June 22, 2011

Today, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) will introduce a bill, co-sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Mark Kirk (R-IL) to support the creation and expansion of teacher and principal training academies. This legislation, titled the Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals Act (GREAT Act), represents a bold, innovative approach to improving the quality of teacher and leader training. And in the spirit of being bold, instead of the conventional blog-post-as-essay format, here’s an explanation of the GREAT Act via a hypothetical Q&A session:

What exactly is a teacher or principal training academy?

The programs of these academies are defined by three primary characteristics that set them apart from the way a lot of training happens now. First, they are rigorously selective in admitting people into their programs who have strong potential to become excellent teachers. Second, these academies will provide teacher or principal candidates with hands-on, clinical training to prepare them to be successful from their first day in their classroom or leading a school – goodbye super steep learning curve on the backs of kids! Finally, a candidate can graduate from a training academy only when she or he has demonstrated the ability to improve student academic achievement, as this is the ultimate outcome we seek.

Anything else?

They also must prepare teachers and principals to serve in high needs areas (including rural and Native American areas), and hard-to-staff subjects.

Why do we need these academies?

Because teachers and principals are the biggest school-related factors affecting a student’s academic achievement. All too often, we thrust beginning teachers into the classroom without adequately preparing them. That hurts kids. It also causes many teachers to quit from frustration and more to not realize their true potential as great teachers. The more we do to solve this problem, the better we can educate kids—and the closer we come to making teaching the profession it should be, on par with law, medicine or architecture.

So how will federal legislation help create or expand these academies?

The GREAT Act is a state-based competitive grant program, and it’s up to each state whether to apply. A state that wins a grant will use funds to (a) create state authorizers to approve and oversee these academies, and (b) support the creation and expansion of the academies themselves. Because this is an effort that strives to create the space for innovation, states and state authorizers will also have to agree to not – repeat, not – regulate the “inputs” that these programs use to train candidates.

What counts as an “input”?

At present, there are certain areas where states often regulate teacher training programs, even though the regulation may have little to no bearing on student achievement outcomes. This can create an unnecessary and stifling bureaucracy that no one likes. For example, this legislation asks states to remove any requirement that training academies build, say, a physical library before they open their doors to train teachers or principals. Likewise, these academies will train teachers and principals through clinical training with great mentor teachers who have proven they can teach or lead in the classroom – and these already-great educators won’t be required to obtain an advanced degree.

Are there any programs like this in existence already?

Absolutely, and in fact, we here at NewSchools have had the opportunity to work directly with a number of them. Programs such as Relay School of Education, The New Teacher Project, New Leaders for New Schools, Urban Teacher Center, and Teach For America (to name only a few) are examples of the sort of programs that can apply in winning states– and the legislation makes it a priority to fund successful programs that are already training great teacher and leaders. But we believe new entrepreneurs will be attracted and encouraged by this bill and will start new ventures to help transform our methods of pre-service training. The ones that exist are great, yet lots more is left to learn about how to consistently produce great educators at scale.

But if these programs exist already, what’s the advantage of becoming an academy?

There are a couple of reasons. In terms of direct benefit, federal funds would help support the startup or expansion of these programs. This funding will come in the form of direct subgrants from participating states, and also through making teacher and principal candidates eligible for AmeriCorps funding. In addition, not only will these programs be free of unnecessary, input-based regulations, but a candidate who graduates from a training academy, and who therefore has proven his or her ability to improve student achievement, will be entitled to the same benefits the state provides to teachers and principals who have received a master’s degree. Finally, the willingness to be held accountable for student achievement sends an important signal to potential candidates and to the broader field of teacher and principal training, and will help to deepen the professionalization of the practice that is critical to improving our entire education system.

Who’s supporting this idea?

We’re thrilled not just at the number of supporters this legislation has garnered, but at the fact that they come from so many different parts of the education and policy landscape. So far, 50 influential organizations and individuals have signed on, spanning higher education, philanthropy, school districts, policy, and top-performing schools, among others. Among the surprising range of supporters are major school district leaders; some of the strongest schools for low-income children; the United Negro College Fund; the Center for American Progress and the Education Trust. See a full list of supporters here.

So what happens next?

The introduction of this legislation completes only the first stage of the process. The next stage involves conversations to have teacher and principal academies folded into legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We will also be actively seeking sponsors in the House of Representatives to sponsor companion legislation in that chamber. Then, the Department of Education will need to flesh out the details of administering the program.

You know what, this is kind of a cool idea. So what can I do to help?

If you are an individual who supports the GREAT Act, please email me at [email protected] to have your name added to our list of supporters, or call or email your Senator to offer your support. If you represent an organization, we would love to add your name to the letter of support to demonstrate the broad support for the ideas embodied in the bill. Feel free to share this summary of the bill with anyone who might be interested. And stay tuned to this blog, the NewSchools twitter feed (@nsvf), and my own twitter feed (@benjaminjriley) for updates!