On one of his first days of ninth grade, Nijay Williams told me he wanted to be a police officer. At the time, I remember worrying that even after four more years of school he still might not be prepared to take a police academy entrance exam. He had been testing on a third grade reading level and even after serious intervention, he wasn’t catching up to close his six-year reading gap.
His classmate, Dakota, wanted to join the Army, but I knew that he would also need to make dramatic academic gains to keep his dream within reach.
While neither of these students had their eyes immediately on college, their stories highlight the aching need for our country’s students to be academically prepared for whatever choices they want for their future.
Right now, America is producing large numbers of high school graduates who are not only ill-prepared for the rigors of college but are also unable to pursue options such as joining the Army. In fact, a recent study by Mission: Readiness shows that more than 70 percent of young Americans currently are unable to serve in the military based on high school graduation rates and the percentage of students who cannot pass the military’s entrance exam.
A Focus on Teachers
Mission: Readiness places the impetus for this change on teacher preparation, evaluation and professional development—highlighting the need for teaching to be a selective profession and for preparation programs to be competitive and challenging.
Multiple studies have shown that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in impacting student achievement. This is not to say that families, communities, principals, resources and money do not play into a student’s academic story—there are certainly many forces that impact a child’s education. However, consistently strong teachers can change a child’s life.
Teacher training programs are seeing a significant drop in enrollment and are coming under scrutiny for not being rigorous enough to produce highly effective teachers. The National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently suggested that teacher preparation programs are in a “grim” state, describing an “industry of mediocrity” with a concerning amount of programs that fail to dramatically impact student outcomes.
However, Tennessee has emerged as a leader in efforts to provide high quality teachers and academic reforms that push all students to succeed.
In fact, this past year Tennessee showed faster growth than any other state in the country based on results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This is promising for students like Nijay and Dakota, whose career interests lie in both serving our country and in postsecondary study.
Doing It Right
Lipscomb University is one of the top-ranked teacher preparation programs in the country based on NCTQ’s findings, and Teach For America has been consistently ranked number one in Tennessee for five years in a row as the state’s best preparation program by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (Teach For America teachers achieve licensure and pursue graduate degrees through Lipscomb).
As a Teach For America alumna, I can attest to the program’s value based on my own classroom success. But I also recognize it is not a silver bullet for a much larger problem that affects students nationwide. Still, it stands apart as the most selective teacher preparation program in the country.
As many states move to overhaul the way teachers are evaluated (tying teacher observation and student test scores to compensation, basing teacher evaluations on student growth, etc.), it is likely we will continue to hold teachers to tougher standards. And studies have shown that these moves work.
But if we intend to graduate students who will have true options for their futures—whether those choices lead them to serve in the Army, join the police academy, go to college or pursue another dream—we need to continue cultivating, developing and keeping high-quality teachers.