We are in the midst of a national outcry for reform of a policing and criminal justice system that has had devastating consequences for many Black Americans. Though outrage has been sparked by current events, a broader reckoning with the deep roots of racism is also being demanded from many quarters. One of those roots is a sharp inequity in K-12 education.
Evidence amassed by the Learning Policy Institute makes the case that schools in low-income neighborhoods, particularly those with majority Black and Latinx families, are disproportionately staffed by teachers who are new to the profession, many of whom are underprepared for the challenges they face. Research shows that teachers are least effective when they are new to teaching and that several ineffective teachers in a row make it nearly impossible for a student to catch up to peers who have had more effective teachers. While not the only inequity in schooling, it is one with profound implications.
The fault does not lie with teachers. Throughout the United States, we have failed to give new teachers the intensive support they initially need-perhaps explaining why 1 in 10 teachers leaves the profession after their first year. In a country with the prowess of the United States in higher education and research, we have neglected the challenges that prevent us from effectively educating all our students, particularly those who are most reliant on education as a path out of poverty.
What can be done to create fundamental change-a change that is built into the functioning of our education system? We propose the creation of education's equivalent of teaching hospitals, the places where the most advanced practices are developed and where new professionals are trained under the guidance of experts.
More specifically, we propose that school districts close to universities designate a set of schools in the most underserved area of the district as an Innovation and Induction (i2) Cluster. Master teachers would be recruited to these schools and specifically trained in mentoring and in research-based teaching practice. They would be attracted not just by premium pay but also by the opportunity for professional growth and advancement.
New teachers would be placed as residents in these master teachers' classrooms for an entire year. They would receive regular mentoring the following year when they would have an independent classroom in close proximity to their mentor before moving to schools elsewhere in the district in Year 3. Importantly, researchers from neighboring universities would support mentor training and work collaboratively with the teachers in these schools to develop and test innovative practices that support students' success. A network that links the i2 Clusters in different districts would help spread what works.
What would such an investment get us as a nation? It would put two teachers-one a master teacher-in classrooms that are now often underserved. It would ensure that new teachers are not on their own during the first two years of teaching when all evidence suggests that both they and their students suffer. And it would create school sites where many of our most accomplished teachers would work in partnership with university researchers to design solutions that will give students in our lowest-performing schools a high-quality education-solutions that would then be shared.
Each element of our proposal exists somewhere now: Teacher-residency programs increase new-teacher support, innovations in practice spring from charter schools, and research-practice partnerships engage researchers in solving problems of practice. But i2 Clusters would provide much more than the sum of these parts-integrating teacher induction, evidence-based innovation and evaluation, and attention to equity into a coherent whole. Our proposal could channel the energy invested in many different valuable initiatives into a stable nationwide effort capable of continuous improvement.
The i2 Clusters would be initiated by school districts since they are responsible for the education of students and the quality of teachers. Moreover, it is district and school leaders who feel the strain of high teacher turnover and poor performance in these schools year after year. The funding would also support a local i2 Center responsible for coordinating the whole, including nonprofit organizations that would share in the work.
What would such an initiative cost? The answer depends on the scale of the enterprise. The Chula Vista Elementary school district in California serves 30,000 students and hires 30 to 40 first-year teachers annually. It has begun planning for an i2 Cluster in three of its lowest-performing schools. That estimated cost, assuming a modest number of innovation and evaluation initiatives, is $5.7 million a year. Rough estimates for a district twice the size in another urban area exceed $20 million annually because the proportion of new teachers is much higher. Were we at some point in the future to have i2 Clusters in 150 districts spread across all 50 states and costing on average $20 million each, the annual cost would be $3 billion.
We might compare such an investment with the $16 billion dollars in annual federal funding to subsidize the training of new doctors. Smartly, Medicare and Medicaid were identified as stable mechanisms through which that funding flows to teaching hospitals year after year. Titles I and II of the Every Student Succeeds Act could similarly serve to fund the training of new teachers and innovations in practice in high-poverty schools. Estimates by many economists suggest that increasing teacher quality would give taxpayers a high return on investment in the form of increased future tax revenues-as better educated students become employed adults and as costs are reduced for social services and incarceration. And an expected drop in teacher attrition by half, because of increased support during the first two years, would reduce the investment required almost immediately.
When students return to school, we should expect that those who have the least will have lost the most ground during the COVID-19 pandemic. We see the disparity in summer learning loss and we have now greatly magnified that effect. It will be no surprise if the primary changes in schools are the distance between desks and the presence of sanitizing wipes. But if we are serious about addressing the inequities that are now so visibly on display, we should invest in more fundamental change-change that tugs at one of the deepest roots of the inequality in our education system.
Suzanne Donovan is the founding executive director of the SERP Institute. Bruce Alberts is a professor of science and education at the University of California, San Francisco, and is president emeritus of the National Academy of Sciences.