There is a reason why—even though anyone can pick up an Emeril Lagasse cookbook—we are not all world-renowned chefs with multiple restaurants and a television show. In fact, we guarantee that even if Emeril cooks the same ratatouille recipe as us (his recipe of course), his will come out delightfully textured with a heavenly blend of spices that dance on your tongue; ours, a lumpy pile of vegetables with an inadvertent kick of pepper—barely accomplishing the goal of being edible. Why? Emeril’s training, talent, experience and passion make him better able to “implement” this recipe, while our lack of all those things makes our implementation second-rate at best.
Education is no different. Policymakers can craft innovative, perfectly fleshed-out policies designed to close the achievement gap, increase academic rigor and provide schools the flexibility to determine what works best for their students and hold them accountable for doing so. But if we don’t have the right people—from teachers to school and district leaders—implementing them, then these policies will likely fail.
Take, for instance, our current efforts to implement Common Core. In a mobile and global economy, it makes sense to have a consistent set of academic expectations for students across the nation, and hold districts and schools accountable for ensuring students meet them. But implementing these standards requires human capital with the knowledge, skills and professional commitment to make it happen.
As Kim Cummins, principal of Martin Petijohn Elementary in Rayne, LA, recently stated, “you have to teach the standards to figure out how you want to teach them. Once we got started we realized we had to learn new approaches ourselves. So we said, let’s figure out how to make it work. It takes leadership at every level to make it work.”
The standards themselves are only the starting point towards improving student achievement. Schools with high-quality teachers and leaders that are given high-quality training will have the ability to implement these standards with fidelity and help students achieve. While others—without the proper supports—will continue to struggle.
Or take early childhood education. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study is a longitudinal study that examined the benefits of high-quality preschool on children from low-income families. It found that, at age 27, children who went to preschool were more likely to have graduated from high school, had higher earnings and were significantly less likely to be arrested than their non-pre-schooled peers. However, research suggests that America’s current preschools yield significantly lower benefits. In fact, on average, preschools only reduce the achievement gap by 5 percent as opposed to what research suggests is possible—closing it by 30 percent to 50 percent. Yet our qualifications for early childhood teachers remain shockingly low, with over 80 percent of teachers for children ages birth to three—critical years in a child’s development—holding no more than an associate’s degree.
So, how do we attract talented, passionate, hard-working people into the education field so that great policies can be implemented with fidelity? Do we need to increase teacher pay? Professionalize teaching? Offer tax credits to businesses that loan out employees deeply steeped in content knowledge to teach high school courses in their areas of expertise?
Or does the answer to this critical issue lie more in how we train our teachers and leaders? Do we need stronger alignment between colleges of education, state departments of education and districts? More relevant in-service training? Higher barriers of entry into the profession?
Until we ensure America’s schools and districts have the right people to implement policies, our education system will continue to resemble our version of Emeril’s ratatouille: slightly displeasing and barely accomplishing its goal.