For years, educators, parents, researchers and policy makers have discussed and debated ways to improve student achievement in America’s schools.
They’ve focused on class size, achievement testing, state funding and teacher quality. But rarely has the discussion focused on what specific area of improvement philanthropists and non-profits may want to pay particular attention to at this time.
A report issued this month by Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) in the School of Social Policy and Practice says improving teacher quality, especially among those who work with high-need students in grades 6-12, “represents a great opportunity for private philanthropy to make a difference, bridging the gap left by public investments and offering donors a chance to leverage investments in the earlier grades and sustain their impact.”
Authored by Kate Barrett, lead analyst on teaching quality for CHIP; independent consultant Katherine Hovde; Zehua Li Hahn, CHIP’s senior research assistant in education; and Katherina Rosqueta, the founding executive director of CHIP, the comprehensive report includes findings and insights about teacher quality reform provided by Penn’s Graduate School of Education as well as other leading policy, education and social research organizations. Funding for the report came from the Ford Foundation, which Rosqueta says also served as a partner in development of the final document.
According to the report, federal support for secondary school education “is dwarfed by funding to prekindergarten through sixth grade and postsecondary education.” But, the report adds, successful strategies to improve teacher quality do exist.
“With this report we wanted to drill down and understand how donors could make a difference. Our mission is to enable the flow of philanthropic dollars where it can do the most good,” says Rosqueta. “The report isn’t meant to sit on a shelf.”
The report points to five critical areas where private donors can effect change: Improving preparation for teachers-in-training before they ever enter a classroom; providing novice teachers with mentors, feedback and professional support; equipping teachers of all levels with meaningful and ongoing professional development that goes beyond one-day training sessions; improving the training and support of school principals; and supporting whole-school reform.
The 109-page guide provides concrete examples of what it calls “high-impact models” that have dealt successfully with the five critical areas of improvement identified by the authors. It also tells donors what they should look for when deciding whether to invest, what the direct costs to them may be, how student and teacher success is measured and what donors can do if they also want to influence policy changes directly.
For example, in the area of preparation of teachers-in-training, the report points to a program called Urban Teacher Residency United (UTRU), a network of residency programs, combining classroom apprenticeships with master’s-level course work and individual consultation. The residencies allow would-be teachers to get hands-on training, feedback and real-world advice from classroom veterans before graduating. The CHIP report explains that UTRU has successfully partnered with 16 school districts to develop 18 residency programs that in 2009 trained more than 500 teachers across the country.
Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology in the Graduate School of Education, says that by profiling successful models, the report allows donors to reduce their uncertainty.
“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” says Ingersoll, an expert in the study of teacher support and quality. “It seems like providing training and ongoing support for new teachers would be a no-brainer,” he says. “But traditionally, teaching has been a sink-or-swim situation. Providing some induction, some mentoring, absolutely helps them survive, and that’s the sort of thing where targeted money can help make better teachers, and make those better teachers stick around.”
Ingersoll says the question of how to improve teacher quality has become part of the national political agenda, and he cautions that the problem of recruiting, educating, supporting and keeping qualified teachers “will not change overnight.”
But, he says, targeting private money to help make schools places that support and retain effective teachers is a good idea, particularly since research shows providing training to new teachers results in academic achievement by students.
Nonetheless, the CHIP report also explains that donors must consider how local school district policies, as well as state and federal rules, may affect their options and the impact of their investments. It is key, the report says, for a district to be fully committed to an initiative in order for it to be successful.
Also, the report reminds donors that there are several “hot topics” within the national discussion regarding education reform right now, such as the development of a national common core curriculum, teacher compensation, teacher evaluation and unions. Donors should be aware of these issues and understand how they may impact their philanthropy.
In its conclusion, the report says that “the need to improve teacher quality is urgent and clear,” adding that in the past 20 years, “despite increases in per-pupil spending, dropout rates remain alarmingly high, achievement gaps persist and U.S. students rank behind their peers in many other countries.”
What America needs, the report states, is not a few great teachers, but “an army of great teachers and great leaders” to help high-need students achieve.