Depending on how you look at it, Ed Secretary Miguel Cardona’s assertion that “we’re closer to a reset in education than ever before” is either a beacon of hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel, or the opening of a new front in an increasingly polarizing culture war.

Because my work as CEO of the national Breakthrough Collaborative involves middle-schoolers with college aspirations and college students who aspire to become advocates and teachers, I’m always inclined to take the optimistic view. Still, the challenges we face in our public education system rank right up there with war in Ukraine in the existential crises keeping me up at night.

Here in my home state of Florida, we are arguing about how to teach history and whether we can acknowledge the gender identities of students. Elsewhere—in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Georgia, among others—the battle about inequitable outcomes of property-tax-based school funding models rages on in the courts and in school board conference rooms.

What too few politicians and parents are talking about, though, is the dire state of the career pipeline for teachers, the ones we’ll be depending on to lead the post-pandemic learning recovery in our classrooms over the next few years—not to mention for the next generation.

A Focus on Teachers

“Teachers matter,” to quote the definitive Rand study. They are key to inspiring our children’s passion for learning, to preparing a workforce to strengthen our economy, and to creating leaders capable of wisely navigating the global challenges of today—and tomorrow.

The teacher workforce has been beset by challenges for decades, with low pay, stressful work conditions, and lack of preparation and support taking a gradual toll on the numbers of talented next-gen leaders—especially leaders of color—pursuing careers in education. The pandemic has turned a slow-moving problem into a crisis, as schools scramble to staff classrooms and schools of education continue to see declines in enrollment. One high-profile and recent example comes from Teach for America, one of the nation’s largest preparers of teachers of color, which has recruited its smallest cohort in at least 15 years.

Secretary Cardona took heat last month for failing to provide details for implementing his vision of “an educational environment that centers students’ needs.” While it will require effort on multiple fronts, a focus on teachers may be the most robust lever we have for creating student-centric classrooms.

Moreover, for a goal that’s potentially as transformational as the war on cancer or putting a man on the moon, we need a national strategy that counters the inequities embedded in our local-tax-funded educational system, inequities that led to the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately harming students of color and those from low-income communities. Without that leadership, we’ll be stymied by the same patterns responsible for the persistent disparities between schools in affluent ZIP codes and those in less prosperous neighborhoods.

Solutions Start With Teachers

Valuing teachers is the systemic path to centering students. In order to move the needle, we must go beyond what teachers need to do to address root causes that require cultural and systemic change. Here are a few things it will take:

  1. Understanding that teaching and learning are inherently relational and the power relationships have on student and teacher success.
  2. Centering the joy of learning and making classrooms a place students and teachers want to be.
  3. Creating an empowered teaching culture to advocate for children and encouraging creativity that optimizes engagement.
  4. Fostering culturally responsive methods through continuous mentoring by exceptional, experienced educators.
  5. Developing partnerships with quality teacher preparation programs for coherent and supportive career pathways.

These strategies have taken root in efforts by district leaders, often in partnership with university-based teacher education programs, to “grow-their-own” teachers or source tutors for more emergent interventions. Yet, without a unifying and equitable strategy that eliminates system-driven disparities, we will not achieve the reset that Secretary Cardona is promising.

How can we do that without creating yet another mandate that builds bureaucracy, stifles educator creativity and makes “what to do about teachers” another cultural battleground—without actually centering the needs of students?

One possible answer is investing in more inclusive partnerships. Funding from both government and private sources could ensure that local efforts to expand the teacher pipeline and elevate the profession go beyond the institutional players by promoting programs that already have time-tested support of parents, teachers and students. Lighten the load on over-burdened school administrators by opening up the tent to include community-based organizations with built-in credibility with multi-racial and pluralistic constituencies.

Let’s imagine funders, school districts, and university-based and alternative teacher education programs collaborating across the teacher development continuum, catalyzing a reset rooted in the system’s nexus of greatest impact: teachers.

Finally, we must recalibrate our market economy—as we’ve done with nurses and software programmers—to appropriately value the work of teachers, by raising salaries, providing stipends and educational credit for experiential learning, and the early career supports required to pave a more affirmative path to long-term professional growth.

While we cannot ignore the global challenges of the moment, we need to recognize the threat at home also persists. Our national reset of an educational system that has been failing too many students for too long is long overdue. The human capital needed to mitigate the risk to our own children and grandchildren is in our reach. We should be rushing to change the course of public education now, by collaboratively mobilizing every viable resource we have.

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