‘If only American teachers were smarter…’

( Jonathon Rosen for The Washington Post )
( Jonathon Rosen for The Washington Post )

Teachers. In this school reform era, they have been targeted as “the” problem for failing schools. Are they? In this post, Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, looks at the teaching corps and what is true about America’s teachers, what isn’t, and where to go next. Schneider is the author of two books, including the new From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2014). He tweets @Edu_Historian.

 

By Jack Schneider

If only American teachers were smarter.  It’s a common lament.  Maybe then we wouldn’t be lagging behind our industrialized peers in international tests.

There’s a kind of logic to this argument.  After all, we’ve been told repeatedly that teachers are the most important school-based factor for student achievement.  And there’s also a persistent chorus insisting that teachers are drawn from an academically weak and poorly trained pool of applicants.

The proposed solution, then, is to recruit teachers with better grades from more prestigious schools.  Preferably more math and science majors.

If only it were so simple.

If assertions about the poor academic preparation of American teachers were accurate, the policy fix would be easy.  But such hysteria is generally unfounded.  Teachers go to legitimate schools, they get decent grades, and the overwhelming majority of them possess degrees in the subject they teach.  More than half possess graduate degrees.  Consequently, there’s very little low-hanging fruit to pick.

Adequately educated though they may be, we could still work to select teachers from a more elite slice of college graduates.  Comparisons, for instance, are often made with doctors—the implication being that educational policymakers should turn to the medical profession as a model.

Yet consider the challenge of such a proposition.

The first problem is scale.  There are roughly four times as many teachers as there are doctors.  What would happen to the selectivity of the medical profession, we might ask, if its ranks quadrupled in size?

The second obvious problem is that of pay.  Pediatricians—the lowest earning doctors—make roughly $150,000 a year on average.  That’s three times what the average teacher makes.  Equaling pediatrician salaries, then, would entail a $325 billion increase in annual educational expenditures—roughly $2,750 per U.S. household.

But even if the costs were lower, there would still be cause for skepticism.

It is not unreasonable to think that if a teacher with a B average from a good college is sufficient, a teacher with an A average from the Ivy League must be better.  Yet that isn’t the case.  Consider the content of an average standardized test for 7th grade math and then check out the senior thesis of a Harvard math major.  The two documents are worlds apart.  In short, the academic backgrounds of teachers matter; but only up to a point.  Asresearch indicates, beyond a certain threshold level of content mastery, there is little return to student achievement.  And additional research indicates that higher-prestige colleges do not produce markedly more effective teachers.

On the whole, then, we might conclude not only that American teachers are generally well prepared academically, but also that recruiting a more selective slice of the public into classrooms may be both impractical and unproductive.

This, of course, is not to say that teacher training is perfect, or that the pool of teacher candidates is ideal.  It does, however, suggest that simple solutions like Teach For America-style recruiting are unlikely to make much of a difference.

Rather than dreaming of a new corps of “smarter” teachers, then, policymakers and the interested public should ask how we might build capacity among the generally capable corps of teachers we already have.

American educators are neither dimwitted nor disinterested.  They do, however, lack the time, guidance, and support needed to ensure continued growth across the full arc of their careers.  And without resources and assistance to help them steadily refine their craft, they often realize only a fraction of their potential—growing by leaps and bounds in their first few years on the job, but only slowly after that.

So how can we address this problem?

The usual answer is professional development.  Yet, as any experienced teacher knows, PD is often a waste of time—a one-shot workshop with little depth and even less impact.

But what if the concept of professional development were totally reimagined, built around the idea of connecting teachers with high-quality educational research?

The common assumption in education is that there is no link between research and practice because the two worlds are irreconcilable.  Yet while a gulf does exist between the ivory tower and the schoolhouse, it is not impossible to bridge.  In fact, as my own research indicates, ideas like the project method, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences have been moving from research into practice for generations.  Without any support, in other words, scholarship has been crossing the great divide and entering the common knowledge base of working teachers.

Of course, lacking support, scholarship has entered practice only inconsistently and imperfectly.  And some of the ideas that have entered classrooms have been of questionable merit.  Still, the mere fact that educational research can enter practice should start our mental wheels turning.  What might the impact of research on practice might be if we genuinely committed to it as an aim—at the local, state, and federal level?

Envisioning such a world,  we might imagine scholars working to produce products for classroom use, much as consortia like the Stanford History Education Group have done.  Working in partnership with states or districts, such groups might not only create practice-ready materials, but also track the results of their work to help school leaders make evidence-based decisions.

We might also imagine teachers meeting each week to read and discuss research—developing applications for their classrooms and tracking the results.  Or we might imagine teachers meeting in “lesson study” teams, as they are called in Japan, to study their own practices and reflect on research that might help them improve.

Thinking even further outside the box, we might envision sections of school libraries transformed into teacher research centers—digital repositories supervised by research librarians trained to help teachers consume scholarship.  Or perhaps most ambitiously of all, we might imagine schools of education renewing their purpose through this mission—training teachers to engage with research and preparing administrators to support that effort.

To be clear: a new vision of teacher professional development, rooted in educational research, is hardly a panacea.  Teachers would still face significant demands on their time.  Research would occasionally be misinterpreted.  And many scholars would continue to write in impenetrable jargon about issues of minor significance.

Yet flaws and all, such an approach would promote professional growth among teachers in a manner far more effective than any current model.  And, by repositioning teachers as research-oriented knowledge workers, it might even promote the aim of recruiting and retaining more talent.

Improving classroom instruction is a reasonable goal.  And it is critical for strengthening American education. But in order for that to happen, policy leaders need to set aside impractical and unproductive solutions and begin directing resources towards developing teaching as a learning profession.  Because the simple truth is that American teachers aren’t dumb; only the way we support them is.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 30