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Revolution Of Rising Expectations

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As a teacher and unionist, I have listened to my colleagues for more than 25 years describe their hopes and aspirations for their profession and union. The emerging consensus includes learner-centered schools, shared communitywide accountability, a more genuine teaching profession, and a union that acts as an agent for reform as well as an advocate for doing right by kids.

Any vision is only a pipe dream unless created twice: first in the mind and then in the real world. If we can envision it, then we can also achieve it. What follows is my attempt to envision the ideal school culture 10 years hence, to paint a picture of a reformed profession and teachers' union. I should point out that many are already hard at work building such a tomorrow today.

In my vision, teachers are paid and treated like true professionals. Because they are closest to the classroom and to the students, they have the most authority, the most status, and the most money. They command salaries and have working conditions comparable to those of other professions with similar educational requirements and societal importance. Teachers have their own offices, office hours, secretaries, and telephones; they even have unrestricted access to the copying machine. They no longer lament that they love to teach but hate their jobs.

Teachers know their students well and how to teach them effectively. They are generalists first and specialists in their own disciplines second. They are experts in child and adolescent development and adult learning. They are knowledgeable about, and sensitive to, the racial, class, and gender diversity of the environment in which they teach, and the ranks of educators are representative of that diversity.

New teachers do not have to learn their jobs in solitude by trial and error. Novices are inducted into the profession with assistance from mentors--experienced and expert colleagues who guide rookies' initial steps in teaching. Through professional practice schools, the world of teaching is connected to teacher preparation; there is no longer a wide gulf between theory and practice.

A National Board for Professional Teaching Standards makes judgments about what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do and certifies those who meet these high standards. Two-thirds of the members of this national board are themselves board-certified teachers elected by their peers. Emergency, provisional, and temporary teaching licenses have no more validity than would emergency medical licenses, provisional architect licenses, or temporary attorney licenses. All teachers are fully prepared for practice. Professional standards, developed by teachers, are now routinely upheld through peer review. The consensus among teachers is that no one knows the difference between good teaching and bad teaching better than the best teachers themselves.

With increased collegiality, teachers have broken the isolation that had historically characterized their professional existence. Through exchange programs, teachers spend time teaching in other settings and levels. There are continuous conversations between teachers of different levels and disciplines. Teachers have the time to collaborate, learn from each other, and plan together--not as an afterthought on weekends or at the end of a long day's work but during the actual workday.

Teachers' work is matched appropriately with their respective stage of development in the profession. Those with the greatest experience and highest level of expertise teach the most challenging assignments. Teachers can be promoted in teaching without being simultaneously promoted out of teaching. They can achieve higher pay, more responsibilities, and greater autonomy without abandoning the classroom.

Teachers, not textbook publishers, have control over the curriculum. Teachers play a central role in developing and maintaining rigorous and uniform standards for student learning. They also control professional standards, professional practice, the hiring of colleagues and administrators, and their own professional development. They have the time to think systematically about their work--constantly learning, discussing, assessing, and adjusting their practice. They don't stop learning when they start teaching. They continually review and question their own practice and that of their colleagues. They contribute to research and validate the research of others. Their discourse is informed by examples in other schools, countries, fields, and sectors of society.

Unexamined educational tradition has now yielded to reflective practice that is both responsible and responsive to students' needs. Lecturing occurs only occasionally and usually to large groups of students, freeing colleagues for small group seminars and other activities. Because teachers spend less time lecturing, they spend more time guiding, facilitating, and supporting what students do--provoking students to learn how to learn and how to teach themselves.

Bureaucratic adherence to rules and regulations has been replaced by accountability to the clients--students and their parents. "Doing right by kids'' is the moral imperative for teachers. If students are not learning the way that teachers teach, then teachers teach the way students learn. They also nurture their students' readiness to learn. They serve as advisers to small groups of students. They meet with these students each day and ensure that there is effective communication between the school and home. They stay with their students for more than one year. This guarantees that there is an informed context for every need that arises for each student. Teachers recognize that teaching kids must be preceded by reaching kids, since they do not care how much we know until they know how much we care.

Teachers are respected and valued as experts on teaching and learning. They live up to such expectations by continuously reflecting on their work and by employing knowledge that is research-based and validated by practice. Teaching has become so attractive as a profession that graduates from medical schools, law schools, and engineering schools prepare and apply to teach in our schools.

The teachers' union has changed in tandem with the profession. In fact, the union is responsible for many of the reforms that have transformed schools and education. It has accomplished these changes by working with other partners whenever possible and by promoting reform without permission when necessary.

Instead of two major teachers' unions, there is now one merged organization that acts as an advocate for all of America's educators and all of their students. Features of industrial unionism have yielded to changes that offer the promise of making public education more effective. The scope of collective bargaining, for example, has been extended to include negotiations on professional issues--in addition to wages, benefits, and working conditions. The union now promotes such practices and dynamics as peer review, differentiated staffing and pay, public school choice, professional accountability, the transfer of teachers based on criteria other than seniority alone, and the involvement of parents, students, and peers in teacher evaluations.

Considering itself to be the voice of professional practitioners, the union now spends as much energy and resources on the professional needs of its members as it does on collective bargaining, contract enforcement, economic benefits, and other basic traditional union functions. Recognizing that the welfare of the union and its members hinges on the effectiveness of the profession and industry within which it exists, the teachers' union has formalized its commitment to reform.

This new teachers' union considers unionism and professionalism as complementary and not mutually exclusive. It helps its members become agents of reform rather than the passive targets of reform; it views the negotiated contract as the floor and not the ceiling for what union members are willing to do for students; and it acts as the guardian of professional and educational standards.

Change does not come easily. The problem with today's schools is not that they are no longer as good as they once were but rather that they are precisely as they always were, while the needs of our students and society have changed significantly. Reform--the translation of vision into reality--is a search. Along the way, there will be false starts, wrong turns, negative findings, and pain. But the pangs of adjustment are evidence that the changes are real.

We can succeed if we are passionate about change and commit for the long haul. But to do that, we first must instigate among our colleagues a revolution of rising expectations and create a vision that inspires others to aspire to more. Then we must do the hard work that is unavoidable when the agenda is so ambitious. And when we succeed, we will have built a more genuine teaching profession for ourselves and more effective schools for all of our students.

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