Overcoming Challenging School Environments

Teacher quality and related issues (i.e., teacher preparation, recruitment, and professional development) ranked among the highest priority areas among a sample of education policymakers surveyed by the Institute of Education Sciences. And it is not surprising that quality teaching also emerged as a central theme in one recent series of Policy Forums.

These Policy Forums—designed for policymakers, other local leaders, and national experts to discuss critical education policy issues that impact students, schools, and communities—examined current and emerging research on major questions about improvement in content knowledge and pedagogy as they relate to improving teacher quality. Policymakers and other stakeholders learned about promising ideas and practices and discussed applications and implications for future policy and research.

While addressing many issues related to improving teaching quality, the Policy Forums focused on the following three key aspects of teacher quality:

– raising standards for and assuring quality in professional preparation and development programs;

– effectively identifying and addressing causes of staff shortages; and

– providing high-quality teaching for students in the most challenging school environments.

Focusing on Standards and Quality

States are working feverishly to meet the requirement of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education continues to evolve with input from the field, providing increased flexibility for states to address challenges posed by the law.

Policymakers across the region agree that achieving their goals will necessitate going beyond having teachers pass certain tests and/or meet current certification requirements. They recognize the need for data on teachers and teaching to inform their decision making. Policy Forum participants learned that many research efforts have begun to concentrate more deeply than ever before on (a) what teachers know about the subjects they teach, (b) how well they can transmit that knowledge, (c) how to assess their competence and performance appropriately, and (d) how to inform ongoing improvements in these areas. Research highlighted in the Policy Forums reinforced the importance of these issues to improving teaching quality and the fact that teaching quality matters a great deal in student success.

Studies show that students who receive higher quality teaching for 3 consecutive years score much higher than students who have lower-quality experiences. Studies examining mathematics and science instruction reveal that teachers’ solid content knowledge is essential to successful student learning. At the same time, definitions of “high quality” vary widely; and answers to questions about how much content is enough and when more (or what type of) course work for preservice and inservice teachers will improve student outcomes, remain unclear.

Many state agencies and organizations have already undertaken reviews of issues associated with teacher quality. This review resulted in agreement about critical content knowledge and teaching skills that new teachers lack, including:

– understanding state standards and using them as the basis for instruction,

– integrating technology into curriculum and instruction, and

– teaching reading effectively in elementary school.

The Policy Forum participants noted important areas in which to concentrate next steps, resulting in recommendations for action and follow-up. Decision makers, ranging from state legislators to local boards of education and teachers’ and parents’ groups, have expanded opportunities to discuss data that can help them understand, conceptually and practically, teacher and teaching quality. These decision makers have shown heightened interest in standards as important components in all quality improvement efforts.

In addition, states, local education agencies, and other institutions have focused on assessing the effectiveness of recent and ongoing reforms to improve teaching quality. This work, within and across states, offers increasing guidance to support the interventions that demonstrate success or promise in addressing the issues of teaching quality and student achievement and to change those practices that do not.

Identifying and Addressing Staff Shortages

The Policy Forums revealed the need to identify staffing problems correctly in order to design appropriate remedies. Often, education stakeholders attribute school staffing problems to an insufficient supply. Policy Forum participants dissected critical staffing issues with the experts and then examined implications for policies that support sound preparation of qualified teachers, as well as effective recruitment and retention practices. These discussions helped policymakers gain a more expansive understanding of the problems and probable solutions.

Increasingly, research has shown that the issue is much more complex than having an insufficient supply of teachers. Indeed, critical shortages exist in certain fields and levels (e.g., mathematics, science, technology, special education). However, recent data indicate that the retention of highly qualified teachers constitutes a major challenge in all areas, with turn-over and attrition contributing significantly to teacher staffing problems. Ingersoll, for example, found that “school staffing problems are not primarily due to teacher shortages, in the technical sense of an insufficient supply of qualified teachers, rather they are primarily due to excess demand resulting from a ‘revolving door’—where large numbers of qualified teachers depart their jobs for reasons other than retirement.” Many teachers move to more attractive teaching positions; others leave the profession. According to one recent analysis of national data shared with Policy Forum participants, about one third of new teachers leave teaching sometime during their first 3 years of teaching and nearly half leave after 5 years.

Having an improved understanding of the complexities surrounding teacher shortages helps policymakers advance policies to tackle staffing issues more specifically. Jurisdictions are supporting or exploring many initiatives, including (a) legislatively earmarked recruitment strategies that identify needs and remedies specific to a district’s staffing situation, (b) salary and other compensation incentives to attract and retain qualified teachers, and (c) expanded partnerships beyond the education community tailored to address particular gaps.


Central to the issues covered in the Policy Forums is the challenge of how to assure that the students who face the biggest hurdles within and outside the classroom receive stable, high-quality teaching. Student access to well qualified teachers varies widely, with students in poorer and more racially isolated schools—too often low-performing schools—having inexperienced, uncertified, and out-of-field teachers. Low-income and high-minority schools face the greatest challenges in averting the devastating impact of poorly trained and skilled teachers over several school years. Teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools report poor working conditions (e.g., poor facilities, books and other materials in short supply, large class sizes, and little administrative support) that contribute significantly to high attrition of good teachers and their aspiring but less experienced colleagues from specific schools, as well as from the profession. These challenges indicate a need to address teacher distribution, teacher support, and teaching resources to improve the learning opportunities for all children.

Sharing this knowledge about teacher quality with policymakers and other education stakeholders makes it more likely that policymakers will use data and best practices as they make decisions in support of strategies that will improve student achievement and ensure school success.

Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.

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