Efforts to improve student learning often fall short despite best intentions


Recently, I visited innovative charter schools in the Bay Area. At one school, physical spaces and teachers’ schedules are designed to encourage collaboration. Another school involves community organizations and parents in student learning during and after the school day. One is well stocked with technology. At another, teachers take on leadership roles.

And yet, everywhere I looked I noticed elements that didn’t quite connect. I saw missed opportunities to boost student learning. One of the schools gestured toward important ideas, but because of the lack of experienced teacher leaders, missed the mark when it came to implementing them. The other one greatly valued teacher leaders, but still had a long way to go in spreading teaching expertise from one classroom to another.

This points to a truth that is tough for reformers to swallow: America’s schools will be transformed only when we tackle the complexities of teaching and learning. We can’t rely on isolated policies or initiatives to sustain a highly functioning school. Few, if any, innovations can be implemented successfully over time unless other interlocking set of elements are in place – connected by  collaboration (not competition) among universities, school districts, charter networks, and non-profits.

What I saw

So where do we start? Here are two situations I observed during my investigation:

  • School A is known for “blended learning.” Yet there was little pedagogical coherence between how teachers taught in a regular classroom and how students were expected to learn in a high-tech lab staffed by low-cost tutors. School A teachers, who tended to have only a few years of experience and little clinical preparation, had limited interaction with the lab tutors. It was unclear whether many teachers were familiar with the technological tools so central to their school’s identity.
  • School B is known for hiring new recruits who have extensive clinical preparation. Teachers know how to differentiate instruction and work with second language learners. But School B’s teachers did not always know how to effectively analyze student learning data and needed more training in how to use the collaborative planning time wisely provided to them (approximately 2 hours a day).

What would help connect the dots in these schools – and all schools? Teacher preparation programs could lead the way by readying pre-service teachers for a transformed public school system.

Accountability for teacher preparation programs

Recently, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that too many education schools are “not up to the job.” He highlighted recruitment and accountability as key areas for improvement, and noted that few of today’s programs offer “rigorous, clinical experience that prepares future teachers for the realities of today’s diverse classrooms.”

And then there are the emergent realities of tomorrow’s classrooms – which few teacher preparation programs are adequately addressing. For example, tomorrow’s teachers will likely need to teach students who are “digital natives,” spread their expertise to colleagues through collaboration and leadership, connect families with community resources, and develop and use sophisticated assessments to measure student progress.

The federal government should hold teacher preparation programs accountable – but should look at more than the 20th-century standardized tests currently in place. For example, what if teacher preparation programs (whether university-based or “alternative”) were judged on how long their graduates remained in the classroom, working effectively as leaders in schools and communities? What if programs were assessed on how well their graduates used student data to improve instruction? What if the accountability system considered graduates’ abilities to provide effective blended learning opportunities?

My organization, the Center for Teaching Quality, works with thousands of teachers nationwide to improve the teaching profession and our nation’s schools. Later this month, talented teachers who are part of our Bay Area New Millennium Initiative team will release a report with specific recommendations about how to ensure new teachers are ready for their roles. Watch for it!

Barnett Berry is founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina. He authored TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools… Now and in the Future (Teachers College Press, 2011) with 12 accomplished teachers from across the United States.


  1. One wonders about the wisdom of reforming teacher education programs when enrollment, here in California at least, is in free-fall; there are few job openings for program graduates; further reductions in public education funding are planned; and a substantial reduction of teacher benefits, couched in terms of public-sector pension “reform”, enjoys wide public support.
    In California, there will be surplus credentialed teachers for many years to come — and few rational reasons for top talent to enter the profession, no matter what is done to improve teacher education programs.
    Perhaps we could start by closing some of the lower-quality, less-selective programs, including the ones operated by the private diploma mills, the religious colleges, and the upstart CSU campuses (i.e., the campuses that do not have a “normal school” heritage).

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  2. California student enrollment projections are expected to increase in the coming years after two year period of no growth.
    As to the broader question of how to improve instruction in the classroom, I would submit the adults in the educational system are focused on the day to day demands of fulfilling State and Federal mandates of accountability that are based on 2oth century standards. As long as we assess for 20th century competencies the delivery of content will be the 20th century model of lecture and restating of facts.
    As we move to implement Common Core standards (which supposedly are 21st Century standards) it will be interesting to see how assessment methods need to change.

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  3. I meant enrollment of prospective teachers in teacher preparation programs, which has declined dramatically. (Sorry if that distinction wasn’t clear from the context!) Given fiscal and political conditions in California, growth in enrollment of students in K-12 schools is likely to be absorbed by increases in average class size rather than by creation of net new classes. What hiring that does occur will preference experienced teachers, not recent graduates of teacher preparation programs. There is a large surplus of elementary (“Multiple Subjects”) teachers. In the past years, we have even begun to see unemployed math teachers. Declining demand is a reality for teacher preparation programs.

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  4. Hi Paul, is there something specific that makes you thing increases in student enrollment will be absorbed by class size increases? Or is that just a feeling. I have seen districts make extra effort to avoid class size impact even now during budget cuts.

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  5. Paul. I could not agree more that we should close down lower-quality teacher education programs, including those alternative ones that offer only a few weeks of training before foisting their “grads” into the most challenging classrooms. But if we did so then policymakers would have to pay teachers a lot more for going into more rigorous and selective teachers ed programs. They have refused to do so? What do you think it will take for them to do so?

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  6. Mike. You are spot on….and think about the investments we need to make in teacher ed to ready new recruits (as well as many experienced practitioners) to design and use the new assessments tied to the Common Core. This is what top performing nations like Finland and Singapore do. Isn’t time for America to get with the program!

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  7. Navigio, my experience is just the opposite.

    Three years ago, some K-3 class size reduction participants were already incurring penalties or exploiting loopholes (combination classes with fewer than 20 students per grade but more than 20 in total).

    When the state introduced categorical program funding flexibility two years ago, more K-3 CSR districts began to exceed the cap, now without penalty. In Grades 4-8 and 10-12, where there never were state-level protections, class sizes shot up, too.

    In this, the second year of categorical flexibility and the first year without federal stimulus funds, K-3 classes of 30 are common. One district recently vacated a class size cap in a union contract. Even excess revenue (formerly “basic aid”) districts are struggling to hold the line on class size.

    I have watched algebra classes go from 20 to 36, as a district voluntarily exited the Morgan-Hart 9th-grade academic class size reduction program, and I have personally taught classes as large as 41.

    Recent class size trends have demonstrated two things:

    * Parents, teachers, taxpayers and voters generally tolerate larger classes.

    * Districts have not yet reached practical limits on class size. 20 two years ago was 25 last year, is 30 this year, and will be 35 next year. At least 40 can be squeezed into a typical post-war California classroom. 5 out of 35 reflects a 14% increase. Just how much average statewide enrollment growth are we expecting?

    Barnett, I agree with you about the higher costs of longer and more intensive teacher preparation programs. I would stress that these are both actual costs (more time from better faculty = higher tuition) and opportunity costs (more unpaid student teaching = more lost income).

    I don’t agree with shutting down alternative certification programs, though. Candidates in an alternative program complete the same university courses, while teaching rather than before teaching. Having served as teacher of record for a year, an intern emerges with more, and deeper, clinical experience than her counterpart who student-taught for a few months under a teacher of record.

    Student teaching experiences vary widely. There is a fundamental conflict: the student teacher learns by experimenting, but the teacher of record holds legal responsibility and so cannot permit much experimentation. ProTeacher and other bulletin boards are littered with accounts of student teachers who spent their time making photocopies, or who were marked down/not passed, for daring to try out the “new” techniques taught in their programs. As was pointed out in a recent CTC agenda item, even the length of the student teaching placement varies from program to program.

    Reducing or eliminating the university courses would, I think, be a very positive step. Education faculty often have limited and out-of-date K-12 teaching experience. This imposes an inherent limit on the effectiveness of education courses. Clinical experience is king — especially real experience gained from running one’s own classroom, as an alternative-path/intern teacher must do!

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  8. Regarding class-size increases, does anyone have some reliable data about what actually happens across the state?
    I don’t doubt that some of what has been described here happens. Yet moving from 20 students to 30 students in a classroom implies a need for 35% fewer teachers and, with about 40-50% of the budget in certificated personnel cost, this would easily mean 15% budget reduction. I am unaware of such drastic wide-scale budget reductions, which makes me doubt the representativeness of the various anecdotes mentioned here.
    We must all be aware of the practice of having large class sizes for engaged students without serious disciplinary problems — I am referring to honor classes, AP classes, etc. — that allows to have much smaller problem classes, while maintaining some reasonable “average” numbers. I hope such examples are not used as anecdotes of class size increases to imply they are  representative of what’s happening across the board.

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  9. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office,

    “[A]verage class size by district in kindergarten through third grade rose from roughly 20 in 2008–09 to 25 in 2010–11. Additionally, the average class size in all other grades rose from roughly 28 to more than 31. (Though our survey did not collect specific data on class sizes in excess of 31 students, reports from the field suggest that certain high schools have increased some class sizes to as many as 35 students.)”

    Scope: School districts enrolling 58% of the state’s students — including 8 of the 10 largest districts — responded. Figures extend only through last year, when federal stimulus funds were still a major factor. The average for Grades 4 to 12 reached 31, and the inputs were arbitrarily capped at 31, indicating that the true figure exceeds 31.

    Ze’ev, how did you think districts were absorbing the recent budget cuts, if not by raising class sizes? The increase in average K-3 class size from 21 to 25 represents a 19% savings for that age group, over three years. If we assume, as conservatively as possible, that non-responding districts saw no increases in class size, the statewide, weighted average savings from class size increases in the primary grades is 11% ( = +4/21 x 0.58 ) over three years.

    My comments were not anecdotal. Pick a set of medium to large school districts and pull their budgets, board reports and negotiation updates, as I do periodically. You cannot fail to find increases in class size.

    Your point about AP/honors classes is moot at best and incorrect at worst. It’s moot because AP/honors represents a tiny fraction of statewide enrollment. It’s likely incorrect because AP/honors classes tend to be small, not large, as few students in a given high school will meet such high academic standards.

    You should be more concerned about Grade 9 Algebra I classes that are swelling to 30+ as districts exit Morgan-Hart class size reduction or divert (“flex”) the funds to other uses. Algebra I is a state-mandated graduation requirement, and 38% of students fail the course on the first try. That’s a lot of big high school classes in a critical subject area.

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  10. Paul,
    Thanks for the pointer to the LAO.  I was not expressing doubts that class sizes have increased. I was questioning how big these increases are, and whether the anecdotal figures you used are not hyperboles (or, at least, outliers).
    The LAO report shows 20.5 to 25 rise in K-3 between 2008-9 and 2010-11 (20%), and 28 to 31 (10%) in grade 4-12 (essentially within one year, as 2008-9 to 2009-10 was unchanged). I agree that the 31 figure may be somewhat higher but I doubt it is much higher — the classes started already higher than K-3, and 10% is also about the change in K-3 over one year. You mentioned these precise numbers, and so far so good.
    But then you added both anecdotal and speculative numbers that — to me, at least — seemed more likely to create heat than shed light. You argued that “K-3 classes of 30 are common” — clearly they can’t be so common if the average is at 25, unless also classes of of 20 are at as common.  Similarly, you darkly hinted at the (K-3?) numbers rising to 30 and 35 — perhaps it will happen, although I see a little chance for such numbers to actually come to pass.
    I guess what I am saying is that while class size increases are real, they are not as disastrous as the anecdotes you provide seem to indicate. Further, let us not forget that the whole class size reduction has been with us for barely more than ten years and it is quite unclear how much academic benefit it has provided overall. What is not unclear is CSR’s enormous cost.
    Anyway, thanks again for the pointer to the LAO.

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  11. Ze’ev, I asserted that “In this, the second year of categorical flexibility and the first year without federal stimulus funds, K-3 classes of 30 are common.” It’s an approximation, yes, but not an outlier or a case of hyperbole. Consult some district budgets, board reports and negotiation updates, and leave out the Carmels, Pacific Groves and Cupertinos! As I said, the LAO figures extend only through last year. New this year is the exhaustion of federal stimulus funds. (You also low-ball the Grade 4-12 increase by claiming that it was only 10%, when the LAO admits that the highest possible response was 31+, rather than specific values such as 32, 33, and so on.) Hopefully, the LAO will release data for 2011-12 this February, or a researcher will mine CBEDS or some other database within a year or two — and hopefully, someone will clarify 31+.
    I appreciate your challenging the figures, but I also don’t want to get lost in minor details. Class size increases are real, substantial, and not at an end. The whole point of this excursion was to address the original question about the reforming teacher preparation. Why reform teacher preparation programs in California when, due to rising K-12 class sizes, there are not enough jobs for program graduates?
    We could achieve a sort of built-in reform by closing apparently weaker teacher preparation programs and consolidating remaining enrollment in stronger programs. Chapman/Brandman isn’t Stanford. Biola can’t touch Mills. CSU Monterey Bay doesn’t hold a candle to San Jose State. Such choices would be easy, if the CTC were willing to make them.
    It is my hope that teacher preparation programs will boost candidate quality (selectivity) and program quality. This matches the stated goal of the stakeholders, but sadly, not their actions. A commentator to a different article put it succinctly: “deprofessionalization of teachers” is the order of the day. As we increase teacher workload (by raising class sizes and increasing the scope of services, as with special education inclusion in district-run schools and longer on-site hours plus evening on-call expectations in charter schools); cap or cut wages and benefits (pension “reform” proposals, no COLAs, etc.); and undermine employment stability (by resorting to inappropriate classifications such as temporary and substitute in district-run schools, by shifting more teachers to at-will employment as the charter movement grows, and by using budgetary uncertainty to justify annual layoff-reinstatement cycles), California will be lucky to get whatever credential candidates it gets.
    Here are some sobering figures compiled from the CTC’s 2011 report on teacher supply:
    * New Multiple Subjects credentials are down 41% in 5 years, from 13,600 in 2005-06 to 7,000 in 2009-10. I believe that this reflects the market impact of districts’ exiting the K-3 Class Size Reduction Program, choosing to incur penalties, or, as of last year, diverting (“flexing”) K-3 CSR funds without penalty.
    * Credential program enrollment is down 35% in 5 years, from 64,800 in 2004-05 to 42,200 in 2008-09. Credential type information has not been collected since 2007-08, but up until that point, interestingly, there were declines not only in Multiple Subjects program enrollment but also in Single Subject program enrollment.
    * Certificated employment is down 5% in one year, from 306,900 in 2008-09 to 291,000 in 2009-10. I consulted CDE DataQuest and found that student enrollment had declined by only 1% in the corresponding time period, from 6,252,000 in 2008-09 to 6,190,400 in 2009-10. This is evidence of a pretty fast increase in average class size.

    * New intern credentials are down 50% in 4 years
    , from 6,800 in 2006-07 to 3,400 in 2009-10. The internship pathway attracts a more ethnically representative group of candidates, and also draws candidates with industry experience. By way of example, Teach for America is implemented in California using the internship pathway. TFA is highly selective, admitting only the well educated. Today, few teaching jobs are open to these people.
    (I rounded the absolute figures to the nearest hundred, for readability. I used exact inputs to calculate the percentages, which I in turn rounded to the nearest whole percentage point, again for readability. Calculation errors are of course possible, but it’s easy to access the raw data.)

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  12. Ze’ev wrote:
    Yet moving from 20 students to 30 students in a classroom implies a need for 35% fewer teachers and, with about 40-50% of the budget in certificated personnel cost, this would easily mean 15% budget reduction. I am unaware of such drastic wide-scale budget reductions, which makes me doubt the representativeness of the various anecdotes mentioned here.

    Couple of things to keep in mind.
    1. Costs are increasing every year if for no other reason than health insurance premiums, which are typically rising at 10% annually. Most districts seem to be doing some deficit spending as is, and have been for several years to try to hang on to programs they value.

    2. The number reported for CSR, if I understand correctly, is usually an average rather than an absolute cap. That is, if you have three classrooms running at 31 kids and then a fourth teacher who has 5 special ed kids, your average class size is 24.5

    3. Class sizes do fluctuate over the year as students come and go, which means if you’re running classes at 31 and that’s your legal (or practical) cap, a new student creates tremendous disruption. As with a hospital, to truly meet the needs of a community, you have to accept the cost of running at  a bit below capacity.

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  13. Barnett,
    So good to see your expansive and deep perspective, thanks. In tune with our work on the interwoven strands between deep learning, transformative leadership, complex systems and knowledge media. We are seeing this transform schools.
    Simon Buckingham Shum & Ruth Deakin Crick

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