Opinion: Teachers must have the skills to excel

An opinion piece on the needs of Texas teachers by Professor David Chard, dean of SMU's Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, and Stephanie Hirsh, a former school board member in Richardson and executive director of Learning Forward.

By David Chard and Stephanie Hirsh
Special to the Star-Telegram

To ensure that every Texas student is ready for college and good jobs, the state has set high expectations for young people to address the complex challenges they will face as employees, parents and citizens.

In today’s world, young people need education beyond high school.

They must be comfortable with new technologies; know how to communicate, analyze and synthesize information; and be able to solve problems and apply what they learn in different real-world contexts.

To keep up with these changes, school leaders across the state have recognized the crucial importance of changing the environments in which teachers learn.

In 2008, 35 Texas superintendents published a report with the Visioning Institute to identify what the future of education can look like in Texas in order to meet the needs of students in this century.

This vision has been adopted by more than 800 school districts, guided by the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium.

But moving our schools into the future will fall short unless Texas gives equal attention to helping educators gain the skills and knowledge to meet the new and dramatically higher standards.

If setting standards and mandating accountability measures were sufficient to achieve high goals for students, we would already be much further along in our efforts to improve schools.

If we want children to master new skills for a changing world, to dive into the deep end of the pool of learning, we have to help the adults who are experts at their subject matter and who encourage students to take risks, test themselves and gain confidence as they struggle with more rigorous content.

These educators need expanded opportunities to work together daily in groups to use data to identify specific student needs and their own learning priorities.

They need to spend time studying, collaborating, problem-solving and testing potentially more effective teaching strategies and learning resources.

They must receive just-in-time support from instructional coaches, supervisors and external partners who can help them as they plan, teach and implement new ways to get better results in their schools and classrooms.

In some of our local school systems, this vision of professional learning dominates and positive results are the outcome.

The Allen school district uses several staff learning days and weekly team time for in-depth collaborative planning supported by school leaders, instructional specialists and central office expertise.

During the past three years, the district’s focus on ratcheting up instructional rigor across all its schools and classrooms has forced educators to work together to make significant changes.

Teams of educators examined what is required for student success in college and the workforce and developed new instructional strategies to help students master crucial content, analysis and problem-solving.

As a result of these changes, all students in grades 9-12 scored above 92 percent on 10 of 12 end-of-course exams.

Texas and its local school systems should adopt policy standards for professional learning that will make this approach the norm.

We need parents, business leaders and other stakeholders to commit to sustained, job-embedded learning for all educators.

Texas universities and nonprofit organizations have long provided essential support for educator learning. Their partnership and leadership will be essential to establishing effective learning for educators.

For most educators, professional learning is the most accessible means they have to develop the new knowledge, skills and practices necessary to better meet students’ learning needs.

Let’s make sure the new vision and reality for Texas public schools makes learning for educators a top priority.

# # #