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The Longest Reform

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If public schools are going to improve, they will do so because teachers partake of high-quality, career-long professional development.

"It's like what they tell you in the airplane: You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help the child. You can't save them before you've helped yourself." So said Lee Harris, a resident teacher who mentors colleagues from the Dade County, Fla., schools, taking the rare opportunity of a mini-sabbatical at the Dade Academy for the Teaching Arts. Ms. Harris' sense of the urgency of what she is doing is not exaggerated. If public schools are going to improve, they will do so because teachers partake of high-quality, career-long professional development that is directly relevant to the classes they teach. And public schools will not improve until and unless lifelong study can be built into the teaching job. This is work that must begin now and that will go on as long as there are children to teach and new knowledge in the world.

The major education reforms of the past 15 years have begun to address the need for a higher-quality education for all Americans, but none of them has yet reached beyond small, localized efforts. Each reform wave--from raising state graduation requirements and restructuring schools to establishing standards for the various subject areas--has been necessary. None, though, can truly bear fruit until and unless every one of the nation's 3 million teachers has had sustained opportunities to take an active part in learning how to bring them to life in the classroom. Whether we are asking every teacher to become a school manager, or a curriculum planner, or the deviser of authentic assessments, or to teach classes with a wide range of learning styles and to bring every one of the children to a high level of achievement, or to teach in a school whose children boast 60 different native languages, we are asking teachers to do something new and different from what the majority of them have been educated to do until now. And we expect them to do it in a system that was not designed to accommodate such work.

Over the past two years, the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education has conducted national surveys of teachers, public focus groups and other forms of research, made site visits, and issued calls for teachers' essays to discover what and under what conditions teachers can best learn in order to provide high-quality education for all. Our research is summarized in the just published report "Teachers Take Charge of Their Learning: Transforming Professional Development for Student Success."

Most important, we found that the need for new learning is not short-term or once in a career. The need to strengthen science and mathematics education remains with us almost 40 years after the launch of Sputnik made it a national priority. Today, our massive effort to introduce information technologies to the schools should make the trend line clear: We expect teachers to be far more independently capable of drawing on a vast repertoire of knowledge and skill than ever in the past, and new demands will continue to appear for the foreseeable future. The teacher of today and tomorrow no longer finds a curriculum in a textbook or classroom activities in a teacher's manual. Technologies can make vast resources available--but knowing how and when to use them, knowing what's out there that's usable, and adapting an increasing and constantly shifting storehouse of knowledge to student learning will be a continuing challenge. One or two workshops on how to access the Internet are not the answer to the far more complex question of how to use the Internet to enhance student learning.

The solution is not going to be limited to this or that reform of the moment.

The solution is not going to be limited to this or that reform of the moment. It is time to reconceive the very nature of teaching to recognize and accommodate learning as a basic requirement of the job. Teachers are willing to meet higher public expectations, but they are stymied by lack of time and opportunities. The foundation's research and report identify steps we can take to build a very different kind of teaching job. These steps are based on what teachers say they need and on actual experiences of teachers in public schools.

  • The first step is providing teachers with time to study, to plan, to work collaboratively, to try out new ideas, to receive feedback, to evaluate, to revise, and to implement new practices. The teaching job must change--from the image we have of one teacher in front of a classroom all day long to an image of teachers as people who work with children much of the time, with colleagues in the school and in a larger community of learners some of the time, and who also study on their own some of the time. Building time for individual and school-based learning into the teacher's job through flexible scheduling and extended contracts for teachers while children are on vacation is critical to any and all improvements in our schools.
  • The second step is to provide teachers opportunities to build on each other's knowledge and experience. The reform experience of the past decade has taught us that the fundamental unit of change must be the school. In each building, staffs must learn to work collaboratively to plan and assess student performance. The boutique reforms of the past have taught us much about the kinds of professional development that are most productive for changing practice and improving results, but to reach the scale of change expected by the public, every teacher in every school must become actively involved.

Professional development designed and implemented by joint agreement of each school staff has a chance both of being relevant to the needs of students and of actually being implemented in the classroom. Decisions about what to study and how to put new learning into practice must begin and end in each school. Lest schools merely repeat the poor track record of districtwide professional development, however, professional standards--for student achievement and for professional practice--as well as community goals should guide the design, conduct, and evaluation of professional development. The bedrock of accountability will be the extent to which the teaching profession itself takes responsibility for the quality of the workforce. To this end, peer assistance and review are as fundamental to improving public schools as the time needed to build learning into the teaching job. In every district, teachers and administrators can begin at once to collaborate to establish a peer-assistance and -review process so that good teachers will continuously improve and those who, after sustained help from specially prepared peers, cannot meet professional standards of practice can be counseled out of the profession. The single greatest wasted resource in our country is the knowledge and experience of teachers who must individually reinvent their profession all of their lives as long as they remain isolated from each other in their classrooms.

The National Education Association, which founded the NFIE, and the American Federation of Teachers have a special role to play in advocating peer assistance and review in every local where they operate. The NEA's national leaders, most state leaders, and many local leaders expressed a strong interest in peer assistance in the independent survey conducted for the NFIE by Greenberg Research Inc. When professional learning is built into the teaching job through contracts and agreements such as those in Seattle, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio, everyone benefits. In Seattle, for example, the NFIE found that teachers and administrators were enthusiastic about their experience. Mentors and new teachers, teachers experiencing difficulty, and veteran teachers new to the district said peer assistance was the most productive professional development of their careers.

Teachers' professional development should not, however, be limited to the resources of the schoolhouse.

Teachers' professional development should not, however, be limited to the resources of the schoolhouse. Some of the most productive and exciting learning cited by teachers in our research has come through collaborative work with higher education, cultural organizations, a host of other community resources, and the Internet. The third step to put in place, then, is to assure that such relationships have a long-term future. All of these collaboratives have until now been short-lived and grant-dependent. It is time to build their links to the schools into a long-term, tax-based relationship for teachers' continuous learning. Each community needs to assess the resources available to its teachers for long-term partnerships, and each state needs to assure that high-quality partnerships are available to all its teachers. Where strong programs already exist, such as school-business-university entities, teacher networks and alliances, and the like, states and districts can work to ensure that such professional-development programs find long-term support and are strongly linked to school-based professional development and curricular change.

How much will all these changes and others we propose cost? There is no consensus on how states or districts can determine what they currently spend. A clear priority for each district and state must be to identify existing expenditures and, along with teachers' organizations, agree on appropriate measures of their effectiveness. Having done that, districts, states, and the profession can then redirect current spending and, where needed, advocate increased levels of spending to ensure the time, peer assistance, and community partnerships needed to put learning at the forefront of public school reform.

This final reform--weaving continuous learning into the fabric of the teaching job--will be the one that makes the difference if we can act in a concerted fashion in every school and community to take the teaching job as it is now defined and confined and extend it into a true profession.

This will be the longest reform of all--the one that begins now and goes on as long as there are children to be taught, new knowledge to incorporate in schools, and new challenges to face. Because learning is long and life is short, the professional development of teachers has waited patiently for attention while shorter and snappier school reforms have had their day. When the work Lee Harris does every day to mentor other teachers, attend seminars, and teach her classes becomes the norm for all teachers, perhaps we can pack away her oxygen mask. There will be no need for it in the freer and more breathable atmosphere in our public schools.

Copies of "Teachers Take Charge of Their Learning: Transforming Professional Development for Student Success" can be obtained for $15, plus shipping and handling, from NFIE Publications, P.O. Box 509, West Haven, Conn. 06516, or downloaded from the NFIE's Web site,

Judith Rényi is the executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, located in Washington.

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