Linda Darling-Hammond—the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, and routinely at the top of the leader board in the annual RHSU Edu-Scholar rankings—has been awarded the 2022 Yidan Prize for Education Research. The $3.9 million prize, arguably the world’s most prestigious education award, credited Linda’s scholarship with “reveal[ing] the diverse ways children learn and how best to teach them—and feed[ing] those insights into robust educator development programs and transformed schools.” While Linda and I have disagreed plenty over the years, I’ve great respect for her remarkable contributions. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to ask her a few questions about her work, the award, and the issues of the day.
Hess: Congratulations, Linda. It’s a well-deserved honor. For starters, can you say a few words about how you came to focus on the kinds of issues—like professional development and teacher preparation—for which you are honored?
Darling-Hammond: Thanks, Rick. I became interested in teacher learning because of my own experiences as a high school English teacher. I fell into teaching after college, entering through an alternate-route intern program in Philadelphia that placed me in a full-time teaching position after just a few weeks of student-teaching during the summer. While I had taught in an urban after-school program during college, I quickly realized how underprepared I was to meet the needs of all my students—including high schoolers who could not yet read. The professional development I experienced was limited and unhelpful. While I was enthusiastic and hardworking, and the students liked me well enough, I could not find the knowledge base for teaching that I was desperately seeking at that time. When I met some extraordinary teachers and began to study how they had learned to teach, and conducted research on teacher preparation at RAND and, later, at Teachers College, Columbia University, I discovered a deep knowledge base that few teachers could access. I determined then to work on understanding high-quality preparation for teachers and figuring out how it could become widespread.
Hess: You’ve shown a remarkable ability to straddle the worlds of academia and government. You’ve served as president of the California board of education, chaired the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, helmed Obama’s education transition team in 2008, and Biden’s transition team in 2020. What have you learned from these roles?
Darling-Hammond: As you know, there is a deep divide between research and practice and an even deeper divide between research and policy. That schism became apparent during the last years of No Child Left Behind, a topic about which you and I penned a joint op-ed as the law’s implementation became more and more dysfunctional. As I have engaged in the policy process, I have learned more about the constraints and considerations policymakers have to take into account and what it takes to get past infatuation with a single silver bullet to actually build a thoughtful system of supports and incentives. At the Learning Policy Institute, my colleagues and I seek to understand how to bring solid evidence to the policy arena, particularly in ways that are evidence-based, easy to understand, and practical for policymakers. That is a huge translation task that requires regular engagement and communication with respect on both sides.
Hess: You’re a champion of professional development, but you’ve also acknowledged that much of it is ineffective. Why is that? And what can we do about it?
Darling-Hammond: In many places, professional development has been designed as a torturous “sit and get” event where some outsider comes in and talks at tired teachers, who are meant to simply listen: one of the most ineffective approaches to learning. Of course, more effective approaches exist. My LPI colleagues and I screened the literature for high-quality studies that found professional-development models that changed teacher practice and enabled student-learning gains. We found that these models had a number of features in common: They were based in the curriculum content being taught; engaged teachers in active learning as teachers tried out the practices they would use; offered models of the practices with lessons, assignments, and coaching; extended over time (typically at least 50 hours of interaction over a number of months) with iterative opportunities to try things in the classroom and continue to refine. In addition, these efforts were almost always accompanied by in-person or on-line coaching, sometimes using classroom videos as the grist for those conversations.
Hess: On a related note, what do you think of the state of teacher preparation today? Do you think it has improved over the past couple decades—and is there any way to really know?
Darling-Hammond: I think a solid group of teacher-preparation programs have been improving since at least the late 1980s, when the Holmes Group of Deans and the National Network for Educational Renewal worked with flagship universities and other committed colleges to design a new model—a coherent, content-rich program linking students to partner schools demonstrating state-of-the-art practice for training and engaging candidates in a full year of graduated responsibility with expert mentors. This supports school and university improvement at the same time. However, there has been no policy support for this work for the last 20 years or for the training costs of prospective teachers, and teacher salaries have declined since the early 1990s. As a result, the quality of teacher education has grown more variable as shortages have grown, and many programs have been designed to cut corners to get teachers into classrooms quickly.
Hess: As the Yidan Prize Foundation noted, you’ve spent a career as a leading voice for equity. It seems to me that one ensuing challenge is how to ensure that a healthy concern for equity doesn’t morph into an unhealthy disdain for the notion of excellence. How do you think about this issue? How do you advise practitioners and policymakers to proceed on that count?
Darling-Hammond: I think equity has to be all about excellence: Equity involves getting all students access to excellent teaching and rigorous, rich, relevant learning opportunities. It means helping students learn as much as they can, developing their particular passions and interests, and meeting their needs along the way. Equity, however, is not about standardization—doing exactly the same thing with or for all students. We now know from the science of learning and development that most of human potential is constructed by the relationships and experiences people have throughout their lives, not assumed at birth. Given that students come to school with different experiences, starting points, and ways of learning, the teaching and learning process has to be personalized to a great extent. Sometimes this may mean expert use of collaboration and differentiation within the classroom. Sometimes it may mean intensive tutoring at key moments to help students accelerate their learning. It may mean after-school and summer school learning opportunities. It should never mean holding back some students from opportunities in favor of equal outcomes. Instead, it should always mean leveling up the opportunities to learn so that we have more accomplished, contributing members of society.
Hess: As you advise schools and systems in light of the pandemic, what’s the single most important thing you’d encourage them to do?
Darling-Hammond: I would encourage educators and policymakers to use this moment of deep disruption to reinvent the way we do school: to move beyond the assembly-line factory model we inherited 100 years ago to new models that are more flexible, equitable, and successful. Innovators have created many new designs that allow for more personalized and experiential learning; stronger relationships among teachers, students, and families; time for teachers to collaborate around curriculum, teaching, and decisionmaking; and competency-based approaches that vary time and methods—from high-intensity tutoring to creative uses of technology—rather than accepting disparate outcomes along a bell curve. To get to this new future, schools of education should partner with such innovative schools for training up the teachers and leaders of the future. Policymakers should remove the constraints and regulations that were designed to prop up the factory model. They should work to ensure resources are supporting well-prepared educators who can innovate and make good decisions for children, rather than trying to micromanage schools themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.