Focus Federal Investments to Give Every Student Access to Excellent Teachers

by | November 20, 2013

To transform America’s public education system, it’s all-hands-on-deck time. Our students and teachers need changes at every level to make America’s schools places of opportunity for all. What role could the federal government play in that transformation?

We think the federal government must focus states and districts on giving every student access to excellent teachers and transforming the teaching profession into a high-impact, highly paid profession.

Excellent teachers—those in the top 20 to 25 percent—are the ones who produce the strong learning growth students need to catch up and pursue advanced work. These teachers, on average, help students make a year and a half worth of learning growth annually. Without excellent teachers consistently, students who start out behind rarely catch up, and students who meet today’s grade-level targets rarely leap ahead to meet rising global standards.

Giving all students access to excellent teachers, and the teams that they lead, could also transform teaching, as we’ve begun to show through our Opportunity Culture® pilot schools. The new school models in these schools allow sustainably funded higher pay for all, leadership roles that let great teachers lead teams, time for on-the-job collaboration and development, and enhanced authority and credit when helping more students. Early Opportunity Culture® implementers have attracted large numbers of applicants for these new jobs, even in high-poverty schools.

In a new brief we wrote with Christen Holly and Gillian Locke for the Center for American Progress, Giving Every Student Access to Excellent Teachers: A Vision for Focusing Federal Investments in Education, we suggest four ways the federal government can dramatically increase access to excellent teaching and transform the profession:

  1. Structure competitive grants to induce districts and states to shift to transformative school designs that reach more students with excellent teachers and the teams they lead. Incentivize innovation by awarding funds to districts and states with strong, sustainable plans to transform staffing models in ways that dramatically expand access to excellent teaching and make the teaching profession substantially more attractive. The report suggests a new grant as well as ways to refocus existing competitions, such as the Teacher Incentive Fund, to put excellent teachers in charge of all students’ learning.
  2.  Reorient existing formula grants to encourage transition to new classroom models that extend the reach of great teachers, both directly and through leading teaching teams. The report shows how to turn the great majority of federal funding distributed to states and districts—Title I and Title II grants—into investments likely to pay off in educational and economic benefits, by reinventing such formula grants as targeted tools that extend excellent teachers’ reach in financially sustainable ways, and more effectively direct funds to the students who need them most.
  3. Create a focal point for federal research and development efforts. Federal R&D funds could spur rapid progress by gathering and disseminating evidence on policies and practices that extend the reach of excellent teachers, building the science needed to select teachers initially and as they apply for advanced roles, and accelerating development of best-in-class digital content, diagnostic tools, and instructional roadmaps that support consistent differentiation and high standards for student learning advancement.
  4. Create and enforce a new civil right to excellent teachers, fueling districts and states at scale—not just the already-motivated—to make the changes needed to reach all students with excellent teachers and their teams. In the past half century, the right to a decent education has mostly involved enabling access to schools. No civil right mandates the one thing that we know from research closes even the widest achievement gaps: excellent teachers for multiple, consecutive years. Legislating a new civil right to excellent teachers obligates the federal and state governments to enforce the right.


Excellence in teaching and learning for all students must become the new goal. The focal point that can align federal, state, and local policy priorities is expanding student access to excellent teaching.  Using these four strategies, federal policy and programs can help state and local education agencies put excellent teachers in charge of student learning by implementing these transformative school models and accelerating development of the tools necessary to support them.

If we know it can be done—and, with help from every level of government, scaled up—how can we settle for anything less?

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