Having run New York City's public school system for eight years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I am often asked, "If you could wave a wand and change one thing, what would it be?"
This isn't an easy question. Lots of things need changing.
For example, giving far more school choices to families, using technology to improve teaching and learning, adopting a knowledge-based curriculum and starting education before a child is 5 years old.
But if I had to choose one, it would be to professionalize teaching, making it like other well-respected professions, such as law and medicine.
Pick from the best
This kind of change would require several things, beginning with better academic training for prospective teachers.
A recent report from the National Center on Teacher Quality found that "23 states cannot boast a single (teacher education) program that provides solid math preparation resembling the practices of high-performing nations."
The report also found that fewer than 20 percent of training programs equip candidates in the basics of reading instruction.
Next, we need a new approach to recruiting teachers. For decades, we've let virtually anyone with a college degree become a teacher.
According to Sandra Feldman, then-head of a national teachers union, this approach is "disastrous." We need instead to do what successful countries do: Recruit from the top third of our graduates.
Finally, we must change how we reward teachers. The current approach essentially assumes that all teachers are interchangeable, and, therefore, the only fair way to make distinctions is based on seniority.
But anyone who's been in a classroom knows that teachers vary enormously in their performance.
We completely ignore this crucial distinction. Job security and seniority dictate the way our schools operate. In most states, it's almost impossible to remove an incompetent teacher, and teachers are paid the same regardless of performance or assignment.
As a result, high-quality, experienced teachers end up at schools in middle-class communities, while poor kids get lots of inexperienced teachers along with some experienced, but not always very effective, teachers. If you have layoffs, often you must terminate the most recently hired, not the least effective one.
Professionalizing teaching means that excellence would be the guiding hallmark.
Everything from education-school admissions, to course work, to compensation and other employment rules, to self-policing would have to be realigned to this core principle.
Such a radical transformation would not only benefit students, it would also benefit teachers, who would be more successful and command greater public trust.
Notably, the late Albert Shanker, who was the most influential teachers-union leader ever, articulated this view 30 years ago: In "The Making of a Profession," he wrote: "Unless we go beyond collective bargaining to the achievement of true teacher professionalism, we will fail ... to preserve public education in the United States and to improve the status of teachers economically, socially and politically."
He recommended doing several things to create a profession, including attracting our best students, developing a demanding "knowledge base" along with a "formal set of … peer relationships." Shanker also called for a "national teacher examination" that tests mastery of pedagogy and content knowledge, akin to the entry exams now required for lawyers and doctors. In addition, Shanker would require a "supervised internship of from one to three years" to evaluate the performance of prospective teachers.
Shanker went even further in defining this transformation. He proposed that teachers establish their own board to police the profession, establishing standards and providing mechanisms for removing incompetent teachers. Teachers would also be subjected to merit-based career ladders and would be promoted based on specialty exams.
Even more radically, there would be fewer teachers who, having demonstrated true mastery, would be aided by college graduates serving as teaching assistants. Lastly, teachers would abandon their support for mandatory assignment of kids to neighborhood schools in favor of "the greatest possible choice among public schools."
That's an ambitious agenda. But Shanker recognized that public education would not be sustainable if "teachers continue to be treated ... as workers in an old-fashioned factory." For the sake of our students and teachers alike, it's time to return to the future Shanker envisioned.
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Source: The Town Talk