Sunday, April 14, 2013

Teaching as a Profession

To Jal Mehta, the problem with American education is that we treat teachers like factory workers instead of professionals:
Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.

By these criteria, American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance. It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results. . . .

Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do. High school teachers provide 1,080 hours per year of instruction in America, compared with fewer than 600 in South Korea and Japan, where the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans.
One problem with Mehta's language is that in America, everything is about money. To us, treating people as professionals means paying them a lot. This is not true in Finland or Japan, where teachers are paid less than here but respected more. In a sense the problem of trying to create a profession of highly skilled and motivated teachers in America is one expression of a deeper problem in our society, the absence of any value system other than cash.

It is interesting that our system includes so little instruction in how to teach. I never received any at all, but was stuck up in front of a room full of undergraduates with the advice that I should remember the good TA's I had and do what they did. Mehta wants a system for teachers like the one we have for doctors:
We also need to develop a career arc for teaching and a differentiated salary structure to match it. Like medical residents in teaching hospitals, rookie teachers should be carefully overseen by experts as they move from apprenticeship to proficiency, and then mastery. Early- to mid-career teachers need time to collaborate and explore new directions — having mastered the basics, this is the stage when they can refine their skills. The system should reward master teachers with salaries commensurate with leading professionals in other fields.
I wonder about this. In our system the best teachers are often young, especially in elementary school, their great energy making up for their lack of experience. Is this maybe an effect of the long hours Mehta cites? If our teachers spent fewer hours in the classroom, would more 50-year-olds be able to keep up with a classroom full of 10-year-olds? Or is teaching the young an activity in which experience is not all that important, more like poetry than novel writing, or like math rather than history?

Personally, I am not optimistic about the sort of reform Mehta advocates. By and large, I think, our educational system reflects our society. We just don't value education very much, not nearly as much as Europeans and Asians do. As long as that is true, it will be very hard for us to greatly change the lives of either our teachers or our students.


pootrsox said...

Yes yes yes... everything in this op-ed is dead on target!

I was involved for over a decade with the BEST program in CT: a program designed to meet many of the objectives proposed in this essay.

It involved training veteran teachers to be mentors, freeing them of some other obligations to work with novices, freeing novices to observe and work with mentors, ongoing training for novices in the skills and attitudes and dispositions of good teachers. It culminated in a "portfolio" which illustrated how, in the course of a unit, the novice planned, implemented, assessed, and reflected on student learning. It included student work and several videos of the teacher actually *teaching*.

It was a powerful program. And it was time-consuming. And it was expensive. And neither the state nor the local districts were willing to put the dollars into the program that providing sufficient time for growth required.

So it failed, in part, sadly, b/c the teachers organizations lobbied against it b/c it took too much time and was "too hard" -- and had I not had a life-membership in the organization, I'd have quit it over this stance.

I was one of the trainers of mentors, one of the mentors to novices, and one of the trained (and retrained, each time!) portfolio scorers. I did deny teachers licensure, in effect, when their portfolios did not demonstrate a reasonable level of competence. (NOTE: such denial involved at least 5 thorough readings and scorings of that portfolio by separate individuals w/o prior consultation), plus an appeals process.)

In my opinion, our standards were a little lax; I'd have set the "competence" bar somewhat higher.

But the real killer of the program was the cost: it costs money to provide sufficient staff to allow mentors and novices the *time* (NOT a luxury, but a necessity!) to work together on the growth process.

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