By Steve Tozer
Director, Center for Urban Education Leadership

Since the national education reform report “A Nation at Risk” was written in 1983, quality of teachers and teacher education has recurrently captured of policy makers and education reformers.  Concerns about the quality of the teaching force nationally were part of the reason for the positive reception to teach for America and other alternative routes to teacher preparation and licensure.  Recently, the quality of teacher preparation is gaining renewed focus.  District and state policies, new assessments and another round of reform reports are focusing on the qualities of teachers prepared for our nation’s classrooms.

No one can argue against having high quality teacher preparation.  However, the belief that the solution to improving the quality of classroom instruction resides largely in teacher preparation programs, whether traditional or alternative, has serious problems.  One of these problems is that teacher preparation programs are too brief and too early in the development of the teacher to have the kind of impact that we would like such programs to have.  Put differently, most teacher professional learning takes place after licensure, not before.  Therefore, greater attention to the conditions of teacher learning after the pre-service preparation program is at least as important, if not more important, than what we do in teacher education.

Secondly, quality of teacher preparation does not explain the significant variation in student performance pre-K-12 in two different schools that have the same or similar populations of students and are situated in similar neighborhoods.  The teachers in each school can come from the same teacher preparation institutions and yet what one school accomplishes through its teachers is very different from what the other school accomplishes through its teachers.

So what explains the difference?  One of the strongest pieces of research to help us understand the differences between lower performing and higher performing schools that have similar student enrollments in terms of family background is the recent volume “Organizing Schools for Improvement (Bryk, Seabring et. al., 2010).  This book is the result of a 20-year longitudinal study of why some low-income elementary schools outperform other schools in the same district.  District inputs are similar, neighborhood inputs are similar and teacher education inputs are similar, yet the results are very different.  Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research essentially argue that quality of instruction is not so much a property of individual teachers as it is a property of how schools are organized.  The book follows an argument the Consortium has been making for a number of years, which is that five school components are particularly predictive of school success when they are done well.  These are:  school leadership, parent and community school ties, professional capacity of staff, student-centered learning climate and instructional guidance.  The Consortium presents two key findings:  one, a school that performs even just three of these essential supports at a strong level has a far greater chance of having a positive impact on student learning outcomes than a school that has less than three rated strongly.  Two, of these five factors, leadership stands first in importance as the enabling factor that creates the conditions in which the other four can flourish.

If the Consortium’s research and recent research on the power of school leadership to influence teaching and student learning is correct, then the greatest lever for improving the quality of classroom instruction in every classroom may well be the instructional leadership abilities of each principal.  Research and practice on instructional leadership has taken great strides in the last decade.  We now know more than ever before about how principals can put the conditions in place (or the “essential supports”); to support the conditions in place to enable teachers to teach and students to learn at the levels at which they have been capable of all along.  While teacher preparation, teacher accountability and “teacher quality” are convenient targets for criticism, the most powerful levers for improving student learning are likely to be in the relationships among teachers and between teachers and principals in schools.  This is where the most powerful adult learning takes place and without that adult learning, we will not see the improvements we seek in student learning.

Using a statistical package called “Near Neighbors” UIC researchers have shown that several non-selective neighborhood elementary schools with almost identical demographic characteristics such as enrollment size, grade levels served, student ethnicity and poverty levels, are dramatically different in student performance measures such as daily attendance and standardized test scores.  In two elementary schools with similarly high-poverty African American enrollments on Chicago’s West Side, for example, one demonstrates test score gains in the top tenth for all such schools, while the other sits at the CPS median.  Instructional quality in these schools is a function of school leadership and organization more than a product of teacher background and training.