Published Online: September 15, 1999
Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as Teaching in 2020: The Triumph of 'the Slow Revolution?'

Commentary

Teaching in 2020: The Triumph of 'the Slow Revolution?'

My wife Judith is a 4th grade teacher, and I teach graduate seminars. At the dinner table, conversation often turns to the problems and challenges of teaching. We talk as equals, teacher and professor, about the common challenges we face in the classroom, as if we were members of the same profession. Our experience has taught us that the fundamental acts of teaching and the central questions all teachers confront are essentially the same. But professors and precollege teachers are not seen as members of the same profession. Why should that be?

The work is essentially the same, but the conditions, status, and pay of one profession are vastly different from those of the other. The work is institutionalized in different ways. Yes, professors have more training and do more research. The fact that professors are still mostly men and schoolteachers are mostly women is also a large part of the answer.

Male patriarchs dominated both professions at the end of the 19th century before the massive expansion of the educational system in the United States took place. Both were top-down systems. College presidents hired and fired the faculty and dictated the curriculum, as did most school superintendents. The power of the presidents was absolute. My wife's great-grandfather, Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, was the president of Hamilton College in upstate New York in the 1890s. Like most college presidents then, he personally interviewed the faculty, told them what courses they would teach, and did not hesitate to tell them what color trim they could paint their houses on College Hill. Similarly, school superintendents wrote the manuals for teachers to follow and specified the appropriate length of a teacher's hair.

There were some important differences, however. While the college presidents wielded enormous power as institutional leaders (as long as they maintained the confidence of their boards of trustees), they were not seen as more expert than the faculty. Most of the private college presidents were ordained ministers. As the great centralization of public schools took place early in the 20th century, however, the school superintendents succeeded in establishing themselves as the true educational experts. They got doctorates in educational administration at Columbia or Wisconsin and wrapped themselves in the mantle of scientific management. They conducted expensive surveys of emerging urban school systems that convinced the public that educational effectiveness and efficiency could be achieved only through the application of their expertise and their understanding of the principles of scientific management. Teachers with low levels of formal education could be had cheaply because they could be trained on the job in schools that sorted pupils by age and aptitude. All the teacher had to do was to follow the curriculum guidelines written by the new experts. They could turn out literate students just as workers for the Ford Motor Co. could turn out Model T's.

Although superintendents preferred normal-school graduates, certification of teacher expertise carried little weight with the public. But as major research universities began to multiply in the 1920s and 1930s, the Ph.D. degree imported from the German universities became the badge of expertise for the highest ranks of the professoriate. Professors with doctorates in chemistry or philosophy were highly sought after by universities and colleges eager to achieve research eminence. The professors were no longer willing to submit to the autocratic rule of a largely clerical college presidency.

Out of these tensions came the first academic revolution. Professors stripped college presidents of their powers to determine the curriculum and fire the faculty at will. They took charge of their teaching and research by forming the American Association of University Professors, which established the rights of tenure and academic freedom that gave the faculty essential control of the educational process at the college level. Schoolteachers, however, remained locked in a mostly hierarchical system in which they were treated as hirelings whose work was mandated by a male administrative elite. They followed detailed curriculum outlines and adjusted the teaching day to change subject matter when administrators rang the bells. Although teachers often complied only symbolically once the classroom door was closed, since the supervisors couldn't watch everybody all the time, they were treated as functionaries, not as professionals capable of independent judgment.

In Teaching in America, Christine Murray and I use the term "slow revolution" to describe the gradual accretion of efforts by teachers to take charge of their practice in ways analogous to the professoriate's. As a result of our classroom observations and interviews with more than 500 teachers in new roles as mentors, lead teachers, and policymakers over the last decade, we believe this slow revolution has approached its final stage. The outcome is far from certain, however. It may be that instead of a completion of the second or "slow revolution" of teachers by 2020, there will be a repeal of the first academic revolution achieved by the professoriate. There would be no downward spread to schoolteachers of the kind of empowerment professors won in that revolution. On the contrary, there would be--and to some extent already is--an upward spread of more tightly engineered and centralized higher education systems with most faculty working on contracts without tenure. Professors would look more like schoolteachers than the reverse.

The recent chairman of the Massachusetts board of higher education, James F. Carlin, a multimillionaire who previously ran insurance and real estate companies, personifies this trend. He put faculty on notice that a counterrevolution had begun and that if he had his way, colleges and universities would be run more like General Motors. Boston newspaper editorialists cheered when he ridiculed the idea that faculty should run the academic side of institutions and announced that he wouldn't accept the faculty rights written into current contracts. Mr. Carlin viewed tenure as "an absolute scam" that had turned faculty jobs into sinecures and made tuition excessive. In a 1997 poll, 56 percent of New York voters said they were opposed to giving teachers tenure.


A more optimistic scenario foresees the hastening of the slow revolution. Some "leveling" of professions in America will occur. More of the work of the traditional high-status professions, particularly medicine, will occur in bureaucratic or large organizational settings under the watchful eye of managers, whether these be administrators of health-maintenance organizations, in the case of doctors, or bureaucrats who supervise the work of lawyers employed in government agencies. While doctors are accepting more and more regulation, the schoolteachers and nurses will slowly break out of long-established bureaucratic hierarchies and share more of the autonomy previously enjoyed by members of the high-status professions. The increasing political strength of the women's movements will create upward pressure to elevate the status and pay of the traditionally female "helping professions" of teaching, nursing, and social work. The gender gaps in professional work will also close as more men enter traditionally female fields and more women are employed as lawyers, doctors, and architects. By the late 1990s, nearly half the students at leading law and medical schools were women; at Harvard, slightly more than half the first-year medical class was female by 1997.

The eventual triumph of the slow revolution for teachers depends on four developments, which are well advanced in some districts while lagging in others:

  • Creating a Professional Culture. Teachers must assume responsibility for developing and assessing the competence of those who enter the profession. This means moving beyond orientation programs for new hires to thoughtful and sustained mentoring. Assessment also requires the courage to weed out the incompetent at all levels. Continuing development of professional skills for all teachers necessitates restructuring the school day so that teachers have more time for interaction, curriculum planning, and mentoring, as well as development of stronger links with professional-school faculty members. Success of the slow revolution would enable teachers to take charge of their practice and strengthen the essential acts of teaching--knowing their subjects and their students, engaging them in learning, acting as models of a good life, assessing students' moral and intellectual growth, and reflecting on the arts of teaching that enable that growth. Reforms should be judged by that standard. If they do not contribute to strengthening the essential acts of teaching, they are of little worth.Creating a Professional Culture. Teachers must assume responsibility for developing and assessing the competence of those who enter the profession. This means moving beyond orientation programs for new hires to thoughtful and sustained mentoring. Assessment also requires the courage to weed out the incompetent at all levels. Continuing development of professional skills for all teachers necessitates restructuring the school day so that teachers have more time for interaction, curriculum planning, and mentoring, as well as development of stronger links with professional-school faculty members. Success of the slow revolution would enable teachers to take charge of their practice and strengthen the essential acts of teaching--knowing their subjects and their students, engaging them in learning, acting as models of a good life, assessing students' moral and intellectual growth, and reflecting on the arts of teaching that enable that growth. Reforms should be judged by that standard. If they do not contribute to strengthening the essential acts of teaching, they are of little worth.
  • Accepting Role Differentiation. Teachers and their unions must end the pretense that all 4th grade teachers are equal except for years on the job. Not all have the competence to be thoughtful and effective mentors of new recruits. Differential rewards should be provided to teachers who have the knowledge and skill to fill such roles. The teaching profession should not assume a highly stratified structure in the manner of the military. But some hierarchical distinctions would be made, as between interns, teachers, and lead teachers or mentors. Roles would be differentiated at the upper levels according to teachers' preferences. For example, some lead teachers might be engaged in curriculum design, others in mentoring or development of new uses of computers in the classroom. No other profession can do its work and exercise its responsibilities to the public without such role differentiation, and teaching will never be a profession as long as it is an exception.
  • Fair and Rigorous Selection for Leading Roles. The Rochester, N.Y., school district moved toward the pattern suggested here, with some teachers assuming these roles with major pay increments and reduced teaching hours so they could have time for observing and mentoring young teachers. Our research shows Rochester achieved some success, but its plan was compromised because of suspicions that teachers selected (by a committee nominated partly by the union and partly by high-level administrators) were sometimes chosen for their loyalties to the union or the superintendent, rather than for their talents. Those who are selected for such roles become the trustees of the profession. Both the public and other teachers must see them as those most qualified for assuming such responsibilities. This requires a selection process that is viewed as rigorous by the public and as fair by the teachers. One of the most significant advancements for teaching in the latter 20th century has been the development of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. For more than a decade, the national board--composed of expert teachers, scholars, and policymakers--set the goal of developing assessments of teaching that would be as rigorous as tests taken by lawyers, doctors, or architects. Like medical boards, the tests are taken in specific areas in which teachers seek advanced certification. The assessment takes several days to complete; it involves written tests as well as demonstration of the candidate's ability to assess and diagnose complex matters of teaching practice. Surveys of those who have taken the board test show that both those who failed and those who passed felt it was not only fair but also the first test they had taken that captured the complexities of teaching.
  • Achieving Results for Children. Before World War I, the American university ranked low in world status. Americans only rarely won a Nobel Prize for scientific achievement. The first academic revolution by the professoriate would not have occurred had the professors not achieved significant and highly visible breakthroughs. While our analysis of international comparisons of school achievement is more positive than many reports that fail to take account of the series of dramatic social transformations American schools and teachers also underwent, we see the need for major improvements in outcomes for pupils, particularly poor minorities in urban school systems. There will be no triumph of the slow revolution without achieving significant results for children.


Will it happen? Large systems seldom change unless there is no other alternative. The public education system now in place was an incredible achievement of the late 19th century, and it came about because doing nothing was not an option as millions of poor immigrants came to America and cried out for more educational opportunity.

Two political battles that will have a large impact on the completion of the slow revolution will be settled within the next five years. One will take place in the major teachers' unions: Will they not only accept but encourage role differentiation and take responsibility for rooting out incompetence in their own ranks? The second will be decided in governors' offices, state legislatures, and among school boards: Will they attach major incentives to national-board certification? To date, incentives have been adopted in some form in 23 states and 61 school districts. But few have yet gone as far as North Carolina in granting an automatic 12 percent pay increase to any teacher who becomes board-certified. While only a few thousand teachers are now certified nationally, the board predicts more than 100,000 will be by 2005. If the board assessment retains its rigor, that would begin to change public perceptions about the teaching profession.

Two significant differences with the first academic revolution also bear on the outcome. The professors' was a revolt of sons against their fathers. The triumph of the slow revolution would be the first time a predominantly female profession forced an entrenched patriarchy to share its authority, an authority more embedded in law than was the case with college presidents. Most difficult is the goal of achieving results for children.

The revolution by the professoriate was congruent with the dominant societal values of individualism and an emphasis on opportunity to learn that presumed radical inequality of outcomes based on individual effort and talent. The tracking system established then for sorting talent in higher education is still largely in place and mostly unchallenged. It sorts students by SAT scores and faculty by research prestige. The push that accompanies the second academic revolution is to do just the opposite: to untrack the schools and to educate all students to higher levels in more inclusive settings. No one argues for equality of outcomes across the board, but an enormous change in values and beliefs is required to make the distribution of test scores in America look more like that of the Japanese, who are rightly said to have the strongest "bottom quarter" in the world. It won't be easy.

Vol. 40, Issue 02, Pages 46-48

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