Friday, May 10, 2013

Teachers: Overworked and Undertrained

Jal Mehta has produced an article for Foreign Affairs that provides some useful insight into our education system, and provides recommendations on how to improve it: Why American Education Fails: And How Lessons From Abroad Could Improve It. Mehta discusses the education system as a whole, but much of his content is concerned with teaching as a profession. That will be the focus here as well.

Mehta emphasizes several times that one of the major problems is that the profession of teaching has never had the systematic approach to developing and accrediting skills that exists in other professions such as medicine and law.

"The United States needs a more thoroughgoing and systematic approach to educational improvement. To see what such an effort might look like, consider that any professional field consists of the following four components: human capital, which involves attracting, selecting, training, and retaining the people who work in the field; a core of knowledge that guides the field; effective organizational structures; and overall performance management and accountability."

"In recent years, the U.S. education system has become overly focused on the last element -- accountability -- at the expense of progress on the others."

Mehta argues that by focusing on obtaining good people and training them well these other professions can worry less about accountability.

"By contrast, stronger professions in the United States, such as medicine, law, and engineering, focus more on building their foundations than on holding their practitioners accountable. Doctors, for example, must clear a series of high bars before entering the field; develop a broad knowledge base, through course work and then extensive clinical training; and continually revisit their training, with practices such as hospital rounds. The medical profession places less emphasis on setting targets and making sure physicians meet them -- there is no such thing as No Patient Left Behind."

He claims that this is the approach used by the countries that continually outperform the US in international student tests.

"Such countries -- which include Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, top scorers on the Program for International Student Assessment, an internationally recognized test for 15-year-olds that measures higher-order problem solving in math, reading, and science -- all do certain things similarly. They choose their teachers from among their most talented graduates, train them extensively, create opportunities for them to collaborate with their peers within and across schools to improve their practice, provide them the external supports that they need to do their work well, and underwrite all these efforts with a strong welfare state. Because these countries do a good job of honing the expertise of their educators to begin with, they have less of a need for external monitoring of school performance."

Our education system is still burdened by attitudes formed a century ago when public education was established with limited objectives.

"Teachers received minimal training, the assumption being that they did not have a complicated job. The top education schools mostly avoided training teachers, seeing teaching as carrying the stigma of low-status, feminine work; they instead focused on cultivating the male administrators who would govern the system."

"For half a century, this model worked relatively well, largely because the expectations for what schools needed to produce were fairly limited....Teachers were mostly women, who had few other employment options and were generally not the breadwinners in their families, so their low pay did not provoke significant resistance."

A rather unexceptional public education system worked for a long time because the wealthy could always provide a better private education for their children, and the rest were able to find work after leaving school because of the nature of the jobs that then existed in the economy. As the character of the economy changed and demands on workers became much greater, our school system failed to respond in a systematic way to the new expectations placed on school graduates.

Mehta tells us that the cornerstone to a more effective education system is an improved approach to producing members of the teaching profession.

"Teachers learn mostly through experience, and U.S. teachers generally report that the training they do receive is of limited utility in practice. Licensing exams for teachers lack the rigor of the bar and board exams that exist in law, medicine, engineering, accounting, and many other professions. Some teachers master their craft over time, but others merely learn to control a classroom."

The experience of other countries is again illuminating.

"Any attempt to reform American education would have to start with attracting better teachers, retaining them, and helping them develop their practice. The most striking finding of comparative international research is that the best-performing school systems draw their teachers from the top third of college graduates, whereas lower-ranking school systems do not. A recent McKinsey report found that most U.S. teachers come "from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, and, for many schools in poor neighborhoods, from the bottom third." In Finland, teaching is the single most preferred career for 15-year-olds, a priority that allows the country to accept only one in ten applicants to its teacher-training programs. Similarly, in Singapore, only one in eight is accepted to such programs. By contrast, in the United States, even the most prestigious education schools commonly accept 50 percent or more of the applicants to their teacher-training programs."

Mehta believes that placing greater demands on the teaching profession will begin to attract higher quality applicants.

"....if it became harder to become a teacher, respect for the profession would grow, and schools might start to show better results. This process could boost public confidence in schools, potentially leading to higher teachers' pay and, in the long run, a greater desire by talented people to join the profession."

There is support for this type of initiative from the people most directly affected.

"In the past year, the country's two largest teachers' unions (the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is the main organization representing state-level education officials, have released reports advocating raising the bar for entry into teaching. Under their proposals, prospective teachers would start out with provisional status for their first several years. Before becoming fully licensed, they would need to demonstrate their knowledge of their subjects and their skill in the classroom. Tenure would no longer be an expected and near-immediate step but would become an accomplishment similar to getting tenure at a university or making partner at a law firm."

Instituting such changes would not be easy and it would not be cheap. If we are to demand that our teachers are educated and accredited in the same manner as other professionals, then we also must begin to create work environments that are consistent with professionalism. Teachers in US schools put in more hours teaching than those in almost any other nation even though they have one of the shortest school years. If they are to be effective in honing their skills they will need the time and the opportunity to exchange experiences and methods with other teachers. Again, the comparison with other countries is illuminating.

"In Japanese schools, for example, teachers regularly come together to study one another's lessons and refine them. Doing this sort of work well depends on both structure and culture. Structurally, U.S. teachers spend more time in the classroom and less time planning and working with one another than do teachers in countries with higher-performing schools. Secondary school teachers in the United States teach an average of nearly 1,100 hours a year, compared with an average of 660 hours across the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] and fewer than 600 hours in Japan and South Korea. Culturally, for growth through professional collaboration to be effective, U.S. teachers need to feel as though they are members of a shared profession with a common knowledge base, rather than freelancers accountable only to what they think is right." 

The OECD tracks the educational systems of all its member countries (essentially all the wealthy nations) and produces summary documents. The latest US summary can be found here. It contains a wealth of comparative data, including this chart of hours spent teaching in the various countries for the various levels of education.

Instituting a more rigorous path for entry into the teaching profession assumes that there is an adequate body of knowledge available to be taught. Mehta indicates that the nation has failed to make the investments required to produce that knowledge base.

"Pilots are permitted to fly planes, lawyers to draw up contracts, and doctors to prescribe drugs because they possess an exclusive understanding of how to do these things. Teaching, however, lacks the type of codified, shared knowledge that ensures quality control in other professions -- hence the huge inconsistencies from classroom to classroom. In some regards, American education today is where medicine was a little more than a century ago: instead of relying on a shared knowledge base, teachers draw on a mix of hunches, occasional research, and some outright quackery."

"Anthony Bryk, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has estimated that whereas fields such as medicine and engineering spend 5-15 percent of their budgets on research and development, the U.S. education system invests less than one-quarter of one percent for those purposes. Not only does the field lack knowledge; it lacks the resources and infrastructure needed to produce it."

Mehta concludes by pointing out that most of the initiatives intended to improve education are being imposed from the top of the system. What he is suggesting are changes that will begin at the bottom and propagate upwards.

"Currently, a central part of the problem in American education is that government officials are trying to remake teaching from afar. But teaching is hard work and has proved difficult to change from above; efforts to do so have set teachers against policymakers. If the country implemented the needed processes to ensure skilled teaching -- better recruitment, training, knowledge development, and school organization -- teachers would come to be seen as experts, like those in other professions. The state could then shift its function from holding teachers accountable to taking on roles in which it has more of a comparative advantage and is more likely to be effective."

"In particular, the state could assist in the creation of curricula, invest in research and development....."

JAL MEHTA is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book is The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling. (Oxford University Press, 2013), from which this essay is adapted. Copyright ©Oxford University Press.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to add two comments:
    (1) To a large extent the US's abysmal performance in international comparisons of secondary education is the result of inequality. Income inequality might still correspond to a high average income, but teaching inequality cannot follow that trick, because test scores (and the knowledge they represent) are much more bounded from above. An interesting fact is that if you take out blacks and Latinos from the sample scores, the US becomes an average performer.
    (2) Quality comes at a cost. This idea that teaching must become more exclusive in order for teacher salaries to rise sounds odd to me. If we want to attract talented, professional teachers, we must pay them enough from the outset, or else there will be many unfilled positions in schools around the country.


Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged