To improve education, improvements needed inside and outside the classroom

While the United States has many first-rate schools, our top students have a way to go to perform as well as top students in many other countries in mathematics. Worse, the schools serving high concentrations of low-income students and students of color are at far greater risk of leaving their students unprepared for work—and life—in an era of global competition than are their counterparts that serve mostly middle-class and white students.

We know that poverty and other out-of-school considerations are the biggest factors affecting student achievement. The role of educators within schools comes next. Both in-school and out-of-school problems must be addressed to improve our education system and move toward educational equity. Too often, the current debate had made it an "either/or" choice.

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Last week, in California, the verdict in the Vergara trial was released. The lawsuit and the court's decision suggested that if we focus on solely removing ineffective teachers, we can solve all of the challenges facing public education. Simply put, the case missed the mark, and missed a real opportunity to address the wide range of factors that affect student achievement. Instead of pointing fingers, we must improve the quality of the education we are providing for each and every child. Every child deserves a safe, welcoming and collaborative school that builds trusting relationships and critical thinking. To provide this, we need to implement a number of key policies both inside and outside the classroom.

Studies have shown unequivocally that high-quality prekindergarten programs can make a tremendous difference in preparing children for success in school. Investment in early education for disadvantaged children during this critical period can benefit student achievement, reduce the need for special education, promote healthier lifestyles and lower overall social costs (including those associated with law enforcement). Participation in high-quality preschool programs results in short- and long-term positive outcomes for children, including increased high school graduation and higher rates for college attendance and completion. We need to make these high-quality prekindergarten programs accessible to all children.

Providing school-based health services can result in healthier students, better educational achievement, and lasting long-term physical and socio-economic benefits. That's why we have both championed the development of community schools. These neighborhood schools serve as community hubs, a concept that has been under attack with the recent focus on closing schools. They offer services to address the nonacademic needs of students and their families, like healthcare and financial support. Community schools have been effectively transforming low-performing schools across the country by improving school readiness; parent involvement; academic support and success; students' physical, social and emotional well-being; and community engagement.

We can strengthen and elevate the teaching profession by broadening the role and expectations for teachers. This begins with training. The quality of our teacher preparation programs varies wildly from state to state. However, it is clear that high-quality programs offer intensive coursework, integrated with clinical models that ensure excellent mentors and close supervision in learning to teach. In addition to supporting high-quality preparation programs, we recommend that states set a uniform entry "bar" into the profession that includes in-depth academic preparation, diverse clinical experiences, and excellent performance on a licensing assessment that measures subject-matter knowledge.

Once an educator enters the classroom, he or she needs support and professional development. Professional development must be embedded in the workday. It must deepen and broaden teacher knowledge, be rooted in best practices, allow for collaborative efforts, and be aligned to the Common Core State Standards. And it must provide the support, time and resources to enable teachers to master new content, pedagogy and learning tools, and incorporate them in their practice.

A crucial component of professional development is evaluation. Recently, we have seen a push for evaluation systems to be used to sort and fire teachers—a supposed quick fix, but one that ignores the vast majority of dedicated educators. To be effective, an evaluation system must identify strengths and weaknesses, so that all teachers can get the necessary support to improve their practice.

Clearly, larger issues must be addressed to truly transform the nation's education system, such as improving the equitable distribution of state and local school education dollars, raising the minimum wage, and increasing job opportunities. There are, however, specific policy prescriptions that can be acted on immediately, including high-quality preschool for all, community and neighborhood schools, a "bar exam" for educators, and high-quality professional development and evaluation for educators. Our educational system will not be fully successful until we address challenges both inside and outside the classroom, and begin to meet the needs of each and every child.

Weingarten has been president of the American Federation of Teachers since 2008. Honda has represented California's 17th Congressional District since 2001. He sits on the Appropriations Committee.