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How do successful school systems treat teachers?

Published on The Huffington Post on December 11, 2010

The release of two important reports led me to ask this question today.

The National Education Policy Center shared a brief that reviews available research on several different aspects of teacher evaluation and recommends a comprehensive approach to teacher evaluation. If different measures, like observation (by peers and principals), teacher self-reports, student surveys, classroom artifacts, portfolios, and value-added assessment are used, then the weaknesses of one measure can be offset by the strengths of another.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated PISA rankings came out, revealing that America is (still) in the “middle of the pack” of international rankings of 15-year-old performance in reading, science, and math. Putting anxious hand-wringing and concerns about representativeness and meaning aside, if we take the rankings at face value, then there is merit in examining how more successful school systems work, and learning from what makes them so successful.

One of the key things that such systems have in common is that they take teaching seriously. Drawing from research summarized in Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education, common features of the teacher experience in places like the Scandinavian nations, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong include:

  • Between three and four years of high-quality teacher education, typically funded at government expense. Pre-service teacher education programs in these places tend to include courses in content-specific pedagogy to develop teachers’ knowledge of how their discipline works (and empower them to help learners deal with certain types of conceptual issues unique to their field), research projects where teachers write theses on teaching practice and other issues in the schools, and at least one year of training within a school setting. Like the rest of the teaching and learning system, teacher education programs are regularly evaluated and updated, with teachers playing a central role in the process.
  • Extensive mentoring and meaningful, ongoing professional development. Teachers in these systems spend their first years working closely with veteran teachers, who often receive special training on how to be good mentors. New and veteran teachers alike spend a considerable amount of time engaging in professional learning, which is often embedded within the generous amounts of time (between 15-25 hours a week!) they have for collaborative planning. They frequently do action research projects with their colleagues, and present their learning to other teachers through publications or at conferences. Release time for observations in other teachers’ classrooms is also common, after which teachers take time to critique each other and offer feedback.
  • Leadership development. Teachers are given the opportunity to develop curriculum and assessments, mentor and coach teachers, and offer professional development. The strongest teachers are recruited to become principals, who are developed to serve as instructional leaders.
  • Professional pay and status. Teachers are paid comparably to members of other professions, and teaching itself is highly honored. Some governments make special efforts to recruit their best students into the teaching profession, which simultaneously boosts the strength of the teaching corps and the prestige of the profession as a whole.

Recognizing that “teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible,” other nations devote considerable time and resources into teaching. Note, too, that all of these investments are based on two key assumptions:

  • that teachers should teach, develop, and evaluate each other (and that every facet of education– from teacher training to school leadership– should be informed and led by professional educators)
  • that teachers will stay in teaching until they retire, thereby allowing them to continue the cycle of developing other teachers and leading schools, and making such extensive investments worthwhile.

Though we have examples of strong teacher education, induction, and professional development programs here, there is no large-scale effort to coordinate and/or duplicate these programs to ensure that every single American teacher benefits from them. Here, it is more often the case that:

  • teachers must forgo income (and more often, go into debt) in order to participate in high-quality, in-depth teacher preparation programs, or skip such preparation and go directly into the classroom (typically the neediest ones) with little to no training
  • mentoring is spotty
  • professional development is shallow, and often disconnected from any given teacher’s specific needs as a practitioner
  • teachers have relatively little built-in time (three to five hours a week) to plan at all, let alone collaboratively
  • teachers are increasingly observed, evaluated, and led by school leaders who are not well-trained, experienced educators
  • teachers are underpaid relative to other professions with similar levels of education

Unlike our international peers, Americans don’t consider teaching a prestigious profession, or even much of a profession at all (“Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”). We don’t invest in teachers or teaching, we only nominally (if at all) involve teachers in the process of making major decisions about education, and we’ve even become shockingly comfortable with the idea of teaching being a disposable job– something people do for a couple of years before moving on to something else (…better? …More important?).

And our national conversation about improving the quality of teaching focuses primarily on “getting rid of bad teachers.” Instead doing what’s necessary to develop and keep good teachers, like improving teacher education and induction programs, implementing comprehensive evaluation systems, and embedding teachers in supportive, well-resourced school communities, America glorifies whomever seems the most willing to fire people.

Rather than guaranteeing teacher quality before teachers take responsibility for students, we’re growing a system where we put teachers in the classroom, then try to figure out if they’re good enough after the fact. This experiment-and-punish approach is remarkably cruel to both teachers and students, especially the neediest ones– who are often subjected to strings of over-worked, under-supported, and under-trained instructors year after year.

If we really want to build a world-class school system, why waste time and money on witch hunts and magic bullets?

Why not emulate world-class school systems?

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