This week, I had the great pleasure of meeting Prof. Deborah Ball (math teacher and Dean of UMichigan's School of Education) as she spoke to a group of math teachers (I crashed the party). She was there to talk about teaching math, but really, her presentation was about two issues that I think we ignore at our own peril - a national education approach vs. state/district, and that teaching is a professional discipline and not a just a job.
With respect to federalizing - IMO it is utterly moronic to have more than one school district in America. According to the 2002 census there are:
- 13,506 school district governments
- 178 state-dependent school systems
- 1,330 local-dependent school systems
- 1,196 education service agencies (agencies providing support services to public school systems)
That's 16,210 separate entities that govern this country's public school system! There's just no way a rational person can say that's a good thing. It turns out, neither the Constitution or any of the 27 Amendments ever mentions the word "education" - that's a mistake.
My thanks to Larry for the African proverb below - it is brilliant, has many messages, not the least of which is "sure if you had had a brain you would have done this ages ago, but since you didn't then, it's time to grow some and get it done now." President Obama and Secretary Duncan need to grow some (the Republicans will likely endorse this before the Democrats), argue that eliminating 16,210 agencies is a good thing, and that we need a 28th Amendment to the Constitution to mandate that public education be nationally funded and administered.
As Deborah pointed out, every country that does education well, does it as one - we can learn from that. Moreover it is morally abhorrent for the government to discriminate against a child's right to a great education just because of their zip code. <-- Where are our student-rights advocates?
The second (and best) part of Deborah's speech was about teaching as a profession, with specific skills, discipline and capabilities. Lay teachers (i.e. parents, etc.) do create learning experiences for their child, but they have nowhere near a professional approach, worse, they often do the wrong thing if their goal is to grasp the child's current understanding and help them learn more. (If the goal is to make the "teacher" feel good, then they're successful.)
Read at least the first 2-3 presentations on Deborah's website, and you will see that she talks at length about how a professional teacher is distinguished from a lay-teacher. She also answers the question "what persistently impedes progress?" by identifying five contributors:
- Persisting with extinct arguments about skills versus conceptual understanding
- Lack of a central or common curriculum
- Persisting with outdated and refuted ideas about "teacher quality," especially with respect to content knowledge
- Persisting with pendulum shifts from teacher-proofing to teachers, but rarely focusing on teachING
- Persisting with approaches to teacher education that emphasize things other than practice (e.g. reflection, believes, propositional knowledge, experience)
We've talked about #2 already, the other four are all aspects of respecting teachers as professionals, treating them as such, measuring their ability to teach separately from domain knowledge, and providing them with the tools and mentorship and support to become more skilled teachers. During her lecture, she gave us all a bunch of tests that show how different it is to be a professional teacher vs. a lay-teacher. It was fantastic.
But do teachers really want to be professionals? Do they really want that obligation and expectation? I think they do, I think the bulk of teachers go into it because they are called to it. BUT - as Deborah points out, that doesn't mean they're going to be good at it. It's also not the case that teaching is more art than science. There are specific tools and techniques that effective teachers use that lay-teachers or ineffective teachers don't. This needs to change.
But achieving professionalism isn't just about the teacher, it's a systemic commitment. It must start with the school leaders and administrators providing an environment where teachING is valued and developed; it goes to teachers colleges who must focus on developing these skills from the outset and for accreditation; it goes to the unions who must support these initiatives to measure and compensate their members in terms of their professional ability vs. tenure. It goes to teachers who have to sign up to evolve their technique in order to improve their performance.
Note that I didn't say teachers should be accountable for student outcomes. I think that's the job of schools vs. individual teachers. BUT - teachers do need to be accountable for developing their craft. They need to be paid based on their ability (vs. tenure) in this regard.
If we are able to go from 16,210 to 1 and treat teachers as professionals and measure their proficiency accordingly, change will happen. Not planting the tree 20 years ago shouldn't stop us from planting it today.