Education Opinion

Restructuring the Teaching Profession

By Adam Urbanski — October 28, 1987 8 min read
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For too many students in the United States--and especially for those from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds--schools are failing.

To improve the learning opportunities for all students, we must first improve the teaching occupation. By taking risks and abandoning traditional postures, we can restructure the profession in ways that promise more productive schooling.

It’s not so much that teachers are the problem; it’s that teachers have problems that impede effective teaching and learning.

Stultifying and archaic school structures, along with the disincentives now built into the teaching occupation, are yielding us a teacher shortage of unprecedented proportions. The following statistics suggest the extent of the problem:

One in 13 American teachers is not certified.

One in 6 has taught a grade or a subject in which he or she received no preparation.

Twenty-four percent of America’s teachers say that, if they could start over again, they would not teach.

There are more school districts in the United States than there are physics teachers.

How do school districts cope with the problem of teacher shortage? Nineteen percent of districts simply increase class size; 35 percent eliminate or reduce courses; 39 percent permit out-of-license teaching; and 41 percent issue temporary or emergency teaching certificates.

Now, who ever heard of “emergency surgeons” or “temporary attorneys”? Why should standards be so flagrantly disregarded in teaching? While we’ll always be able to find enough adults willing to face students, we should insist on debunking the myth that “all you have to do to be a good teacher is love kids.” That’s about as smart as saying that all you have to do to be a good surgeon is love patients.

If we were to design a “profession” that would virtually guarantee isolation from one’s colleagues and lack not only intrinsic rewards but also most of the characteristics of a real profession, we could hardly find a better model than the current lot of teachers:

Learning--or failing to learn--their trade by their own devices, new teachers serve no internship and receive little help. As much is expected of them their first day on the job as is expected of a 30-year veteran.

Teachers cannot be promoted except out of teaching. Consequently, a teacher’s status, pay, and responsibilities are not substantially different on retirement than on the day that teacher was hired.

Pedagogical decisions are made by nonpractitioners. The farther they escape from the classroom, it seems, the more authority they have to dictate to those left behind.

Teachers are evaluated and “assisted” by nonpractitioners who can see that the window shades are all evenly drawn but can rarely assess the teacher’s competence or knowledge of subject matter.

Teachers who lack competence are neither assisted nor removed. Administrators are unwilling or unable to use the evaluation process to ensure quality teaching.

Various study groups in recent years have identified factors such as these that limit the effectiveness of teachers. But can nationwide reform rhetoric be translated into practical local improvements?

In Rochester, N.Y., we have begun to restructure the teaching profession. Last year we negotiated and implemented the Peer Assistance and Review (par) Program, which involves teachers in monitoring quality within their own ranks by providing mentors to inexperienced teachers and offering assistance to experienced teachers whose performance should be improved.

Building on the par Program, we have now developed a career path that, while retaining them as practitioners, would allow teachers to assume leadership in matters relating to instruction and to the profession. This “Career in Teaching” program consists of four levels: intern teacher, resident teacher, professional teacher, and lead teacher.

The incorporation of peer review and the provision of additional professional options for qualified teachers distinguish our plan from merit-pay schemes that purport to be “career ladder” programs. Lead teachers would achieve higher status and pay in exchange for accepting more responsibilities and working a longer school day or year. To ensure that they wouldn’t be perceived by fellow teachers as angling for administrative jobs, lead teachers would make themselves ineligible for administrative appointments for the duration of their tenure as lead teachers and for two years thereafter.

Not simply a step in the drive to transform the teaching occupation into a genuine profession, Rochester’s Career in Teaching plan also incorporates a feature that directly attacks a major obstacle to student learning: the frequent failure of schools to match “at risk” students--the toughest teaching assignments--with those teachers who are best equipped to accept them, the experienced and expert lead teachers.

Under the current structure, the most difficult students often fall, by default, to the least experienced and most vulnerable teachers. With the help of negotiated seniority rules, veteran teachers can choose to avoid such assignments. This dynamic probably contributes to the decision of 7 out of every 10 teachers to leave the classroom before their 10th year of teaching.

It makes sense to match the most challenging students with the most experienced, expert practitioners. Certainly success with these students shouldn’t be expected of first-year teachers, who have enough to do just to learn the job. Rookie teachers’ taking on the toughest assignments would be tantamount in the medical profession to interns’ performing open-heart surgery while master surgeons treat skin abrasions.

The Rochester pact also calls for shared governance through a school-based planning process. Playing a major role in shaping the instructional program and other school dynamics, teachers will even participate in decisions about filling vacancies for staff positions in their schools.

No longer will strict seniority be the determinant for voluntary interschool transfers. Moves will occur instead in the context of a districtwide “schools of choice” system.

The notion of giving parents a choice of public schools is predicated on two pillars of the American system: equal opportunity and open-market competition. Schools that have to compete for students are less likely to become complacent and are more apt to adjust and improve what they have to offer. Not surprisingly, schools that don’t have to compete exhibit many of the characteristics of monopolies.

Lack of choice limits the ability of parents and students to affect the school, heightens their sense of frustration, and often leads to resignation and apathy. This cycle can and should be broken.

Chosen schools should be more productive for students and professional staff. Research supports the notion that selection of a school contributes to a positive attitude toward learning. Teachers are likely to gain interest in the effectiveness and attractiveness of their schools if the stakes are retention of programs and “saleability” to consumers. Accountable for their failure, unsuccessful schools would be compelled to change.

Schools that must compete also are more likely to develop a sense of specialness and shared purpose. Such an ethos of teamwork would create an appropriate context for collegiality and shared governance, and would dovetail with the teacher-empowerment movement. It would be unthinkable, for example, to put schools on a competitive basis while retaining the dictatorial, top-down management that now characterizes most schools. With the school’s very survival at stake, teachers couldn’t afford to leave all major decisions to the principal.

The new agreement in Rochester also establishes significant pay raises for teachers; top pay for lead teachers will be nearly $70,000 in the third year of the contract.

Even more important than the provisions of the Rochester contract is the spirit of the settlement. Achieved through a process best described as “principled negotiations,” the agreement is based on trust, mutual respect, and labor-management collaboration. Union and management share a joint commitment to the notion that excellence without equity is not worth pursuing; that unionism and professionalism are complementary, not mutually exclusive; that there is no reason not to use the collective-bargaining process to build a genuine profession for teachers; and that teacher empowerment must be accompanied by teacher accountability.

If accountability means assuming responsibility for the decisions and choices that one makes, then teachers, to be held accountable, must not be locked out of the decisionmaking process. And the measure of accountability should be productivity, i.e., student outcomes. Specific criteria might include such factors as dropout rates, suspensions, course-selection choices, failure rates, aggregate test scores, and attendance rates.

The education-reform movement has heightened teachers’ aspirations. Since the most powerful revolution is the revolution of rising expectations, it will be impossible to unring the bell. With a willingness to take risks, we will dwell more on potential solutions than on past problems. The risks are worth taking because so much is at stake.

I have learned that in this nation the real division is not so much between the economic haves and have-nots as between those who have hope and those who have none. Public education is still the best hope for millions of young people in our country--especially those from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

At this pivotal juncture, we face a critical choice: Do we constrain ourselves to merely tinkering with the status quo, or are we willing to significantly restructure our schools? If we choose the former, we’ll continue to get the dismal results that prompted the cry for reform. The latter can offer hope for a much-improved milieu for teaching and learning. Only then would the motto “All children can learn and we should choose to educate all children” not only sound good but also be good and sound.

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 1987 edition of Education Week as Restructuring the Teaching Profession


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