From Quicksand to Solid Ground: Building a Foundation to Support Quality Teaching


October 5, 2021


New White Paper Outlines 12 Design Challenges to Ensure Teacher Quality

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The Transforming Teaching Project, a Harvard Graduate School of Education-based initiative allied with education organizations across the nation, today released a white paper offering a comprehensive analysis of the problems with American teaching and detailing 12 Design Challenges to transform the teaching field.  The white paper, entitled From Quicksand to Solid Ground: Building a Foundation to Support Quality Teaching, and written by Harvard Graduate School of Education associate professor Jal Mehta and his colleagues, argues for the development of a reliable and integrated set of mechanisms—a functioning system—to build teachers’ knowledge, skills, and expertise. The paper’s authors also challenge the education sector to codify current and future research and practical knowledge about quality teaching to improve teacher effectiveness in every classroom and to advance the field of education overall. The paper is the result of a two year effort to assess the state of the field, drawing on interviews with 60 sector leaders and 25 teachers, and initial pressure testing of ideas with several hundred educators.


“The quality of a teacher is the most critical school-based factor in student success. But we do not have a reliable system to build teachers knowledge, skills and expertise,” comments Mehta.  “These 12 Design Challenges are critical first steps toward transforming the teaching field into one that is professional, consistently high-quality, rewarding, and revered.”  

The paper has been endorsed by those seeking to improve and professionalize teaching across the political spectrum. Organizational endorsers include the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future, Deans for Impact, and Teach Plus. Individual endorsements include Norman Atkins, President of the Relay Graduate School of Education, Orin Gutlerner and Michael Goldstein, Founding Directors of Match Education, and Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the Learning Policy Institute and Emeritus Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

“The Transforming Teaching project is the right effort at the right time,” said Ben Riley, Founder and Executive Director of Deans for Impact, and a member of the Transforming Teaching leadership team. “There have long been calls to elevate the prestige and improve the professionalization of teaching, but this new endeavor is taking concrete steps toward making those goals the reality in the US. Just as importantly, this project is steered by broad set of stakeholders who are collectively in position to lead the transformation.”

“”This paper powerfully describes the challenges we must address to create the systems that our teachers deserve and our students need,” said Darling-Hammond. “In an era in which we are committed to helping all students think, reason, collaborate, and participate in democracy, we need to develop the kind of systems in which teachers are similarly supported, challenged, respected, and given opportunities to work together to develop deeper skills that will create a better future for their students.”

The paper argues that there are three interrelated dimensions of the problem and the solution. The first is what the authors call the “missing R and D (research and development) system” — the absence of usable knowledge about good teaching and the lack of intermediary organizations to get what knowledge there is into the hands of teachers.

“There is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom in the heads of many practicing teachers. Almost every problem in teaching has been solved by someone somewhere,” said Mehta. “But that knowledge is largely invisible. There is no way for other teachers to access it. We need to create mechanisms by which teacher knowledge is shared, vetted, and made accessible to other teachers.”

The second dimension is the systems supporting teacher learning, the mechanism for getting knowledge into action. The paper argues that teacher learning at all stages of the pipeline needs improvement, and that we need more alignment between teacher preparation, induction, and ongoing professional development.

“”Historically, the incentives in America have been for teacher preparation to be ‘fast and cheap’ rather than longer and higher quality,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, President of Bank Street College and a member of the Transforming Teaching leadership team. “If we want to improve teaching, we need a way to change these incentives so that high quality residency-like training becomes the rule rather than the exception.”

The third dimension is the policy and political ecosystem that supports teaching. The paper argues that policy changes are needed to make teaching more attractive, affordable, and selective, diversify the teaching corps, create career ladders, and develop assessments that are consistent with 21st century competencies.

One particularly noteworthy proposal in the paper is the idea that America should develop “teaching hospital” schools that would be centers for the training of new teachers, as well as places where researchers and master teachers could collaborate to develop new knowledge. Jesse Solomon, the executive director of Boston Plan for Excellence and a leadership team member, is working to create Teaching Academy schools in Boston which are modeled after teaching hospitals.

Collectively, the 12 Design Challenges seek to attract the most talented students to teaching, providing them and their practicing peers with support and actionable information about what good teaching looks like; ensuring introductory and ongoing training that provides them with the requisite skills and knowledge for classroom and student success; identifying certification methods that are rigorous and performance-based; and forging new career pathways where master teachers both anchor teacher training and ongoing knowledge development.

Many of the elements within the proposed system and addressed in the design challenges are happening in pockets across the nation.  What makes the Transforming Teaching Project’s approach unique is that it calls for greater collaboration and cohesion across the higher education, P-12, and policy environments.  By bringing together representatives from the field of education, state and district agencies, nonprofits, philanthropy, teachers unions and more, disjointed or siloed efforts are identified and opportunities for greater collaboration can emerge. Transforming Teaching held its first two convenings last May, bringing together many of the top organizations in the nation to work on these problems. Many of these individuals are part of a leadership team for the Transforming Teaching Project. (A full list of leadership team members can be seen here.)

“We all agree that teaching must be seen and valued as a true profession, with educators given the latitude to teach children—including to be innovative and take risks. Future teachers must be prepared with real-world curriculum and experiences, entry to the profession must be rigorous, and teachers throughout their careers should receive continuous professional development to grow and thrive. This paper tackles these challenges in a thoughtful manner, with creativity, commitment and diverse viewpoints. It gives us a lot to work with as we continue to work on these pressing challenges.” — AFT President Randi Weingarten

The Transforming Teaching Project’s next steps include widely disseminating the 12 Design Challenges to the field, continuing to collaborate with education, academic, and political leaders on the creation of the proposed system, and building capacity to share information and knowledge about excellence teaching.  

About the Transforming Teaching Project

Housed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Transforming Teaching aims to revolutionize the way teaching is organized, supported, and regarded in the United States. The Project includes a growing coalition of teacher training programs, higher education institutions, non-profits, funding organizations, state and district agencies, teacher unions, and others committed to working in concert with one another to deliver transformative change in the teaching profession.

©2022 The Transforming Teaching Project