Teachers on America's Schools

Recent efforts have elevated the strongest, but too-seldom heard voices for what is needed in American education. And what we're hearing from high school dropouts, parents of at-risk children, and teachers is driving a national consensus for reforms that can significantly boost student achievement.

This front-line demand for reform already has energized the movement to end the dropout crisis nationwide. Dropout rates had been stagnant for decades, and most Americans were unaware that nearly one-third of all public high school students, and almost half of minorities would not stand in the graduation line with their classmates. Despite years of research, it was only when our nation heard the voices of dropouts --who they were, why they left, and what could have helped them -- that educators, policymakers and other leaders awakened to meet the dropout challenge. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama joined America's Promise founders Colin and Alma Powell to ignite public and private efforts to help stem the dropout tide.

No constituency is more vital in meeting this challenge than our nation's teachers. Last year, a national survey of America's teachers on the high school dropout epidemic commissioned by the AT&T Foundation (On the Front Lines of Schools) found that teachers understood the causes of dropout and strongly supported reforms that are effective in keeping more students on track. Among those reforms are connecting classroom learning with real-world experiences, expanding college-level learning opportunities, and supporting early warning systems and parental engagement. More than anything, the report was a warning from teachers that all students could not meet high expectations without more support, and a plea to parents, policymakers and students themselves to join them in the trenches to boost student achievement.

This week, Scholastic, Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released Primary Sources, the largest nationally representative survey of teachers on America's schools ever conducted. More than 40,000 teachers from schools large and small, urban and rural, and low- and high-income, raised their voices in a call for smart, reality-based reforms. What they tell us should serve as a wake-up call to a nation that is quickly falling behind our counterparts in educating generations for the demands of a global economy.

Teachers get it, with 93 percent insisting that schools must prepare students for more than a high school diploma, a credential that buys very little in the today's job market. Yet, teachers also recognize that our schools must do more, with 9 out of 10 saying that not all students today could leave high school prepared to succeed in a two- to four-year college.

So what's to be done? Primary Sources identifies several reforms that attract wide support from teachers. By overwhelming margins, teachers welcome the move toward clearer standards and core standards that are common among states. They prefer to tailor instruction to individual student's interests, and to measure student progress with a range of assessments throughout the year, not just year-end standardized tests. Nearly 6 in 10 believe in high expectations for all students, and 85 percent support tough academic standards. However, teachers recognize that students are individuals with different interests, skills and levels of achievement.

Interestingly, teachers share doubts about the current system of measuring teacher performance. For example, when asked the most accurate ways to measure teacher performance, six times more teachers say student engagement and academic growth than teacher tenure. Moreover, while teachers would welcome higher pay, they agree that non-monetary rewards, such as supportive school leadership, time for teachers to collaborate, and access to high-quality curriculum, will do more to retain effective teachers.

Teachers cry out for more tools, including technology, to be more effective in the classroom. They want better supports for students from family and friends, and counselors and social workers. And they strongly embrace motivating students as their joint responsibility, seeing the power of effective and engaging teachers. One teacher summed it up well: "Treat all students equally, provide high-quality teaching, have high expectations, and students will succeed."

Next week, the drumbeat continues, with the launch of Raising Their Voices, a report that shares powerful dialogues among teachers, parents and students on the dropout challenge. These three vital constituencies agree that our schools must do better and we must do better by our schools. If we want to succeed on the battle lines of global economic competition, we'll listen to the voices on the front lines of education reform here at home -- and ensure that every young American finishes high school ready for college, work and the responsibilities of citizenship.

John M. Bridgeland was former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush, and co-author of The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts and On the Front Lines of Schools. Bruce Reed held the same position for President William J. Clinton and is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.