' colleges. Are some of these reform efforts actually aimed at them?

SANCHEZ: Certainly, and there is evidence out there - for good reason. There are roughly, last time I checked, 1300 colleges and universities in this country that are offering teaching degrees. I've had people tell me that no more than 50 are really doing a good a job, and that's astounding to me.

In the time I spent with some teachers' colleges for this series, it's clear that the pressure on them is enormous. And the pressure is not just coming from the outside, it's coming from the inside as well. The National Council for Accrediting Teachers' Colleges, for example, says it now is going to require these programs to prove that they're relevant.

And, again, for us to be talking about, you know, making the education or the training of teachers relevant to the real world is amazing, because so many teachers, the bulk of teachers these days are in schools where they're really not being well-prepared.

HANSEN: Larry, how about efforts to attract people from outside the teaching profession to go into teaching? How is that working out?

ABRAMSON: Well, this is actually an area of great hope, I think, that people see that this isn't a profession that you necessarily need to join right in college. And some of the most promising teachers are people who have switched careers. You see in all of these privately run non-profits, like the New Teacher Project, the Boston Teacher Residency, Chicago Teaching Fellows - which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was deeply involved with, that they are actually - even though they're relatively small compared to the four million teachers that are in this country - they actually are pushing revolutionary change that is kind of infecting the teachers' colleges that we're talking about.

And a lot of these teacher colleges are actually taking their direction from some of these residency programs. And there's a great deal of hope seen, I think, in those areas.

HANSEN: Larry, you mentioned pay for teachers' compensation being tied to performance. Do you think that's going to happen?

ABRAMSON: Well, it's happening. But I have to say it's happening really slowly and it's happening on the margins. And the kinds of incentives that we're seeing are important and they're radical change in teacher contracts, which were mostly based on seniority. But they still don't really impact the bulk of teacher compensation. I think it's going to be a long time before we see really meaningful change in that area.

SANCHEZ: And, Liane, if I may add, it's not just the concept of pay for performance. It's really the evaluation process, what goes into determining what a good teacher is doing and how they're doing it.

HANSEN: Look forward to your series of reports over the next year. NPR's education correspondents Claudio Sanchez and Larry Abramson, thank you very much.

ABRAMSON: You're welcome.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

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Series Overview: What Makes A Teacher Qualified?

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What is a good teacher and what goes into making one? Over the next year, NPR will try to answer those questions as we examine how teachers are evaluated, rewarded and disciplined. hide caption

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What is a good teacher and what goes into making one? Over the next year, NPR will try to answer those questions as we examine how teachers are evaluated, rewarded and disciplined.

Next In The Series

Disappointed in the quality of teachers, school districts are expanding alternative licensing programs in the hopes of finding better, brighter talent. On Tuesday's All Things Considered we introduce you to Beverly Harvey, as she switches careers, and jumps into the classroom after a crash training course. Throughout the school year we plan to follow the former bank executive who is beginning her first teaching job at an elementary school in Prince George's County, Md.

Everyone from President Obama on down seems to agree: a good teacher can make a huge difference in the life of a child.

American schools have been trying for decades to improve teacher quality, with mixed results. Over the next year, NPR will explore those efforts, and look at the latest crop of teachers entering the profession.

Teaching performance is difficult to improve in part because the profession is so large. With about 4 million teachers in the profession, efforts to boost quality tend to take place on the margins. Many efforts focus on expanding the pool of new teachers entering the workforce, and on encouraging more teachers to work with special education and low-income students.

Considerable blame has been directed at the certification process. State requirements tend to steer teachers to traditional teacher colleges and require specific hours of coursework. And since all states have different requirements, teachers often find it's best to go to college in their state. This helps create a hiring market that is very localized. Many teachers end up working close to where they themselves went to elementary or high school.

Nearly all states have opened up alternative routes to certification. These programs are supposed to make it easier for mid-career professionals to jump into teaching, while getting credit for the leadership skills they bring with them. But many studies say these alternative routes have come to resemble the typical college route. Many are run by teacher colleges and tend to require unnecessary coursework that discourages career changers from making the switch.

Teaching fellowships have been gaining support, particularly in urban areas, as a way to ground new teachers in classroom experience. The New Teachers Project, founded in 1997 by current D.C.-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, aims to lure career-changers from other professions into teaching. The program has been influential in helping to engineer quality training programs for new entrants. As part of our series, NPR will follow the path of a New Teacher corps member through her first year in a classroom.

By many accounts, teaching fellowships and programs such as Teach for America are helping to raise the standard for all teachers. As TFA becomes established, more of its members are staying beyond their two-year commitment and embracing teaching as a lifelong career. TFA has become an important model for shaking up the profession, but the program still supplies only a small percentage of new teachers each year.

The vast majority of teachers still come through traditional teacher colleges. These schools have been facing growing pressure to raise their standards. Because of the ongoing teacher shortage, teacher colleges find it easy to keep enrollment high. There are a number of proposals in different states meant to raise the standards for accepting students into teaching programs. But it's unclear that raising GPA or SAT requirements will result in more effective teachers.

Other countries have attacked the issue of teacher quality with some success. In Finland, only 15 percent of those who apply to teacher colleges are accepted. Teachers there receive three years of graduate training at state expense and don't have to worry about accruing huge amounts of debt. In contrast, American educators have talked a great deal about ways to raise the status of teaching, but the profession remains saddled with a stigma that discourages many talented people from signing up.

For years, teachers have been rewarded for getting advanced degrees. But some research suggests that teachers with master's degrees are no more effective in reaching their students. Systems that try to restructure their compensation schemes run into resistance from teachers, who fear they will have no assured way to increase their compensation. As a result, most teachers still get rewarded for advanced degrees, continuing education and for longevity in the system, even though there's no guarantee these factors will improve performance.

The Obama administration has raised the profile of these issues and has committed new money to programs that promise to improve teacher quality. In many ways, the stars are aligned for progress in teacher training, since there's agreement that better teaching is essential. But it will be tough to achieve far-reaching change in a profession that is so decentralized and so accustomed to making do with little.



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