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The Future of School Reform-#5

May 21, 2011

Create the Right Fit, IStockPhoto

The fifth article, How to Improve Teacher Quality: Treat Teachers as Individuals?, in the Future of School Reform series is written by Frederick M. Hess, Greg M. Gunn, and Olivia M. Meek. In their article, they discuss the question of how best to fit a round peg in a square hole. The square hole is the job description for a typical teacher, which they claim is a laundry list of responsibilities some of which have little to do with being an effective teacher. The job is big and requires an even larger set of skills that most teachers don’t possess nor should we expect them to. We have fooled ourselves into thinking we can go out and find round pegs (Teacher for America teachers, the superheros) to fill square holes. With a 40-50% attrition rate for new teachers after three years, our focus should be on how to identify whether a teacher is a “good teacher,” and then how to retain those folks who are successful engaging students in the classroom.

Below are some statistics from a 2009 staff report to the Council of the City of New York that looked at the trends in faculty attrition and retention over a period of time.

  • Over 70% of the most experienced teachers (those with 25+ years of teaching experience) are likely to retire over the next two years.
  • Over 26% of mid-career teachers say it is unlikely they will be teaching in NYC in three years.
  • Over 29% of new teachers say it is unlikely they will be teaching in NYC in three years.
  • Teachers are most dissatisfied with two things:
    • Salary and benefits
    • School safety and discipline
  • New teachers are also unsatisfied with:
    • Availability of instructional materials and supplies
    • Class size

Hess et.al. write:

We might tackle the teacher-quality problem not by finding more superheros able to master a hugely demanding job, or by placing boundless faith in training and professional development, but by rethinking the job so that more people might do it well.

I would add we need to involve teachers in the conversation, investigating what makes the teaching profession difficult. We could learn a lot from those teachers who commit many years of their life to the profession.  What were the key pieces that made it possible for them to stay committed to their work?

Let’s try to optimize the culture, job description, and expectations on being a successful teacher so that those already connecting with students feel supported in our culture. We need to move away from a model that expects the classroom teacher to wear too many hats: expert at content knowledge; expert at pedagogy; expert at managing the classroom; expert at constructing an engaging lesson every day; advisor to students; advisor to clubs; or coach of an athletic team.  All of these hats need to be worn by trained and effective teachers, but it is becoming less possible to wear all these hats and be an effective classroom teacher who grows over time, building a stronger and more diverse portfolio of skills and content knowledge.  If we burn out our best teachers, we will only make the challenge of building the strongest teacher work force harder.

The authors recommend options that schools or school districts should investigate.  (1) online tutoring options for students who need extra help so that classroom teachers are not the only avenue for additional instruction; and (2) developing partnership with other organizations that can assist classroom teachers, a division of labor.  The example they give is Rocketship Education, a leading hybrid charter school organization.  Third, rethink who can teach.  We need to broaden our understanding of what skills and knowledge are needed to be a high-quality teacher.  The entry points into teaching could be more diverse so long as a school provides a strong mentoring and professional development program to support teachers new to the profession.  Again, the authors emphasize the importance of building partnerships with organizations like Citizen Schools that make connections between schools and volunteer professions who want to give back to their community.

Finally, the authors suggest that we need to think about how we effective use teachers’ talents and skills in a typical school day.  Is it effective to have teachers monitor lunchrooms or parking lot lines?  They draw the comparison to the medical profession that doctors in hospitals are not asked to carry out tasks that are not directly related to caring for patients.  Why are teachers expected to carry out duties unrelated to classroom instruction, taking time away from collaborating with colleagues? 

The opportunity exists to rethink the role of the teacher in a school.   The job description of a classroom teacher should focus directly on the work of supporting the learning environment and devoting significant time to professional growth.   The Future of School reform is asking us to construct a new framework for how we think about teaching.

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