Q&A: Developing and Retaining Teachers in America’s Classrooms

REDMOND, Wash,, Feb. 11, 2002 — As a former teacher and principal, Greg Butler understands firsthand the pain and reward of the education profession. He has worked on teacher development at the university level, as well as at the regional level in Australia around the use of technology in classrooms. As manager of Educator and Student Development at Microsoft, Butler is working on a professional development program for K-12 teachers. Part of this approach is a new program launched today by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the sixth annual Connected Learning Community (CLC) Technology Summit.

“Innovative Teachers,” Microsoft’s new professional development program, includes US$50 million in software grants for educational institutions around the nation. Launching in April, the program will create local online learning communities and training for prospective and practicing educators. The Innovative Teachers grant program was created jointly with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). Dr. David Imig, the association’s president and CEO, is attending the CLC Summit to help launch the new program.

In a conversation with PressPass, Butler, Imig and Thomas G. Carroll, executive director for the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), discuss such varied education topics as “No Child Left Behind,” the education legislation President George W. Bush signed into law on Jan. 8; the pressing problems the American education system faces; and how the newly launched “Innovative Teachers” grant program will help address the critical issue of keeping teachers in the classroom by providing professional development, resources and support.

PressPass: What role does professional development for teachers play in today’s classroom?

Carroll: It’s crucial. Teachers today are faced with a new set of high standards for student performance, and they’re also challenged by an increasingly diverse student population. Teachers, to be effective in this climate, need continuous professional development — ongoing opportunities to continuously develop both their mastery of the content and their skills for teaching that content effectively.

Butler: Professional development is critical for teachers. There’s a lot of research out there that’s being done on the link between professional development and gains in student achievement, and we know from research conducted by many different parties that we won’t see any change in the way teaching and learning occurs without professional development.

Imig: It is the key and essential component in the professional life of a teacher. The ability to continue their own development, to experience new kinds of learning, to have the opportunity to interact with peers and people in university settings and so forth is just absolutely essential if we’re going to transform America’s classrooms.

PressPass: What are the goals of the “Innovative Teachers” program?

Imig: Ultimately, children benefit. What we’re trying to do is figure out smarter ways to tie teachers and teacher educators together so that school children will know more, and live better and happier lives.

As we go into this, we have to think of the needs of teachers. Those needs have to be addressed as we try to provide new forms of professional development. We need to be constantly thinking about what teachers are confronted with. Microsoft and AACTE, working with clusters of institutions and school systems, can provide help to teachers in classrooms.

I think this is an enormous opportunity for the AACTE. The ability to work with Microsoft in this way will help make a difference in the classrooms, and I’m excited about it.

Carroll: I’m particularly encouraged and excited that Microsoft and the AACTE are building this program around the idea of a learning community that involves both pre-service and in-service teachers. Our traditional distinction between pre-service teacher preparation and in-service teacher preparation is antiquated. It’s part of the problem, because it creates fragmentation in the professional development of a teacher. The most effective learning environment for teachers should begin in a community, where college and university faculty are actively collaborating with accomplished teachers in elementary, middle and high schools.

For novice teachers and teachers who are in-service, professional development should be happening in the classroom on an ongoing basis, so that it becomes embedded in their day-to-day work. At the very least, I hope it takes us away from professional development that consists of short-term, one-shot strategies that have not been proven as effective ways to develop teachers. The use of technology to network these people to sustain the community is, I think, the power of what the “Innovative Teachers” grant program is proposing to do.

Butler: The Education Solutions group at Microsoft has put a lot of thinking and resources into the support of teachers and the development of their skills. For the last five years, we’ve allocated somewhere between $350-400 million to programs and resource support for the development of teachers. We’re a major sponsor in programs like the Intel Teach to the Future, which has reached more than 300,000 teachers and provided training, support and know-how in integrating technology and learning.

For the past eight years, we’ve also run our own “teacher.training” program at Microsoft that provides a two-year software grant to Department of Education and College of Education training labs creating hands-on training for pre- and in-service K-12 teachers. Through this program, we’ve reached hundreds of thousands of teachers and been able to provide training and resource support through our relationships with schools of education, departments of education and regional training centers.

We realize it’s time for us to take the next step, that we need to work with leading educational bodies and implement a program that we believe will help teachers become more successful in the classroom and use technology better. We are a software company, so it would be presumptuous for us to say we could design the training elements in a professional development program for educators. But we are great at working with the right people, and we’re great at allocating resources. So we are working with a leading professional association, the AACTE, a group that has tremendous credibility and experience in everything to do with teacher development. We are also allocating significant resources — over $50 million in software grants — to build this program.

The “Innovative Teachers” program provides software grants to training organizations like schools of education, colleges of education and teaching training centers around the country — we hope to engage about 300 of those institutions and centers over the next two-year period. Beyond that, we believe it’s important for best practices to get in the hands of teachers even before they are teaching in the classroom. Rather than waiting for a teacher to get out of college to share best practices, wouldn’t it be better if we could do it when they’re in their formative stages?

Those organizations that receive grants will be able to build their own online learning communities, and each will have a different focus. One institution may concentrate on assessment, another on the teaching of gifted students and yet another may work on integrating technology into mathematics or science lessons — there are hundreds of different topics they will have an opportunity to cover through this new program.

PressPass: What are your thoughts about the legislation that was recently signed into law by President Bush, popularly known as “No Child Left Behind”?

Carroll: This bill calls for all children to have access to highly qualified teachers by the 2005-2006 school year, so it raises a significant challenge to the states and school districts around the country — all of their teachers have to meet high standards for teaching quality. To meet those objectives, states, school districts, teacher-preparation programs and college and universities are going to have to explore a variety of options to bring all teachers up to those standards. There’s a strong convergence of the requirements of this new law and the opportunities that are offered by the “Innovative Teachers” program.

Imig: “No Child Left Behind,” with its mandates for student testing, will generate tons of data. The critical thing is helping teachers and principals interpret that data and use it for classroom purposes. Student learning is the focal point, but holding adults responsible for that learning is what the new law is about — making them both accountable and responsible. What we’ve got here is three to four years of enormous transformation.

Butler: This law has, for the first time that I’m aware of, linked teacher quality and teacher professional development with funding distribution to schools. In other words, for the first time, if a school doesn’t do a good job in developing their teachers, they’re going to be financially disadvantaged. The message is that we need to invest more in our teachers and in their development.

PressPass: Why has teacher retention and recruitment become a huge challenge in education?

Butler: The figures for teacher retention are not good. We know a lot of people start out with a career in teaching and, for a lot of reasons, do not start teaching or leave in the first 5 to 10 years. In my experience, there are many reasons for this; however one of the highest motivators for teachers is the ability to be successful with students, to help them achieve their best. If we can help teachers use technology to make their lives easier, to better engage students and meet their needs and improve the learning experience at school, we will be successful at retaining high quality teachers.

Imig: There are about 1,200 institutions that prepare teachers in the U.S.; they prepare approximately 150,000 new teachers every year. In addition, there is a reserve pool — a large number of people who have been trained, but choose not to teach or leave teaching early to pursue other careers or parenthood. Approximately 6 million people in our society have a teaching certification. Some are teaching, others could be attracted back to teaching. But that pool, compared to the 52 million children who are enrolled in our schools — that gives you some sense of just how large a challenge we’re confronted with. Teaching is a mass profession in America, and what we’re trying to do with this new program is affect their learning as continuing professionals.

Carroll: Much of the shortage of teachers, we believe, is driven not by an absolute shortage, but by high attrition and poor retention rates of teachers. We lose 20-30 percent of our new teachers in the first three years, and in some urban school districts, we lose as many as 50 percent in the first five years. The teachers who leave cite their reasons as a combination of factors that include poor pay, poor working conditions and poor teaching conditions. States and school districts, even in these financially pressing times, are going to have to find ways to address the teacher compensation issue. But teachers have told us that even beyond compensation, the concern is the working conditions and teaching conditions in the schools. They’re frustrated by the quality of their environment and their inability to teach to the standards that they would hold for themselves, so they’re either leaving schools for other schools, or they’re leaving the profession entirely.

PressPass: How does today’s CLC Summit factor into this strategy?

Butler: The CLC Summit is Microsoft’s recognition that we need to pull together educators to be able to share our vision, which is about a connected learning community. What we’re going to do is create 200-300 connected learning communities for educators around the country. We’re going to use technology in the way that it’s best applied — to link people, to and share knowledge, to generate smarter people, smarter teachers.

The summit is a launching pad, and that’s why we’ve got our CEO Steve Ballmer launching the program, because who better in this company to launch something so exciting? Steve understands that we need to get the potential out of every person. He understands that from a company perspective, but I’m sure he understands it as a father as well; as someone who has kids in school. He knows the importance of getting the best out of every teacher, and that requires resources and support.

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