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Issue No. 49 (November 2003) -- Mark Satin, Editor
schools need now:
More important than the war on Iraq, more important than any of the issues Republicans and Democrats are currently addressing, are facts like these:
-- International tests of students from developed countries continue to show U.S. high school students ranking at or near the bottom in mathematics and science (“What Matters Most,” 1996 report);
-- Only 7% of U.S. 17-year-olds can now read and understand “specialized materials,” and only 2% -- 2%! -- can write “well-developed material” (“What Matters Most”);
-- Over the last 30 years, per pupil expenditures on public K-12 education have more than doubled after adjusting for inflation (National Center for Education Statistics).
In response to facts like these, our politicians have come up with their favorite magic bullets.
On the right, the solution is said to be “raising standards” -- i.e., turning schools into little factories for raising scores on standardized tests. Does that sound like what education’s supposed to be about to you?
On the left, the solution is said to be reducing class size. But why should schools that are doing a dismal job with 25-30 kids per class, suddenly become competent and inspiring with fewer kids per class? Many developed countries average over 30 pupils per class, and some average close to 40.
The teacher is the key to reinventing American education.
Our schools don’t need more high-stakes testing, sterner graduation requirements, smaller classes, more computer-driven learning, or prettier buildings, nearly so much as they need the one thing money and power alone can’t generate: Great teachers.
The people speak
That may be heresy to the folks at the Department of Education and the NEA, but it’s common sense to the American people.
When Daniel Yankelovich’s Public Agenda polling firm asked, “What is the most important thing public schools need in order to help students learn?,” the most common response -- by far -- was, “Good teachers” (First Things First, 1994).
And in a 2000 nationwide poll conducted by Recruiting New Teachers, Inc. (for the report The Essential Profession, 2001), when Americans were asked how to improve student learning, “Ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom” ranked second at 89% -- one percentage point below “Schools safe from violence.”
Third was “Greater parental involvement” (86%), fourth was “Getting fully qualified principals” (84%), fifth was “A challenging curriculum” (75%). All inextricably linked to landing and retaining great teachers.
The magic bullets of the left and right brought up the rear: tenth was greater access to computers (64%), 11th was reduced class size (60%), 12th was public school choice (47%), and 13th was promoting students based on standardized test scores (28%).
The experts speak
Most education experts are happy to defend the officially sanctioned magic bullets above. But growing numbers of experts are giving voice to what the American people already know.
“What matters most is what teachers do and say with their students, not the high-level [pedagogic] models that schools choose,” says former public school and former Harvard University teacher Peter Temes (in his book Against School Reform (And in Praise of Great Teaching), 2002).
“Policymakers are just beginning to grasp what parents have always known: that teaching is the most important element of successful learning,” says the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (in its report “What Matters Most,” 1996, www.nctaf.org, which I understand was largely written by its extraordinary founding executive director, Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and former public school teacher and co-founder of a day care center).
“The teacher is the foundation of a productive learning environment,” says California high school teacher and education workshop leader Brian Crosby (in his book The $100,000 Teacher, 2002). “For too long, education reformers have overlooked -- or refused to believe -- that the quality of the instructors matters most.”
New teaching culture
At the heart of the “great teacher” solution to our floundering schools is producing a new teaching culture -- a truly professional and humane culture comparable to that of other professions at their best.
No talented person wants to work in a culture that’s characterized by mediocrity, bureaucracy, and conformity -- and, unfortunately, too many school systems reek of all three.
Every radical middle education advocate I’ve talked with or read devotes considerable energy to trying to explain the debilitating K-12 teacher culture. The manifesto “The Teachers We Need” argues that the education bureaucracy, like all bureaucracies, fears originality and rewards “uniformity and conformity” (www. edexcellence.net/library/teacher.html).
Mr. Crosby explains the culture this way: “If an employee feels that his special talents aren’t rewarded financially or recognized by his superiors, he assumes a defeatist attitude.”
Other analysts feel the teaching culture is -- ironically -- anti-achievement and anti-intellectual from the start. Mr. Temes reports that education majors have lower SAT scores and grade point averages than nearly all other majors on college campuses. (According to one study, the average SAT score for ed majors is 964. Many college sports teams do better.)
Mr. Crosby reports that staggering numbers of teachers flunk “teacher competency” tests whenever states have the courage to administer them in the teeth of opposition from the NEA. In Massachu- setts, 59% of teachers flunked the first state competency test.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that half of all new teachers quit within five years. Ms. Soler reports that -- tragically, but not surprisingly given the teacher culture -- teachers with high test scores are less likely to stay than teachers with lower scores.
Teaching pays poorly, and radical middle teacher advocates would change that. But as the polling firm Public Agenda recently put it, “The pay issue overlooks incentives that are significantly more important to most teachers and would-be teachers.”
When Public Agenda asked beginning K-12 teachers to choose between two schools, one that paid a “significantly higher salary” and one where “administrators gave strong backing and support to teachers,” an astonishing 82% chose the latter!
As you’ll see below, radical middle teacher advocates have come up with many worthy proposals. One one level, the proposals are all red meat for potentially great teachers. On a deeper level, they’d all contribute to the goal of creating a national teacher culture characterized by excellence, learning, and unstinting professional responsibility . . . a culture any great teacher would die for.
Revitalized ed schools
If you’ve been to college, you probably remember that the ed school on your campus was often mentioned in the same breath as Mickey Mouse. Well, nothing’s changed. Mr. Crosby quotes ed school critic Rita Kramer as follows: “The aim is not to produce individuals capable of effort and master[y], but to make sure everyone gets a passing grade.”
Even new teachers are critical of their ed school training. The Public Agenda polling firm found that 56% of them felt it put “too much emphasis on the theory” of education.
Both Mr. Crosby and Ms. Darling-Hammond want to make ed school more challenging. “Attorneys and doctors thrive on the challenge of passing the bar exam and completing internships,” Mr. Crosby says. “Why not put teachers through more rigorous training? . . . Once teaching is perceived to be more prestigious, college students who otherwise might not consider teaching will line up.”
Ms. Darling-Hammond would insist on accreditation for all schools of education. (She’s too politic to mention it, but according to Mr. Crosby only 40% of our 1,200 ed schools are accredited today.) She says that the quality standards of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education -- though “recently revised and strengthened” -- should not be “beyond the reach of any school of education genuinely committed to preparing excellent teachers.”
Programs that can’t be accredited should be unceremoniously “shut down,” she says. “It is time for states and higher education to stop playing shell games with ineffective program approval procedures.”
Even the better schools of ed should be “reinvent[ed],” she says, to emphasize the following:
-- “stronger disciplinary preparation”;
-- “high-quality clinical leaning opportunities”;
-- “greater understanding of how to . . . address learning differences and disabilities”;
-- “more knowledge about curriculum design”;
-- “preparation for collaboration with colleagues and parents”; and
-- “strong emphasis on reflection and inquiry as means to continually evaluate and improve teaching.”
Alternative paths to teaching
Even if ed schools are revitalized (no small task), many radical middle teacher advocates are convinced that alternative paths to teaching should be provided -- in part as a way to lure creative spirits and nontraditional students to K-12 teaching.
Basically, two alternative paths have been suggested, which I call the “broad” and “third” paths.
The broad path is wary of all professionalized and government-mandated approaches to teacher quality. Its principal spokesperson is Chester Finn, its principal organ the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Mr. Finn famously mocked the Darling-Hammond report for concluding that future teachers should spend “more time in ever-more-uniform ed schools” (Weekly Standard, Mar. 9, 1998).
“There is no ‘one best system’ for preparing and licensing quality teachers,” says the broad path manifesto, “The Teachers We Need and How to Get More Of Them,” co-signed by Mr. Finn and funded by the Fordham Foundation (www.edexcellence.net/library/teacher.html). “[L]amentably, little is known for sure about what makes an effective teacher. . . .
“The popularity of such programs as Teach for America, which places liberal arts graduates without formal education course work in public school classrooms in poor rural communities and inner cities, indicates that the prospect of teaching without first being obliged to spend years in pedagogical study appeals to some of our brightest college graduates.”
Principal spokesperson for the “third” path is Frederick Hess, professor of education at the University of Virginia. Mr. Hess is critical of the broad path manifesto, saying it comes dangerously close to “suggesting that any adult with the appropriate knowledge and aptitudes is ready to be an effective teacher” (see esp. “Tear Down This Wall,” 2001, www.ndol.org/ndol_ka.cfm?kaid=110).
At the same time, Mr. Hess is more permissive than Ms. Darling-Hammond. He thinks people should be able to “apply for a teaching job if they hold a college degree; pass a test that demonstrates competency in knowledge or skills essential to what they seek to teach; and pass a criminal background check. . . .
“[This] model assumes that additional preparation and training, particularly on-the-job training, are not only desirable but essential. . . . However, considering the dearth of evidence about what does constitute a good teacher, both humility . . . and common sense argue against erecting additional regulatory hurdles.”
Rigorous licensing tests
Today, some states will hand out a teachers’ license if you’ve managed to stay awake in your ed school courses and managed to score better than “D’s” in some of them. Of the states requiring passage of a test before teaching, fewer than half go beyond multiple-choice questions to include an essay.
And you should see those tests! Some politically powerful groups oppose rigorous licensing tests; as a result, math questions for high school teachers are now -- as Mr. Crosby puts it -- “at the ninth grade level,” and reading passages for teachers are at the level of popular magazines.
Most radical middle teacher advocates would end this farce. “Performance-based licensing is the norm in other professions,” says Ms. Darling-Hammond. “In a performance-based licensing system for teaching, all candidates should pass . . . rigorous . . . tests of subject matter knowledge and knowledge about teaching and learning before they receive an initial license and are hired.
“They should then pass a performance assessment of teaching skills during [a one- or two-year apprenticeship] as the basis for a continuing license.”
And apprenticeships for all
Radical middle teacher advocates would not just plunk beginning teachers into the classroom.
“[T]he first year or two of teaching should be structured much like a residency in medicine,” says Ms. Darling-Hammond, “with teachers continually consulting a seasoned veteran in their teaching field about the decisions they are making, and receiving ongoing advice and evaluation.”
Mr. Hess wants schools and school systems to make it part of their job to train new hires. “Such a model would be a rough approximation of the medical model,” he says, “where residents learn the softer, more practical skills of medical practice by working under the supervision of veteran doctors.”
Teacher training wouldn’t stop after the first couple of years. Lawyers have their “continuing legal education” programs; just so, radical middle teacher advocates envision what Ms. Darling-Hammond refers to as “career-long professional development programs.”
Today, she says, “school systems spend substantial amounts of money on professional development, much of it unplanned, a lot of it unnoticed, practically all of it uncoordinated. . . .” Mr. Temes is more pungent: “A great deal of this professional development [-- typically costing $1,000 to $2,000 per teacher per year --] is . . . provided by staff of [self-interested] textbook publishers,” or by jaded consultants who “deliver more or less the same presentation to widely different groups of teachers.”
Both Ms. Darling-Hammond and Mr. Temes want to see the money spent on an approach to professional development that would nurture and stimulate great teachers. Among their suggestions:
-- school-based research projects, study groups, and peer coaching;
-- networks and projects that would allow teachers to work together across schools (or regionally or nationally);
-- local or regional “teacher academies” where teachers could go for skill building and problem solving.
Most professionals continually seek (or at least are forced to experience) evaluations of their work by their peers. But as Gerald Grant and Christine Murray point out in their fine book Teaching in America: The Slow Revolution (1999), experienced K-12 teachers have often resisted attempts to evaluate their work. And students have paid the price.
Now comes the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a group that promises to do as much social good in the 00s as civil rights groups did in the 60s.
Many teachers say they trust the Board’s evaluations because it’s not the principal or the nosy teacher-in-the-next-room giving an opinion on the fly. Instead, all evaluations are based on a challenging examination “developed by experts in the [teaching] profession, not by a state bureaucracy,” as Mr. Grant and Ms. Murray enthusiastically put it.
Teachers who want to get a sure sense of their competence submit videotapes of their teaching, lesson plans, and other samples of their own and their students’ work to the Board. Later, in special “assessment centers,” they evaluate texts and teaching materials, analyze teaching situations, assess student needs, and defend teaching decisions.
According to Ms. Darling-Hammond, “Teachers who have experienced the Board’s assessments . . . say it provides an extraordinary learning experience.” Unfortunately, only about 16,000 teachers have chosen to take advantage of the Board’s good offices so far.
No more sinecures
Radical middle teacher advocates are not willing to defend the profession’s weakest links, as many teachers’ unions do. They understand that if we “want good schools populated by talented teachers,” as Mr. Temes puts it, then not only do the sexual predators have to go; the time-servers and the contempt-mongers have to go. They deaden students’ capacity to learn and help drive talented and sensitive teachers out of the profession.
According to Ms. Darling-Hammond, in some places inadequate teachers are already quietly being eliminated. Instead of having school principals evaluate all the teachers in a building (an impossible task, but standard operating procedure today), new systems that “incorporate peer review and assistance from ‘lead teachers’ . . . provide intensive support for . . . veterans who are having difficulty. Those who do not improve are ‘counseled out’ of teaching.”
Mr. Temes would avoid much of this in the future by refusing to license or hire about half the beginning teachers at the end of their apprenticeship periods. Mr. Crosby doesn’t offer numbers, but it’s clear he’d be at least as protective of students: “If at any time during the [first] two years, evaluations are poor, that teacher would be fired.”
Power to the school
The elephant in this article is that most of these measures will require a massive decentralization of power from legislatures and school boards down to the level of the individual school -- and its principal and teachers.
Ms. Darling-Hammond puts it as delicately as possible when she says, “These changes rely in part on . . . an acknowledgement that greater productivity is likely to result from direct investments in teacher and principal competence than from efforts to create accountability through top-heavy inspection and reporting systems.”
And Mr. Crosby puts it as bluntly as possible when he says, “The . . . public education establishment has to be uprooted.”
Professional pay scale
If K-12 teachers are going to attend academically challenging ed schools, work as diligently as doctors or lawyers for their licenses, undergo demanding apprenticeships, subject themselves to vigorous evaluations, risk being fired for incompetence at any point in their careers, and assume more responsibility for running their schools and their profession -- then they should be paid like the professionals they’ll have become.
Today, teachers are paid according to how many degrees they hold and how many years they’ve worked -- period. Merit (or even demonstrated effort) doesn’t enter into it. You can see why caring teachers might feel unappreciated, and other teachers might feel unmotivated!
Mr. Crosby recently wrote a controversial article for the Los Angeles Times arguing that the pay scale for K-12 teachers should range from a starting salary of $50,000 to a top salary of $100,000 or more. Most radical middle teacher advocates would support something like that pay scale. (One way to attract great teachers is to offer respectable salaries.)
Lost in the controversy over Mr. Crosby’s numbers, though, is that he doesn’t want teachers to be paid the same. Like most radical middle teacher advocates, he’d base pay -- and pay raises -- in part on teacher behavior.
For example, both Mr. Crosby and Bryan Hassel (co-director of an education policy consulting firm and author of “Better Pay for Better Teaching,” 2002, www. ndol.org/ndol_ka.cfm?kaid=110) would offer higher pay for teaching in “tough” schools.
Both would offer higher pay for teaching math or science.
Mr. Crosby and Ms. Darling-Hammond would offer higher pay to teachers taking the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards exam (above) and earning Board certification.
Mr. Hassel and Mr. Finn would offer higher pay to teachers who boosted student learning in their classes, or to faculties that boosted learning in their schools.
You can see what Mr. Crosby and the other radical middle teacher advocates are driving at here: Using pay to induce great teaching. Putting (socially responsible) capitalism to work in the teaching profession.
It’s almost too heretical to contemplate.
We can afford this
If we spent education funds more wisely, we wouldn’t have to raise one cent for the changes described above.
“[M]ore than half of all school system staff are not classroom teachers,” says Ms. Darling-Hammond. Some of them can, frankly, go -- and many teachers can be much more intelligently utilized. Decentralizing personnel decisions down to the schoolhouse level would guarantee such changes.
“[N]ot all teachers would earn [$100,000],” says Mr. Crosby. “Redistrib- uting the money -- paying better teachers more and weaker teachers less -- would not increase property taxes. In addition, [many Department of Education programs] should be closed down, and the money should be sent to schools to best figure out where the money could be used most effectively.”
So far as education is concerned, money is the least of our problems. It’s “already there,” as Mr. Crosby says. Great teachers are largely not there -- but they can be.
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