Guiding Principles for Teacher and Leader Policy: Act on What Is Known

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This guest blog post comes from Danielle Gonzales, managing director at the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

This is the second of a three-part blog series exploring three guiding principles for policymakers looking to support and grow the teaching profession. The previous post shared three ways state leaders can use policy to prioritize, rather than prescribe, solutions. This post explores how policymakers can ground new initiatives in the latest research.  

Principle 2: Act on what is known about how students and adults learn. We know much about how the human brain works and how people learn. We know now that significant, lasting improvements in schools happen when there are trusting relationships, that learning needs to be applied and in context for it to take hold, that the learning environment matters and that black students benefit from having black teachers. These examples only scratch the surface of the evidence base, and there is an important role for state leaders to help translate these findings into policy.

Use multiple measures to identify and reward high-performing schools and support low-performing schools. Education systems are collecting more and more information about students’ learning experiences. This includes data from school climate surveys, attendance records, discipline referrals, teacher working condition surveys and teacher retention rates, along with student achievement data. States can support districts by providing analyses; procuring high-quality tools (surveys, observation protocols, etc.); partnering with nonprofits and universities to explore data; and creating incentives to support districts in the collection and analysis of data.

As part of its school improvement efforts, Kentucky examines all of this data together — not in isolation — to identify patterns and trends and then learns more through school visits and interviews. The state also provides resources to help districts facilitate this process at the local level. Illinois makes the 5Essentials climate survey available for free to all districts in the state.

Provide pathways and support to build teacher leaders. Distributed leadership models and more clearly defined roles and responsibilities for teacher leaders who lead adult collaborative learning processes in schools can be incentivized, resourced and studied to expand on promising practice.

Louisiana created content mastery positions grounded in math and English language arts content and pedagogy, knowledge of adult learning theory and the skills to facilitate high-quality learning experiences for fellow educators.

Increase the demographic match between teachers and students. Nationally 80 percent of teachers are white, while the majority of public school students are students of color. A more diverse teacher corps improves student outcomes on multiple measures, including academic achievement, discipline, attendance and graduation rates. States can consider new policies to diversify the teacher corps to help achieve these outcomes.

Washington is working to help districts diversify through a grow-your-own initiative that recruits teacher candidates from the community. Additionally, several states offer teacher residencies, allowing a more diverse pool of candidates to work as paid apprentices to skilled expert teachers while completing integrated coursework.

By tapping into the research on how students and adults learn, policymakers can make a difference supporting teacher development and improving school quality and student outcomes on a variety of measures. The final post in this series, coming next week, highlights ways that policymakers can take a holistic approach to student success.

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