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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teachers Are Not a Problem. They Are an Opportunity.

By Andy Hargreaves — May 28, 2014 8 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Andy Hargreaves. Andy is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education, in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

Woody Allen quipped that when we face a crossroads in life that leads to utter hopelessness or total extinction, we should choose wisely between them. Yogi Berra said that if we come to a fork in the road, we should take it. When Eric Clapton went down to the crossroads, he just fell down on his knees.

In 2014, the future of teaching is at a gigantic global crossroads, but the choices need not be as oddball as the ones that the ABC’s of Allen, Berra and Clapton offer us! This week, the Unite for Quality Education movement, organized by the global teachers’ union organization, Education International, met in Montreal to advance its campaign of providing universal and free access to quality teachers to all students. This is a bold goal - not just access to education, good or bad, in huge classes or less, with properly qualified teachers or not; but access to quality education and quality teachers for everyone.

Are current trends in their favor or against them? Let’s look at some of the most developed economies, including our own - because if we cannot provide quality teachers for everyone here, there is little hope for anyone else.

Some of the signs are not encouraging.

In March, in my home state, a report commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education set out an educational vision for the state in 2030. Although Massachusetts ranks Number 1 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and is one of the top-performing systems on a range of international assessments, the report’s leading author, Sir Michael Barber, former adviser on education to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and now Chief Education Adviser to global educational sales giant Pearson unconvincingly portrayed this leading state as suffering from “complacency”.

In response, the report recommends two strategic directions for teacher reform that are the opposite of what the highest performing countries are doing - opening up more routes of teacher preparation outside universities, and offering incentives to new teachers to take more pay earlier in their career at the expense of pension stability and security further down the line. What will be the result? A flexible, more easily qualified and more inexperienced profession who will take the money now before they move on to something else.

Now let’s turn to the Canadian province of Alberta - consistently one of the highest English and French language performers on OECD‘s international PISA tests of student achievement. Part of this success is a strong teachers’ association that includes principals and superintendents and that has historically worked closely with the province’s 40-year Conservative government. This cooperation includes a recently concluded 14-year program to support teacher-designed innovations in 95% of the province’s schools with 2% of the education budget. The Alberta Teachers’ Association spends around 50% of its budget on professional development, research and policy advocacy, compared to the low single digits in US teacher unions.

This May, an Alberta Task Force for Teaching Excellence, assembled by the relatively new Education Minister, and without involvement from the Alberta Teachers’ Association, laid out 25 recommendations for improving teacher quality. The most controversial of these is to impose a bureaucratic system for assessing teacher competence that will be linked to periodic re-certification.

If this can’t be done with the existing teachers’ association, the report warns, then principals may be separated from it so they will have the line authority to undertake the evaluations themselves. Of course, there are bits of incompetence in any system, but remember: Alberta is already one of the highest performing systems in the world. As international change expert Michael Fullan has put it in Canada’s leading national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, to impose this change across the whole system would be like scorching the lawn to get rid of a few weeds.

So, ironically in some high performing systems that have succeeded in part due to their highly qualified, high status and stable teaching professions, there is a movement, against all the international evidence, to weaken the teaching profession in the name of economic “flexibility” and external accountability.

By contrast, a number of educational systems that have been declining or struggling seem to have grasped the significance of Joni Mitchell’s old lyric “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”? So they are pushing the teaching profession the other way.

Take one of the biggest basket cases of urban educational reform: New York City. After years of unnecessary upset and upheaval in the Bloomberg years that had no overall positive impact on student achievement, the city has come to an agreement to end a 9-year dispute with its unions. Under Mayor Bill De Blasio and the city’s Chancellor and lifelong educator, Carmina Farina, the agreement has taken pay off the table until 2018 by making a reasonable and very modest settlement that now enables teachers and schools to focus on improvement. It has created a Union-Department panel to review and approve innovative and flexible ways to figure out how to improve student learning in 10% of the city’s schools. It is establishing pilot programs to increase parent-teacher interaction (as well as time for teachers to engage in these interactions), and also scheduled in-school time for teachers to engage in peer-to-peer professional development. This recognizes the fact that US teachers currently spend less in-school time away from their own classes than almost all other nations, especially the highest performing ones.

The agreement will also streamline teacher evaluations by almost two-thirds - from 22 components down to 8 - and it will balance this with an expedited process to remove teachers who demonstrate unprofessional behavior. New York City is giving up on the one-size slams-all strategy of standardization and the war of all against all of charter school competition to embrace a more professionally inclusive approach.

Then there is Sweden. Once the poster child for social democratic excellence and equity, in the past decade, since its aggressive introduction of market-driven educational reforms, Sweden has experienced the greatest deterioration in PISA scores out of all OECD countries who were performing above average in 2003. Sweden also shows the greatest deterioration in educational equity between these dates. Sweden’s educational reforms, especially its profit-based “free” schools (many of them owned by hedge fund companies) are modeled on the Anglo-American reforms of England and the United States. So it is not surprising to see that Sweden’s educational performance is falling further and further behind the other high performing Scandinavian countries and moving more towards the low performers of England and the US, whose strategies it has adopted.

With an election looming in September, major political parties are responding to public unrest with Sweden’s educational decline in a number of ways. Elevating the status and quality of teachers is one of them. Proposals include raising teachers’ salaries, reducing the administrative burdens on teachers, and raising the bar for teacher qualifications so teachers do not come from the lowest ends of the graduation range as they do now.

One more country that is educationally endangered is Wales. Despite its exemplary record in educational equity in a fully comprehensive public school system, Wales is in the bottom third of all the countries who participate in PISA, it is the lowest ranking of all the four UK countries, and it is the only one of these to differ by a statistically significant degree. Last Fall, the Welsh Government invited the OECD to undertake a visit to review its improvement strategy and I was one of two experts who served on the five-person team that did this work.

Our report was published in May and included a number of recommendations on building the professional capital of the teaching profession. This included provisions to attract higher quality individual human capital into the profession, not by setting up a market of providers of teacher preparation outside the university system as the country’s English neighbors had done, but by strengthening the existing system of university-based teacher education.

Our report also recommended extending a very promising government-funded program to encourage recently qualified teachers to acquire Masters’ degrees. We also stressed that social capital (how well teachers work together) is as important as the human capital of what teacher are able to do alone - and to this extent we advised that a nationwide commitment to building strong professional communities among teachers should be strengthened by giving these communities a clearer focus and by supporting them with government funding so they could occur in school time.

Last - as the BBC and other media highlighted - we said it was important for the government not to get sidetracked by raising its scores on PISA, but to establish a compelling and uplifting vision of what it wanted Welsh learners to be. This, we said, would not only provide a direction for teaching and learning, but would also raise the status of Welsh teachers as the people who would have to realize this vision for their nation.

So whether we are Massachusetts or New York; in Canada, Scandinavia or the UK, when we stand at the crossroads of teacher quality, which path should we take - to build teachers up or break them down? The answer isn’t in the earlier ABC’s of forking paths.

Instead, we could do no worse than revisit the educational achievements of LBJ - Lyndon B Johnson: 36th President of the United States. After the life-shaping influence of being a public school teacher at the start of his career, Johnson built and left an immense educational legacy in the early childhood education reforms of Operation Headstart and in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that assigned Federal resources to offset local inequities.

Standing at his own crossroads of educational and social change, Johnson was clear about the path that America should take. “Education is not a problem”, he declared. “Education is an opportunity”. It’s time we said the same about teaching and teachers.

Teachers are not a problem. They are an opportunity.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.