TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Reflections on the pandemic and the power of teachers

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In the past month, we have been witness to trauma and tragedy in our schools, and we have also been given many reasons to celebrate accomplishments. My newsfeed is full of proud faces as students and families celebrate commencement at every level, from kindergarten to graduate school. Students, teachers, administrators, ed prep colleagues, school support staff, and families navigated this difficult school year (one that we all had hoped would be more routine) with innovation, grace, and commitment. Persistence and resilience in the face of so many challenges deserves celebration.

Yet while we celebrate, we must also double-down on our efforts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the paramount importance of teachers in advancing student learning. While the path to recovery will require significant efforts in varied directions, a central truth has not changed: A highly skilled, diverse teacher workforce remains the most powerful way schools can achieve better outcomes for all students. As such, NCTQ is steadfast in our mission of ensuring that every child has access to effective teachers and that every teacher has the opportunity to be effective.

It is this mission that drew me to NCTQ, where I am honored to now serve as President, grateful to the Board for their support and to Kate Walsh for her legacy of impact. Since my days as a 4th grade teacher in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, the question that drives me remains the same, though the scale is different: How do we best serve our students to ensure their education gives them access to post-secondary choices of their own making? A strong teacher workforce is central to this, and the stakes could not be higher for our nation.

Fundamental to this work is addressing educational inequity—both opportunities provided to students as well as outcomes produced. The pandemic has exacerbated these gaps, with devastating consequences for historically underserved students. Recent research describes student test scores in fall 2021 as decreasing considerably compared to the year before the pandemic. Students' math achievement, which serves as a strong predictor of high school graduation, appears to have fallen precipitously, and average scores for students of color, students attending high-poverty schools, and students in elementary schools were even more negatively impacted.

These inequities can persist into adulthood. A recent NCES Data Point report underscores the critical importance of an early focus on teacher quality to change the trajectory for children, well before they become adults. In 2017, they estimated 58 million adults were at the lowest levels of skill in mathematics, such as doing simple multiplication or interpreting tables or graphs. If we do not change our course and focus on teacher quality, we can anticipate these numbers growing, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

Now is the moment to chart a new path forward. Last month, NCTQ released the Teacher Preparation Review: Preparation for Teaching Elementary Mathematics, examining 1,111 programs at 941 institutions of higher education across the country that prepare future elementary teachers. There is promising news: Compared to a decade ago, undergraduate teacher preparation programs are now dedicating 19% more time for elementary math preparation. Yet we still have work to do. Despite more time for math overall, many undergraduate programs are not making optimal use of this time to include coverage of all of the key content topics and math pedagogy essential to fully preparing a new elementary teacher.

The findings for graduate-level programs should spur us even more urgently to change. The average graduate program preparing aspiring teachers spends only 14 hours of instruction on elementary math content (far below the 105 hours recommended by experts), as they overwhelmingly instead devote time to math pedagogy. If teachers do not know the content, no pedagogy course can make up for lack of mathematical knowledge—and they will be ill-equipped to teach students what they need to learn mathematics.

In an effort to provide guidance to the field on how we can strengthen math instruction for future elementary teachers and improve student outcomes, we feature 79 exemplary programs and make available course requirements from four of them, which can serve as a blueprint for programs looking to improve. We also provide recommendations to teacher preparation programs and states to accelerate progress.

With the pandemic's academic consequences so clear, preparation programs have a duty to provide aspiring teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills to accelerate their students' learning, and state education leaders have a responsibility to expect more of preparation programs. Every elementary teacher entering the classroom in the coming years must be prepared to help close learning gaps in math—and beyond.

In the nation's focus this past year on providing safe environments for students to learn and teachers to teach, we have not given enough attention to academics, prioritizing mask policies over mathematics and HVAC systems over reading instruction. Changing practice at scale, addressing learning loss, and building skills and knowledge of students demands urgent action by all sectors of the education community to provide access to effective teachers and support for them to be effective.

I look forward to working across the system with teacher preparation programs, states, districts, schools, and advocacy organizations, and to cultivating continued support from courageous funders to build and support an effective teacher workforce. All students, from the Pre-K children learning how to count, to the seniors studying statistics, deserve better than 'back to normal.' Our students deserve something greater. Working together, we can upend educational inequities and secure and support effective teachers for every student.