Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More on Raising Teacher Status

Last week I wrote about how we can raise the prestige of the teaching profession. This week, the New York Times, having examined still another PISA report, has published a debate among nine educators about how to raise teacher status without spending more.

Here are some of the suggestions and viewpoints expressed:

1. Reform teacher compensation. Raise starting salaries; eliminate lock step raises based only on seniority and accumulation of post-graduate credits; reward effective teachers with rapid raises. Two areas that are likely to be contentious are to pay for these changes by increasing class size (for an argument in favor of this move, look here), and to measure teacher effectiveness "objectively," which means based on student test scores.

2. Improve teacher training. I have mixed feelings about this one. Kati Haycock of the Education Trust points out that bright students find education programs stultifying and that graduates from teacher training programs do not garner better results in the classroom than bright college graduates with only a few weeks of summer training. Her suggestion is to make teacher training programs better (and raise admissions requirements).

My concern with this approach is that working to improve traditional teacher ed programs may imply fiddling around the edges of an essentially misguided approach. Increasing the number of units, credits, classes, hours, and hoops an aspiring teacher has to go through may drive away strongly motivated, self starting teacher candidates. Some years ago, the state of Massachusetts created a $10,000 signing bonus program to attract people into a fast track toward math and science teaching. In subsequent surveys, these teachers identified the quick start in the classroom as more important than the money in convincing them to sign on.

That's why I'm in favor of programs like the Boston Teacher Residency, which screens for well-educated, smart, dedicated teacher candidates and puts them in the classroom fast--but with strong support systems. Attract the best, don't waste their time, and help them learn and reflect on the job.

3. Get out of our way. Two of the commenters basically said, "Stop messing with teachers. Give us autonomy in our classrooms." And it's true that teachers in high-performing countries tend to have more classroom autonomy. Fifteen or twenty years ago, our teachers had more autonomy, too... and student performance was lower and even less equitable than it is now. Uneven opportunity and expectations were prime motivators for our search for common standards and accountability. Andreas Schleicher of OECD notes that neither autonomy alone nor accountability alone leads to the best results. The best performing systems seem to require school autonomy coupled with strong accountability.

Still, teachers are right to decry a closely scripted curriculum that allows no adjustment for particular student needs. The best teachers are constantly monitoring student learning and adjusting their lesson plans in response. To do so, teachers need to be quick thinkers and very knowledgeable about their subject; they also need the support, feedback, and teamwork of their peers.

4. It's all about culture. One commenter pointed out that although the US ranks 17th among 65 PISA countries in reading, our Asian students rank 2nd and our Caucasian students 6th. Those Asian students have a great work ethic! Families in Asian countries respect teachers!

This analysis gets an enthusiastic response from readers, some of whom have taught Asian students in America or Korea. Teacher status is not about teaching quality, they say: it's about parents who make the kids buckle down and work.

To me, this argument implies that we have to change our whole culture or import a new population of parents before we can make teaching a more attractive profession. That strikes me as either an excuse or an invitation to hopelessness.

5. Other responders made arguments about parental choice and reforming teacher tenure. To me, the most balanced approach came from Cynthia Brown of the Center for American Progress. Take a look and decide for yourself.

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