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‘What Matters Now’: Empower Teachers, Reorganize Schools for Success

In a new report issued August 10, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) calls for reorganizing schools to better cultivate deep learning for all students. The report, What Matters Now: A New Compact for Teaching and Learning, lays out an ambitious vision for educator-driven improvements buttressed by a coordinated system of policy and community supports.

To achieve its ideal of increased teacher agency, leadership opportunities, and collaborative accountability, NCTAF promotes capitalizing on the occasion presented by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to rethink education at the state level. The report says a more innovative and customized approach is needed to bring about more equitable, engaging learning and recommends forming broad-based, state-level commissions to accomplish the work.

“We know what it takes to cultivate engaging learning environments, and we are challenging every school system around the country to recognize teaching as the primary engine driving improvement,” said NCTAF President Melinda George. “We encourage a new compact for teaching and learning that asks more of teachers in growing in the profession and meeting the needs of their students, while also supporting teaching through aligned resources and supports.”

The “new compact” proposed by NCTAF is based on new supports for teachers.

Six recommendations are outlined to achieve this vision:

  1. Policy makers should establish and broadly communicate a new compact with teachers.
  2. Every state should establish a Commission on Teaching, Learning, and the State’s Future.
  3. States and districts should codify and track whether all schools are “organized for success.”
  4. Teacher preparation should be more relevant and clinically based.
  5. States should support all new teachers with multiyear induction and high-quality mentoring.
  6. Education leaders should evaluate all professional learning for responsiveness and effectiveness.

In preservice preparation, clinical practice and a solid base of pedagogical content knowledge are among the “key conditions” identified by NCTAF to enable new teaching dynamics and a commitment to professional collaboration and growth. Teacher candidates also must practice social-emotional competencies and the “deeper learning skills” of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creative problem solving, the report says.

“In their preparation programs, candidates have to experience the pedagogy and deep learning they will be expected to implement as practitioners,” said AACTE President/CEO Sharon P. Robinson. “Deep learning does not mean that upon program completion, they know all that they will ever need to know. Rather, candidates must understand that their experience in practice will reveal issues, questions, and challenges that are unfamiliar. And they should be confident that support for searching out the answer, or designing a new possible answer, will be provided by colleagues and the system.”

Launched 2 decades ago by Linda Darling-Hammond (now of Stanford University and the Learning Policy Institute), NCTAF articulated the major points of the teacher-quality agenda in its 1996 report What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future. Although many of that report’s recommendations have since come to fruition, progress has been uneven.

“The changes have not been systemic enough,” said NCTAF Cochair and former Secretary of Education Richard Riley at the release event last week. “We have not put in place the conditions that allow all teachers to thrive and thereby help their students be ready for college, their careers, and their lives.”

Some of these challenges have been exacerbated by the narrowly focused policy and accountability mechanisms under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which ESSA is now replacing. NCTAF Commissioner Richard Schwab, dean emeritus of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, said in an interview that this policy shift—in addition to the changes of a new presidential administration next year—provides fertile ground for enacting the NCTAF report’s recommendations. “With the NCLB era finally over,” he said, “and the outing of the econometric model that has driven reforms in recent years, we’re ready to listen to common sense” by placing reforms in the hands of teachers.

The trick will be aligning state and district policies to support their work for the long haul. Darling-Hammond, who now serves as a NCTAF commissioner, said innovations too often get rolled back with the turn of the political wheel. “Deliberate system action” is the key, she said, to change that is scalable and sustainable. “Every state should establish a commission on teacher learning and the state’s future,” she said. “This is a moment when that’s possible. ESSA allows us to turn the page to look at new ways of approaching state plans.”

Schwab encourages educator preparation leaders to jump on the opportunity to help set the agenda in their state. “I believe the best people to lead the stakeholder groups are deans and senior faculty—people with high credibility with practitioners in the field,” he said. “They know the state, they know educational research and best practice, and they have a broad national perspective on key educational issues. Who better to lead these changes?”

What Matters Now is available on the NCTAF website along with a supporting document presenting “The Evidence Base” for state and local policy makers, holding up successful examples as models for transforming teaching and learning. Also posted is a recording of the August 10 release event, which featured several inspirational and informative speakers from around the country.

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