Excellent Teachers Make a Difference!

Arne Duncan and Alexa Posny visiting classrooms during a recent school visit.

By Guest Blogger Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

A question that I constantly wonder about is this: what does it look like when someone is truly making a difference in the lives of students with disabilities?

Improving learning starts with engaging students and their families, yet we can’t ignore that the educators themselves make a significant contribution to long-term success in school.

Recently I’ve had opportunities to visit schools and chat with students and teachers about this very issue of a teacher’s impact on students with disabilities. While calling on a school in Maryland, I asked a student, “What is it your teachers did to help you be successful?” His answer was so simple and honest, “They cared. They took the time to figure out what I needed.” With all of our attention in education on programs and policies, he reminded me that this theme is one of the most critical. We must recognize the difference that an effective, caring and competent teacher makes.

Still, his response raises other questions. How do we recruit even more talented people into the profession? How do we train them? How do we evaluate whether or not they are doing a good job and offer them professional learning to strengthen areas that most need improvement? And, how do we keep our best special education teachers in the field?

These are essential questions. As Secretary Arne Duncan has said, “Our ability to attract – and more importantly retain – great talent over the next five years will shape public education for the next 30 years. It is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Unfortunately, current data show that more than 60 percent of teachers feel unprepared by teacher preparation programs and unable to meet their responsibilities in the classroom. Also, the educator preparation programs themselves often don’t attract the most talented students. Fewer than 25 percent of teachers (and 15 percent of teachers in high poverty schools) come from the top third of college graduates.

Some progress in this regard is being made. A handful of colleges and universities are tracking P-12 (prekindergarten through grade 12) student growth and success back to the preparation program from which the teacher graduated. This information can help the institutions to improve their programs and give future students information about which ones can best prepare them for the realities of teaching.

Another change I am starting to see is the alignment of teacher preparation programs with licensure and professional development. The organization of the state’s licensing system can make a tremendous impact on the effectiveness, recruitment and retention of teachers. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) has written, “Alignment of preparation, licensure, and ongoing professional development will be a key challenge of state work. Without corresponding supports in place for the teacher as he or she moves through the career continuum, the changes will not be sustained.” This couldn’t be a truer statement. We need consistent expectations across the board to ensure both teacher and student success.

In addition to accountability and alignment, I’ve tried to think about some ways we can improve recruitment. Some ideas that have come to mind are: developing local recruitment campaigns that include community members and prep programs; using online resources to connect teacher candidates with local district employment opportunities; streamlining application and interview processes; and providing incentives that bring a diverse pool of candidates into the field.

Finally, the critical question is this: how do we keep good teachers in the classroom? I am convinced that many of our most promising teachers leave because they don’t feel supported by the leadership at their schools and districts. Teachers need strong, visionary instructional leaders who create positive learning cultures. They also need effective professional learning and coaching by mentor teachers. In 2009, our Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provided more than $90 million to support personnel development. We need to develop job-embedded professional learning that is in line with the recently-updated Standards for Professional Learning. Examples of some OSEP funded projects are the Personnel Improvement Center (PIC), the State Personnel Development Network and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality.

The bottom line is this:  I rarely meet a student who hasn’t been shaped in an important way by a teacher. Sharon Draper, the 1997 Teacher of the Year said, “A child, unlike any other, sits in a classroom today – hopeful, enthusiastic, curious. In that child sleeps the vision and the wisdom of the ages. The touch of a teacher will make the difference.” We need to recognize and embrace the wisdom of these words and do what we can to recruit, train and support great teaching. Our schools and our students need excellent teachers to make a difference. 

Alexa Posny was confirmed as assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the Department of Education by the U.S. Senate on Oct. 5, 2009. In this position, she directs, coordinates and recommends policy for programs designed to assist state and local education agencies with improving the achievement of students with disabilities, ages birth through 21, as well as adults transitioning from secondary school to higher education, employment or both. She helps ensure equal access to services leading to such improvement for all children, particularly those with disabilities. She fosters educational improvement at the state and local levels, and overseas the distribution of financial assistance to local education agencies whose local revenues are affected by federal activities. She also serves as the principal adviser to the U.S. secretary of education on all matters related to special education for individuals in pre-K, elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools.

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