Opinion
Education Opinion

A Marshall Plan for Teaching

By Deborah Meier — April 24, 2008 5 min read

Dear Diane,

Let’s pursue, over time, these topics: (1) the way we see “popular” culture and “the street” as sources for learning, (2) the notion of a “consensus” on curriculum—and the idea that we can insure that it only takes 50 percent of our time, and, finally, (3) that it doesn’t matter whether we put the moral and social purposes of society or each individual’s success on the job market as the public purpose of education. Alas, the latter isn’t even within our means—as the economy doesn’t produce more good, decent-paying jobs just because there are well-educated people who want them! I suspect we aren’t so far apart on the latter.

But I’m rushing off to Washington, D.C., for a press conference of a group we started a few years ago—our own smoke-and-mirrors “think-tank"—the Forum for Education and Democracy. We’ve issued our own statement: about “Democracy At Risk” 25 years after the seminal A Nation at Risk.

Here’s my contribution to it.

Editor’s note: The following are Deborah Meier’s prepared remarks for the Forum’s April 23 press conference:

What are the “basics”, the ABCs of a democracy? Among others, they involve the exercise of thoughtfulness and wise judgment on the part of its citizens. We cannot expect to teach this to our youngsters if they are keeping company with adults who are not able to exercise such habits—and do so in the presence of their students.

We propose—in short—schools that operate on the basis of both the collective and individual judgment of the adults most important in young people’s educational lives. Both their families and their teachers. There is no shortcut that leaves them out.

But this also means a well-educated teaching force, accustomed to exercising such thoughtfulness and judgment.

Imagine schools where educators work together to address students needs, not federal mandates, where the decisions are made by those closest—not farthest—from the real action. Where student engagement and responsibility for their work is mirrored in the attitudes of their faculty.

These are the schools that we need today. Some of them exist. I helped establish several in New York City’s East Harlem and Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. In the deepest sense of accountability, few schools have made their work more open for public review and critique. Each developed a set of authentic and meaningful standards and then designed every aspect of the school so that students could meet them.

They are designed so that teachers are powerful adults who make decisions that continually improve the school—who work in teams that share students, and who have time every week to plan a curriculum together that responds to the realities on the ground as well as in the subject disciplines, to develop and evaluate portfolio assessments, and to talk about kids and what they need and how to support them.

These schools and others created since have succeeded with students who were previously written off in urban schools. And they have succeeded because teachers had the expertise and the authority to design powerful instruction responsive to kids’ needs. And they had the time. The latter is the much forgotten and ignored ingredient essential for schools designed for democracy.

Schools like these are widespread in some nations like Finland, which rose to first in the world in reading, math, and science after making massive investments in highly expert teachers who are prepared to teach all kinds of students and to teach for inquiry and problem solving. Having developed such teachers, Finland allows them great latitude in designing schools and curriculum that can meet the needs of their students.

Unlike the U.S., where teachers either go into debt to prepare for a profession that will pay them poorly or enter with little or no training, high-achieving countries like Finland and others recruit top candidates and pay them to go through a top-quality preparation program. Beginners are supported by expert mentors, and teachers routinely have 10 to 20 hours a week to work and learn together—supports that are non-existent in most parts of the United States. We consider ourselves lucky in the USA if we set aside an hour or two a week. Mission Hill and Central Park East Secondary School went to the extraordinary length of building in five hours a week—less than half of what most nations in the world provide.

The report we are releasing today provides a realistic plan to make powerful and continuously well-prepared teachers available to all children through what we call a Marshall Plan for teaching.

Like the original Marshall Plan that rebuilt a democratic Europe after World War II, this is a strategy for moving beyond the half-measures that have characterized the last 25 years.

For an annual investment of $4 billion—or less than what we are currently spending for a week in Iraq—we could underwrite strong preparation for 40,000 teachers in high-needs fields annually—enough teachers to fill every vacancy currently filled by an unprepared teacher—seed 100 top-quality urban teacher education programs, ensure mentors for every new teacher hired each year, provide incentives to bring expert teachers into high-need schools, and, above all, strengthen ongoing on-site professional development for teachers and principals.

To dramatically improve schools, we need to transform the profession—making it attractive to thinkers and do-ers. Our plan will support this while developing new career pathways that help teachers extend their abilities and share their knowledge with others.

Finally, we propose a major initiative to improve school leadership. This includes proactively recruiting expert teacher leaders—rather than just waiting to see who shows up in administrative credential programs or wooing people from unrelated fields. Once again, it must rest on a full-year internship under the wing of principals whose work apprentices want to emulate.

I’ve never believed there was one best system for educating children, or adults. But if we have the preservation of democracy in the front of our minds, then we have no choice but to build schools where children experience what a democratic community of adults can produce.

There may not be one right way, but there are also many wrong ways. Every time we issue mandates that effectively remove power and responsibility from the adults who surround kids we remove the ingredients needed for them to become powerful and responsible adults.

Deborah

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