We're Still Leaving the Teachers Behind
by Vivian Troen & Katherine C. Boles
When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law on January 8, 2002, our nation embarked on a new era in how we educate our children and how the federal government supports elementary and secondary education. This historic reform gives states and school districts unprecedented flexibility in how they spend their education dollars, in return for setting standards for student achievement and holding students and educators accountable for results... - Rod Paige, Secretary of Education
Among the supporters and detractors of the No Child Left Behind Law there will be those who proclaim that it goes too far, and others that it doesn't go far enough. We are in neither camp. Based on past experience, however, we can predict with a great deal of certainty that the law will have virtually no lasting effect on student or teacher performance. How can we be so sure? Because it does nothing to address, in any realistic fashion, the most serious of all education problems -- teacher quality. Sure, it demands accountability. But making fanciful demands on teachers, and making sure they have the experience, abilities, education and support to fulfill those demands, are two very different things.
No matter how many hundred of millions of dollars are spent, school reform initiatives will continue to produce unsatisfying results until we unflinchingly address the critical problem of teacher quality, yet serious steps that could improve the quality of teaching are largely absent from the reform agenda. Instead of rearranging the educational landscape (somewhat akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic) we should be engaged in reinventing the job of the teacher. Until that is done, the culture of schools will remain unchanged -- and it is the school culture that ultimately defeats all reforms aimed at improving student performance.
Today's school culture is a legacy of the 19th century model of industrialization that looked upon teachers as individual workers on an assembly line. Yet, in an era when automobiles are built by teams, and doctors and lawyers practice their professions in cultures of collaboration, teachers are still isolated sole practitioners, receiving little supervision, ineffective mentoring, and no meaningful professional development.
Any vocation in which the first day on the job is virtually the same as the last can hardly be called a profession. There are no external incentives or rewards for acquiring knowledge, sharpening skills, or improving performance. Roughly 30 percent of all classroom teachers in the United States do not meet the minimal standards required by the regulations in their states. Fifty percent of all new teachers will leave teaching in the first five years. Typically, the teachers who replace them will come from the bottom third of their college graduating class. When teaching was one of the few career choices open to educated women and minorities, the quality of those entering the profession was demonstrably higher than it is today. With more options available, fewer of the best candidates are choosing to become teachers. And the shortage of qualified teachers will reach 2 million in the next half decade.
With low pay, little respect, poor working conditions and no path to career advancement, how can we expect people of high intelligence and ambition to become classroom teachers? While a few creative, bright, and passionate young people do go into teaching, most are quickly discouraged and leave.
Clearly, change is necessary. Successful education reform depends on transforming teaching from an isolated, freelance culture into an open, collaborative culture that fosters professional excellence and accountability. To turn teaching into a professional career would require offering teachers a multi-level career path that rewards advanced experience and expertise with higher levels of pay, responsibility, supervision, and team management. Teaching should take place in teams comprised of different levels of teachers and interns along with specialists to deliver coordinated programs and curricula to students, provide supervision and mentoring to associate teachers and interns, support the principal with progress and achievement reports, and integrate accountability into teaching practice. Various teaching positions could be created, such as that of a chief instructor, professional teacher, associate teacher, and teaching intern. Teachers should receive meaningful professional development that provides opportunities for teacher research, peer coaching, and curriculum development done by teachers.
When teaching becomes a real profession, more academically able people will be drawn into it. When more able people are drawn into the profession, colleges and other teacher preparation programs will be compelled, by the power of competition, to improve the quality of their training. When better prepared teachers enter the classroom, the quality of the profession will be improved and better quality people will be eager to enlist. And ultimately, of course, the real winners are the children.
This won't happen as long as so-called "education reforms" continue to leave the teacher behind.
Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles are the authors of Who's Teaching Your Children? Why the teacher crisis is worse than you think and what can be done about it (Yale University Press). They co-founded the Learning/Teaching Collaborative, one of the country's first professional development schools, and Trilemma Solutions, an education consultancy. Boles is currently a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Troen is implementing professional development school initiatives at Brandeis University. They can be reached at their web site www.trilemmasolutions.com. Information is also available at www.yale.edu/yup/books/097417.
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