Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II

Originally published at on 2009-07-16 06:54:00 UTC

Yesterday I described my ideas for investigating fundamental change in how American schools function, but a big part of this change must come in how we find, recruit, train, and support our teachers.

Teachers are the least respected professionals in America. Oh, lawyers get all the jokes. And doctors - whose professional organization keeps trying to block universal health insurance for the U.S. - are seen as greedy. But George W. Bush's first Secretary of Education called teachers "terrorists," Obama's Secretary of Education lectures teachers on blocking change, and a whole bunch of rich and powerful people think that the teaching profession is so easy that any reasonably smart graduate of college can do it after listening to five weeks of lectures. And then, it sure seems like most of the U.S. population thinks teachers are overpaid and underworked.

I just want to remind everyone that these are the people we have placed in charge of our future. These are the people who change the lives and save the lives of our most vulnerable children.

There's history here. In the years after the American Civil War, as public education spread through the unique U.S. "local pay" system, school boards did not want to pay male salaries to teachers. So teaching switched from a male profession to a female profession at a time when pay for females was deplorably low. Of course, so were rates of female higher education. So teachers, at the beginning of the American system, were disrespected women, paid incredibly poorly, and virtually untrained.
This contrasts, for example, with Europe, where schoolmasters were clergy, and deeply respected members of the community.

As the 19th Century ended, "Normal Schools" (teacher training colleges) were appearing everywhere, and the march toward professionalism had begun. But in the early 20th Century, when doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers - all almost exclusively male - organized themselves as "professional organizations" with real public policy and public relations clout, female teachers were left out.

So today, no matter how much money the friends of Wendy Kopp have, no one like her could get away with suggesting that she could train people to perform surgery with five weeks of summer camp training, or build bridges, or design the new World Trade Center, or even take on a death penalty case in court (she has as much experience with those four skill sets as she has with teaching). But she can put completely untrained young people into life or death control of poor people's children, and can be treated as a national expert on teacher certification and education policy.

A profession, not a temp job

I think many teachers are doing a lousy job. I think much of our teacher training is hopelessly disconnected from the needs of our students. I think students lack a diversity of role models among their educators - African-American males, people with learning and attention "issues" especially.
But I can not imagine that "less training" is the solution - because I understand all which anyone must learn to become good at teaching.

On Twitter one day, a "charter school advocate" wondered why Michigan would not certify Civil War filmmaker Ken Burns to teach history. I asked, "What does Ken Burns know about LD, ADHD, EBD, ELL, AAC, UDL?" Because teaching, as anyone who has attended university and slept through the horrid lectures of an expert knows, is about a great deal more than content knowledge. All "human professions" are - which is why, though I might know much less about the law than many Law School professors, I was probably a better New York City cop than most of them could be.

Like all professions, teaching requires a vast amount of both factual and operational knowledge. It requires a constant update of both of those knowledge bases. And it requires an effective peer mentoring and peer review structure. A teacher needs subject knowledge, needs to know the DSM-IV, needs to know brain research, education research, communications technology research. A teacher needs to be a critical thinker, a creative developer of tools of engagement for a wildly diverse audience, and needs a rather stunning level of observational skills and people skills.
How do we find those people? recruit them? train them? support them? reward them? retain them?
Myth-making: the brilliant young engineer is also instantly the world's best teacher

I want to find more new teachers from a few under-represented populations. I want more who have done poorly in K-12 schools, more survivors of special education, more from chronically failing groups. I want more who grew up in, who live in and are committed to, impoverished communities. And I want more teachers who arrive later in life, having collected big world experiences.

So step one is creating alternate certification routes which make sense in the building of diversity. This means we stop diverting resources to programs like Teach for America, and invest instead in the following:
  • Community-based Teacher Certification - A decade ago I ran a project in an inner city school, the kind of place which really struggles to hire teachers - especially at the secondary level. The community was impoverished and the tax base shattered. There were great teachers, but many others had checked out.

    But there was a group of adults who held the school together. They were para-pros and bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians. They lived in the community. They were committed to the school. They knew the kids, in school and on the street. In many ways they were teachers in every way except content knowledge.

    Of course they lacked much of that content knowledge, and they all lacked any kind of post-secondary degree. But I thought then what I think now - I'd rather try to teach community-committed, kid-committed adults the content knowledge they need to teach than try to turn uninterested content experts into teachers.

    So let's fund in-community evening teacher-training in all those places which now hire those bright Teach for America corps members. Let's pay community members to get fast-tracked degrees and relevant educational training. And let's create life-long teachers who'll be legitimate role models in their communities.
  • Second Careers - I'm not interested in finding suddenly unemployed investment bankers who want to hide out in education until Wall Street recovers. But there are a ton of people out there who could make fabulous teachers if they could pause, and train. But America is hard:  you quit your job, you lose your health insurance; you go to school, you get charged.

    There are alternative certification programs for people like these in certain places, but too many are "district quickies" where the teaching is rote, the curriculum scripted, and the time to grow extremely limited. We need a national program to pay (and insure) these career changers for as long as two years, as they learn about education and spend time every week in schools working directly with students. Only then can they see if this is really the job for them, and only then can "we" see if they've got the people skills to do this complicated job.
  • The best undergrads - How do we bring our best and brightest to education? And how do we know if those "best and brightest" will be good teachers?

    We encourage commitment from freshman year and we insist on time in schools/time with students from the very start.

    Now at Michigan State we require time working with "urban" students from the very first education course - at the freshman level. And before our pre-service teachers enter their internship year, they will have probably interacted with more diverse students than a TFA member will during his or her "career" - and so we know who's got the stuff to be a teacher. But we don't have the incentives.

    I want to nationalize that kind of time-in-school teacher education while offering tuition and room and board pay-backs for those who become teachers - with those pay-backs starting from the year an undergraduate student began education courses. In other words, try out teaching from the start, and if it works for you, and you work for it - college is free. If we build great teacher education programs, and we get great students to sample them, we'll find our share of great teachers. And if we find and train great teachers, paying for four years of college is a very small price for a nation committed to its children.
Reality? Great teachers must often work subversively

Supporting and Keeping Teachers

Finding great teachers, training great teachers, isn't the end. We need to support great teachers. I won't even discuss "merit pay" now, because it remains a ridiculous idea until we decide what "merits" bonuses. America lacks a reasonable track record on that issue.

But we know that teachers cannot continue to be paid the most for working with the easiest students. Teachers in the Bronx cannot earn less than teachers in Scarsdale. Teachers in Los Angeles cannot earn less than teachers in Beverly Hills. Teachers in Gary, Indiana cannot earn less than teachers in River Forest, Illinois. If they do, America's economic system will bring a different set of teachers to those poor communities. We know that.

And we know that we cannot let teachers continue to try to solve their on-the-job problems in isolation. We need to pay them to attend summer institutes and conferences. We need to increase pay to cover more days of in-service training, and we need to make that training excellent, make it differentiated by teacher need, and make it engaging and relevant.

We need to connect our teachers to the information and communication technologies of our times, so they can be comfortable with them and work with them in the classroom. Basic teacher perks must include anywhere broadband access, new computers, and smartphones - and support to learn what they can do.

But we need to do something more. We need to make the teacher workplace a safe place in every way possible. Physically safe and safe for professional experimentation. Because we cannot have teachers who come to work afraid - of students, of administrators, of parents, of tests scores. Just as with students, we can demand more from teachers only if we create high expectations and the kind of space which allows any human to reach their potential.

The role of teachers

If our schools are to be anything better than they are today, the role of teaching must radically change. Teachers will be "guides" rather than an information delivery system. They will function more like librarians than lecturers, helping students find both information and tools. They will need to operate on a critical thinking/creative plane all the time, if we are to get our students to do the same.
That change is going to be difficult. And we need great people, backed by great training and great resources, if we're going to do it.

- Ira Socol

Teachable Moment a critical resource for new kinds of teaching

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