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How do successful school systems treat teachers?

(Published on The Huffington Post on December 11, 2010)

The recent release of two important reports led me to ask this question.

The National Education Policy Center shared a brief that reviews available research on several different aspects of teacher evaluation and makes recommendations for a comprehensive approach to teacher evaluation. If different measures, like observation (by peers and principals), teacher self-reports, student surveys, classroom artifacts, portfolios and value-added assessment are used, then the weaknesses of one measure can be offset by the strengths of another.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated PISA rankings came out, revealing that America is (still) in the “middle of the pack” of international rankings of 15-year-old performance in reading, science and math. Putting anxious hand-wringing and concerns about representativeness and meaning aside, if we take the rankings at face value, then there is merit in examining how more successful school systems work, and learning from what makes them so successful.

One of the key things that such systems have in common is that they take teaching seriously. Drawing from research summarized in Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education, common features of the teacher experience in places like the Scandinavian nations, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong include:

  • Between three and four years of high-quality teacher education, typically funded at government expense. Pre-service teacher education programs in these places tend to include courses in content-specific pedagogy to develop teachers’ knowledge of how their discipline works and empower them to help learners deal with certain types of conceptual issues unique to their field, research projects where teachers write theses on teaching practice and other issues in the schools, and at least one year of training within a school setting. Like the rest of the teaching and learning system, teacher education programs are regularly evaluated and updated, with teachers playing a central role in the process.
  • Extensive mentoring and meaningful ongoing professional development. Teachers in these systems spend their first years working closely with veteran teachers, who often receive special training on how to be good mentors. New and veteran teachers alike spend a considerable amount of time engaging in professional learning, which is often embedded within the generous amounts of time (between 15-25 hours a week!) they have for collaborative planning. They frequently do action research projects with their colleagues and present their learning to other teachers through publications or at conferences. Release time for observations in other teachers’ classrooms is also common, after which teachers take time to critique each other and offer feedback.
  • Leadership development. Teachers are given the opportunity to develop curriculum and assessments, mentor and coach teachers, and offer professional development. The strongest teachers are recruited to become principals, who are trained to serve as instructional leaders.
  • Professional pay and status. Teachers are paid comparably to members of other professions, and teaching itself is highly honored. Some governments make special efforts to recruit their best students into the teaching profession, which simultaneously boosts the strength of the teaching corps and the prestige of the profession as a whole.

Recognizing that “teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible,” other nations devote considerable time and resources into teaching. Note, too, that all of these investments are based on two key assumptions:

  • That teachers should teach, develop and evaluate each other (and that every facet of education — from teacher training to school leadership — should be informed and led by professional educators).
  • That teachers will stay in teaching until they retire, thereby allowing them to continue the cycle of developing other teachers and leading schools, and making such extensive investments worthwhile.

Though we have examples of strong teacher education, induction and professional development programs here, there is no large-scale effort to coordinate and/or duplicate these programs to ensure that every single teacher benefits from them. Here, it is more often the case that:

  • Teachers must forgo income (and more often, go into debt) in order to participate in high-quality, in-depth teacher preparation programs, or skip such preparation and go directly into the classroom (typically the neediest ones) with little to no training
  • Mentoring is spotty.
  • Professional development is shallow and often disconnected from any given teacher’s specific needs as a practitioner.
  • Teachers have relatively little built-in time (three to five hours a week) to plan at all, let alone collaboratively.
  • Teachers are increasingly observed, evaluated and led by school leaders who are not well-trained, experienced educators.
  • Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions with similar levels of education.

Unlike our international peers, Americans don’t consider teaching a prestigious profession or even much of a profession at all (“Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”). We don’t invest in teachers or teaching, we only nominally (if at all) involve teachers in the process of making major decisions about education, and we’ve even become shockingly comfortable with the idea of teaching being a disposable job — something people do for a couple of years before moving on to something else (…better? …More important?).

And our national conversation about improving the quality of teaching focuses primarily on “getting rid of bad teachers.” Instead of doing what’s necessary to develop and keep good teachers, like improving teacher education and induction programs, implementing comprehensive evaluation systems and embedding teachers in supportive, well-resourced school communities, America glorifies whomever seems the most willing to fire people.

Rather than guaranteeing teacher quality before teachers take responsibility for students, we’re growing a system where we put teachers in the classroom, then try to figure out if they’re good enough after the fact. This experiment-and-punish approach is remarkably cruel to both teachers and students, especially the neediest ones — who are often subjected to strings of over-worked, under-supported, and under-trained instructors year after year. If we really want to build a world-class school system, why waste time and money on witch hunts and magic bullets?

Why not emulate world-class school systems?

About Sabrina

At any given moment, I am some combination of the following: A teacher, thinker, advocate, writer, and student. A wife, sister, daughter, friend, and party-goer. A cook, knitter, reader, musician, and traveler. I have a sarcastic sense of humor, but I'm totally willing to give you the shirt off my back if it looks like you need it. (Kinda like lemon meringue...always seeking that balance between tart and sweet.)


7 thoughts on “How do successful school systems treat teachers?

  1. Wow. What good points to bring up. I know that Canadian teachers are seen in very much the same light as our US counter-parts but our education system seems to run much smoother. However, Canada has had no difficulty filling teaching positions and so maybe teachers here are given more respect than in the US.

    We do have a much lower child poverty rate here in BC, and in our communities which have high poverty rate, we have seen dismal graduation rates.

    One difference I know that happens in BC at least, and I think which is true elsewhere. We create a few more teachers each year than we need, so most of the new teachers end up working as substitute teachers for up to 5 or 6 years before getting a full-time job. This results in teachers ending up with many more years of part-time service (and on the job training) before they enter the full-time teaching profession. Many of our new teachers struggle during this time, but then leave the profession earlier. Maybe this has an effect on our international test results?

    I’d love to be paid the equivalent of a doctor or a lawyer, I could certainly use the money…

    Posted by dwees | December 12, 2010, 9:11 pm
  2. Because there is still little consensus about acceptable ways to meet the very substantial challenges posed by links between measures of student achievement and consequent conclusions about teacher effectiveness the fact that this issue dominates current discourse about teacher evaluation is very significant and somewhat alarming. Simply put most efforts to connect student achievement to individual teacher performance have foundered in the past on the following weaknesses The link between teacher performance and student achievement is both so intuitively compelling as a major part of a teacher s performance evaluation and so very difficult to implement that it has never really been systematically achieved in the United States.

    Posted by Monex | December 14, 2010, 6:35 am
  3. What’s not on that list?

    Blame the teachers, bash their unions, demonize them in pop culture and rail against them in documentaries. Respect the profession, offer them autonomy and provide meaningful training for them and the results will be evident.

    Posted by johntspencer | December 14, 2010, 8:03 am
  4. Right now the education reform conversations are very reactionary. Hunting down and firing bad teachers, increasing standards, increasing assessment, etc. We need change that is approaching the problem from a different direction. You are exactly right, we need to change the way we are approaching the problem so that we are honoring teachers, the profession and working to make it a profession that good teachers want to stay in.

    Posted by ktenkely | December 14, 2010, 6:14 pm
  5. There are just a couple more things I’d add to this very comprehensive post (thanks Sabrina and Linda Darling Hammond!). We have a very ambivalent relationship with learning in this country–distantly admire it but not really sure what it counts for (see Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter), and teaching has long been a profession that people chose to do when they were unable, or unfit, for better work. Although this history was established over two centuries ago, it casts a long shadow today. We’re still confronting the ghosts of our collective past as we make policy today. Our failure to take learning truly seriously lies at the heart of our failure to emulate other more successful systems. We just think we can ad hoc this and get away with it. And the evidence is everywhere that this isn’t working.

    Posted by Kirsten | December 14, 2010, 11:07 pm
  6. I’d love to see school systems create and protect school-based research and development teams that expand the notion of the PLC to include students and programmers and explode the notion of separate discipline areas.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 15, 2010, 9:41 am


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