From The New York Times, Friday, April 12, 2013. See
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/opinion/teachers-will-we-ever-learn.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 . Our thanks to Albert Goetz for
bringing this piece to our attention.
Teachers: Will We Ever Learn?
By Jal Mehta
IN April 1983, a federal commission warned in a famous report, "A
Nation at Risk," that American education was a "rising tide of
mediocrity." The alarm it sounded about declining competitiveness
touched off a tidal wave of reforms: state standards, charter schools,
alternative teacher-certification programs, more money, more
test-based "accountability" and, since 2001, two big federal
programs, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
But while there have been pockets of improvement, particularly among
children in elementary school, America's overall performance in K-12
education remains stubbornly mediocre.
In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment, which
compares student performance across advanced industrialized countries,
ranked American 15-year-olds 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th
in math - trailing their counterparts in Belgium, Estonia and
Poland. One-third of entering college students need remedial
education. Huge gaps by race and class persist: the average black high
school senior's reading scores on the National Assessment of
Educational Progress continue to be at the level of the average white
eighth grader's. Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as
they did in 1971.
As the education scholar Charles M. Payne of the University of
Chicago has put it: "So much reform, so little change."
The debate over school reform has become a false polarization between
figures like Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools
chancellor, who emphasizes testing and teacher evaluation, and the
education historian Diane Ravitch, who decries the long-run effort to
privatize public education and emphasizes structural impediments to
student achievement, like poverty.
The labels don't matter. Charter-school networks like the Knowledge
Is Power Program and Achievement First have shown impressive results,
but so have reforms in traditional school districts in Montgomery
County, Md., Long Beach, Calif., and, most recently, Union City, N.J.,
the focus of a new book by the public policy scholar David L.
Sorry, "Waiting for Superman": charter schools are not a panacea
and have not performed, on average, better than regular public
schools. Successful schools - whether charter or traditional -
have features in common: a clear mission, talented teachers, time for
teachers to work together, longer school days or after-school
programs, feedback cycles that lead to continuing improvements. It's
Another false debate: alternative-certification programs like Teach
for America versus traditional certification programs. The research is
mixed, but the overall differences in quality between graduates of
both sets of programs have been found to be negligible, and by
international standards, our teachers are underperforming, regardless
of how they were trained.
HERE'S what the old debates have overlooked: How schools are
organized, and what happens in classrooms, hasn't changed much in
the century since the Progressive Era. On the whole, we still have the
same teachers, in the same roles, with the same level of knowledge, in
the same schools, with the same materials, and much the same level of
Call it the industrial-factory model: power resides at the top, with
state and district officials setting goals, providing money and
holding teachers accountable for realizing predetermined ends. While
rational on its face, in practice this system does not work well
because teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and
improve from afar. The factory model is appropriate to simple work
that is easy to standardize; it is ill suited to disciplines like
teaching that require considerable skill and discretion.
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
It need not be this way. In the nations that lead the international
rankings - Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada -
teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather
than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States.
Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom
practice and more often financed by the government than in America.
There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much
higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A.
rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United
States has more than 1,200.)
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. These countries also have much
stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students'
social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for
teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a
virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with
greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes
education an attractive profession for talented people.
In America, both major teachers' unions and the organization
representing state education officials have, in the past year, called
for raising the bar for entering teachers; one of the unions, the
American Federation of Teachers, advocates a "bar exam." Ideally
the exam should not be a one-time paper-and-pencil test, like legal
bar exams, but a phased set of milestones to be attained over the
first few years of teaching. Akin to medical boards, they would
require prospective teachers to demonstrate subject and pedagogical
knowledge - as well as actual teaching skill.
Tenure would require demonstrated knowledge and skill, as at a
university or a law firm. A rigorous board exam for teachers could
significantly elevate the quality of candidates, raise and make more
consistent teacher skill level, improve student outcomes, and
strengthen the public's regard for teachers and teaching.
We let doctors operate, pilots fly, and engineers build because their
fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do
these things. Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge
base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from
experience and from their colleagues.
Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching, has estimated that other fields spend 5
percent to 15 percent of their budgets on research and development,
while in education, it is around 0.25 percent. Education-school
researchers publish for fellow academics; teachers develop practical
knowledge but do not evaluate or share it; commercial curriculum
designers make what districts and states will buy, with little regard
for quality. We most likely will need the creation of new institutions
- an educational equivalent of the National Institutes of Health,
the main funder of biomedical research in America - if we are to
make serious headway.
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.
In the past few years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have
adopted Common Core standards that ask much more of students; raising
standards for teachers is a critical parallel step. We have an almost
endless list of things that we would like the next generation of
schools to do: teach critical thinking, foster collaboration,
incorporate technology, become more student-centered and engaging. The
more skilled our teachers, the greater our chances of achieving these
Undergraduate education programs and graduate schools of education
have long been faulted for being too disconnected from the realities
of practice. The past 25 years have seen the creation of an array of
different providers to train teachers - programs like Teach for
America, urban-teacher residencies and, most recently, schools like
High Tech High in San Diego and Match High School in Boston that are
running their own teacher-training programs.
Again, research suggests that the labels don't matter - there are
good and bad programs of all types, including university-based ones.
The best programs draw people who majored as undergraduates in the
subjects they wanted to teach; focus on extensive clinical practice
rather than on classroom theory; are selective in choosing their
applicants rather than treating students as a revenue stream; and use
data about how their students fare as teachers to assess and revise
THE changes needed to professionalize American education won't be
easy. They will require money, political will and the audacity to
imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with fields like
law and medicine. But failure to change will be more costly - we
could look up in another 30 years and find ourselves, once again, no
better off than we are today. Several of today's top performers,
like South Korea, Finland and Singapore, moved to the top of the
charts in one generation. Real change in America is possible, but only
if we stop tinkering at the margins.
Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of
Education, is the author of the forthcoming book "The Allure of
Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to
Remake American Schooling."
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244