Series Introduction: Helping Our Teachers 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.
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Series Introduction: Helping Our Teachers

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Series Introduction: Helping Our Teachers

Series Introduction: Helping Our Teachers

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

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.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Hi, there.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Hello.

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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