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Supporting Teachers: Our Hoover Dam

• Matthew Joseph

During the Great Depression, the government funded major infrastructure projects, like dams, bridges and airports, that not only provided jobs but also had a long-lasting impact on the U.S. economy.  A 21st-century equivalent of building the Hoover Dam is an equally important investment: our K-12 teachers.

Especially during this pandemic year, states are wisely providing devices for students to learn at home. However, computers are only hardware; they are not what is going to deliver high quality education. This school year, teachers face an unprecedented challenge teaching students both in person and at home—students who have experienced significant learning loss and trauma. As they invest in technology resources, states must invest equally in teachers.

States can play a major role in seizing this opportunity to do much more than just repair the educational damage from COVID-19. They can take steps to benefit generations of students and our economy by investing in teachers and ensuring they have the skills to transform education. Here are four steps states can take to help teachers achieve the type of instructional transformation needed.

First, states can help districts identify research-based instructional practices and materials that work effectively when students are physically present or at home, incentivizing districts to use these materials through significant subsidies, as Louisiana is doing. Even more so than before the COVID-19 crisis, teachers are having to find and prepare their own instructional materials. This is not a realistic expectation and leaves teachers with less time to focus on instruction.

Second, states can help districts provide teachers with the personalized and competency-based learning structures they need to develop new skills at their own pace. Each teacher is in a very different situation when it comes to his or her skill level with new technologies, distance learning and personalized instruction needed in the upcoming school year. States, like Arkansas, are helping districts implement high-quality micro-credentials for teachers to address these challenges.

Third, states can require that all teachers have multiple opportunities to see a practice, try it out, get feedback from skilled coaches and their peers, and repeat the process. Because of the pandemic crisis, teachers may feel more comfortable with virtual coaches who can watch their instruction remotely and provide feedback. Iowa has earmarked significant funding to support intensive coaching for teachers.

Finally, states can incentivize teachers to progress in their skills and take on new responsibilities to support other teachers. They can change relicensure requirements and encourage districts to restructure salary schedules accordingly. States also have the authority to sweep aside all kinds of existing policies that are blocking or not incentivizing the supports teachers need.

Investing in teachers can produce an immediate economic boost. Millions of teachers will get paid for their time engaging in substantial professional learning. Many other teachers will receive salary boosts for taking on additional responsibilities. Freeing up these teacher-leaders to coach half-time will require hiring at least 100,000 new teachers. This can include part-time teachers who have developed significant content expertise in other careers.

Decades from now when people look back on this period–if we invest in teachers–they will see that this was time when our classrooms broke free of their outdated, industrial model. And they will see that our students accelerated in their academic, social and emotional skills through a system of personalized instruction that takes place in school, at home and in communities.

About the author

Matthew Joseph

Matthew is Policy Director for Education Funding Reform for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Matthew previously worked as a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spearheading a national initiative to improve strategic use of resources in public education. He also served as Executive Director of Advocates for Children and Youth, where he led successful efforts to improve education and other services in Maryland. He also worked as a Senior Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Matthew received his Bachelor’s from Harvard University and a JD from the University of Maryland School of Law.