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Connections: Untapped Potential

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We launched Teacher Magazine seven years ago because we believed no significant improvement in public education was possible without the understanding and commitment of America's teachers. Our objective was to help involve them in a conversation about teaching and learning.

Since then, we have published hundreds of articles, have read scores of books on how to improve schools, have attended dozens of conferences on school reform, and visited schools in more than 30 states from coast to coast. We've interviewed all of the leading reform gurus, talked with a multitude of teachers, pored over mountains of studies and reports, and conducted opinion surveys and focus groups.

The one absolute conclusion we've reached is this: More than money, organization, governance, programs, or anything else, the ultimate solution to the problems that plague public schools is teachers--creative, caring, professional teachers who are determined to help all students learn.

Being that kind of teacher is every bit as difficult as being a good medical doctor. Like a physician, a good teacher must work constantly to keep up with the new knowledge and practices in his or her speciality. Whether the subject is reading or ancient history or modern physics, research and scholarship are constantly adding new dimensions and interpretations that teachers should know to remain intellectually alive for themselves and their students. Practice is also ever-changing as we discover more about how children learn and as new teaching techniques are invented. And like doctors, successful teachers must be concerned with individuals; each student has his or her own needs and talents, which means that to teach a student, the teacher must know the student.

The daunting task of staying abreast of changes in content and practice through a teaching career is called "professional development.'' That's what this month's special section, "Teachers as Learners'' (beginning on page 31), is all about.

Unfortunately, the system as it now exists does not encourage real professional development. We have this odd notion in education that one's intellectual growth is separate from one's daily work, that it happens through osmosis by sitting in some boring in-service session or in some irrelevant evening course at a nearby college.

That's not the way lawyers or journalists grow professionally. Professional development is a process that is embedded in their daily professional lives as they solve problems, collaborate with colleagues, plan, and reflect. A journalist who is stuck on a problem or excited about an idea can chat with a colleague or go for a walk and ponder it. There are few such opportunities in the daily work lives of teachers. More often than not, teachers are "prisoners of time,'' isolated from one another, trapped by tradition, doing what they've always done the way they always did it. Same old, same old.

The highest priority for policymakers and administrators who want to improve public education should be to liberate teachers from those restraints and unleash their enormous potential to bring our schools into the next century.

The demand for change in public education increases daily, but how can the system change if teachers don't--or can't or won't? Teachers understandably complain that their job is so much harder today because the students are so different, the world has changed. Indeed! We aren't relying on a World War I military force to protect our national security. Farming today is much different than it was at the turn of the century. Physicians do not practice the medicine of the 1940s.

Those changes are largely the result of practitioners and researchers questing for new knowledge and new technology to make their work more effective and efficient. Why should education be different? The findings of cognitive research over the past 25 years have been called the educational equivalent of the "polio vaccine and penicillin.'' Yet they are barely known in our schools, let alone practiced.

The teachers featured in this month's special section are pioneers. They are taking risks, asking questions, trying new things. One by one, they are changing themselves and their schools. If their ranks keep growing, they will eventually change America.

--Ronald A. Wolk

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