Education Q&A

The State of Teaching: Veterans’ Perspectives

April 15, 2009 20 min read
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Earlier this year, MetLife Inc. released a survey of American teachers that sought to assess how the teaching profession has changed over the past quarter century—a period rife with school reform initiatives. To get a personal perspective on the issue, we recently held an online conversation with three distinguished veteran educators about the survey’s findings and the direction of schools today. All three guests are National Board-certified and members of the Teachers Leaders Network. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.

The guests:

• Award-winning educator Anthony Cody taught middle school science for 18 years before becoming a professional development coach in the Oakland, Calif., school district. He is the author of the blog Living in Dialogue on

Susan Graham has taught family and consumer science (formerly “home ec”) for more than 25 years. A former regional Virginia Teacher of the Year, she writes the blog A Place at the Table on

Nancy Flanagan taught K-12 music in Hartland, Mich., for 31 years, and is now a full-time doctoral student in education policy at Michigan State University. She was Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993, and worked for two years as a Teacher in Residence with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Her blog, Teacher in a Strange Land, is hosted by the Teacher Leaders Network.

Anthony Rebora, The recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, based on a comparison to past surveys, found that teacher satisfaction has increased markedly over the past 25 years. Has this been your impression? What do you think accounts for the change?

Nancy Flanagan: Teachers have more and better guidelines for teaching now—the standards movement and the spotlight on state curriculum benchmarks have made what to teach clearer. Most teachers I know are happier—the job feels more structured, but in a good way. I was not surprised to see an increase in satisfaction—it squares with what I know and experienced.

Anthony Cody: I honestly found myself a bit mystified by that result. Perhaps that is because I am working in an urban district, where the survey found consistently less satisfaction and optimism. In my district we have a pretty high turnover rate, about 20 percent a year, and No Child Left Behind has made a lot of teachers feel huge pressure to do test prep.

Nancy Flanagan: That was one of the more interesting (and also plausible) findings—gradual gains in some settings, considerably worse in urban areas. When I think about Detroit, right next door to me, the destruction of a once-fine system has occurred in the past 25 years. In a small town, things are different. We had a stable teaching force, good materials, and were able to hire selectively.

Susan Graham: Twenty-five years is a long time and I suppose setting makes a difference. In my own situation I sometimes hear veteran teachers longing for “the good old days” when they felt they had stronger connections to the community. That may be the result of my context since we have moved from a small rural/suburban to a metroplex suburban system over the last 15 years.

I agree with Anthony, though, it does surprise me that teachers feel better. Could it be that while we are expected to have high expectations for student performance we might have lower expectations for our own work place satisfaction?

Anthony Rebora: What could be done to create greater equity among schools and in teachers’ working conditions?

Anthony Cody: I think the biggest thing for me would be to take a fresh look at the outcomes that matter. We actually value many other outcomes besides test scores. But test scores have become the be-all and end-all for accountability. And it is interesting that during a decade in which we have seen testing and data increase significantly, teacher confidence in these measurements declined significantly

Nancy Flanagan: We need to get serious about staffing in high-needs schools. Redirect resources. Ask teachers who are successful to lead professional learning and hiring. Put good teachers into high-needs schools in collegial work groups.

Anthony Cody: And is there any interest in the phenomenon of re-segregation? We are seeing our schools more segregated racially and economically than ever.

Nancy Flanagan: We’re already seeing re-segregation in Michigan. Ironic, considering the Pontiac busing strikes and riots in the 1970s.

Anthony Rebora: What could be done to attract high-quality veteran teachers to struggling urban schools?

Nancy Flanagan: Give teachers genuine leadership roles. Bring them to high-needs settings in groups. BIG point: Provide quality school leadership. It’s no good bringing a dozen great teachers into a school with a weak or ineffective principal.

Anthony Cody: I think we need to pay attention to the reasons teachers are leaving the profession. By and large the biggest reason teachers give is dissatisfaction with working conditions. No time to collaborate, poor levels of collegiality, top-down decisions about testing and curriculum.

Susan Graham: Well, there has to be money, but what teachers really want is assurance they can practice in an effective way and be teachers, not trainers. A chance to be both teachers and fill other leadership roles might make it attractive. Still, relocation is an issue for teachers since we tend to value being part of our own community.

Nancy Flanagan: A lot of the problem is with scale. Huge districts just don’t work. Learning is a small-scale, intensely human project. We continue to make the same mistakes in urban schools—huge, unwieldy systems, top-heavy administration.

Anthony Cody: Teachers enter this profession to make a difference. They leave because they feel unable to do so.

Nancy Flanagan: Exactly, Anthony.

Anthony Cody: We need to expand teacher leadership and opportunities for collaboration and collective improvement of practice.

Nancy Flanagan: My National Board Certified Teacher friends in Detroit are inevitably asked to become middle-level coaches or administrators as soon as they certify—it’s like being recognized as an instructional expert is a signal that they should get out of the classroom.

Susan Graham: I think sometimes teachers have reached the point of making a difference in their classroom. They want to take what they know and are able to do to the next level. Too often this ambition and ability isn’t tapped.

Anthony Rebora: Let’s go back to Anthony’s point about testing. The MetLife study does find that teachers tend to agree that standardized tests are not the most effective way to monitor student progress? What are the alternatives? What approach would you advocate?

Anthony Cody: We know that formative assessment performed by teachers at the classroom level is hugely powerful at promoting learning and informing instruction. We need to build our assessment systems around the everyday practices of our teachers.

Nancy Flanagan: I thought that finding was interesting, too. Michigan started statewide assessments back in the 70s. We all thought they were good tools to compare our work with other districts'—and we got quick, rich feedback from the state. Plus, districts that were not meeting the benchmarks got compensatory funding. So these were good (i.e., hands-on, authentic ) assessments from the state that started driving curriculum in positive ways. All that went away with NCLB. Tests that are linked to curriculum benchmarks and not used to shame or humiliate kids and schools can be valuable. They were for us, in Michigan. But now...big difference.

Anthony Cody: The emphasis should be on expanding and deepening the capacity of our teachers to do this high-level collaborative work—setting ambitious goals for their students, then measuring their progress towards those goals.

Susan Graham: I don’t have a problem with data-informed teaching. I have a real problem with data-driven schools. When the data drives the instruction, then the purpose gets skewed into getting the instruction to fit the numbers.

Anthony Cody: And the data tends to devolve towards that which is easily tested. And policy-makers tend to look for “tough” standards as if making a question hard to answer has a relationship to the level of learning.

Nancy Flanagan: Right, Anthony. As if “raising the bar” would necessarily raise achievement.

Susan Graham: This points to the issue of larger school systems. Too often there are benchmark tests that MUST be delivered on a particular date. It doesn’t matter it if the kids are ready or if the teacher sees and effective way to rearrange curriculum to meet the needs of a particular class.

Nancy Flanagan: The competitive aspects of testing—testing to compare, not inform—have spun out of control. That’s the difference between ’84 and ‘09.

Anthony Rebora: Earlier Nancy said that standards help provide structure for teachers? Do you all agree that?

Susan Graham: Yes, but this is a two-sided sword. The same standards that provide structure and assurance for inexperienced teacher can constrain the effectiveness of a master teacher.

Anthony Cody: We want our students to be prepared for a wide variety of challenges. For that, we need standards that are general enough to allow for a variety of ways to meet them. I think the standards in many states, such as California, are way too specific.

Nancy Flanagan: There are standards (solid, broadly conceived curriculum goals) and there are standards (disconnected, testable bits). Yes to number 1. No to number 2, especially when the goal is making everything “standard.” Think of the ultimate standardization: the military or prison.

Anthony Cody: The science standards in most states are generally very prescriptive, and require students to “know” dozens of facts and concepts. What often gets lost is the active investigation of the natural world that is the essence of science. And the specific standards lead to specific curriculum, and timelines, and benchmark tests to make sure you are on track.

Nancy Flanagan: With all that said, it was enormously helpful to me, when I was a new teacher, to be given guidelines for what to teach. Remember, I teach music. When I entered the profession, I got a classroom and some horns. No curriculum. No standards.

Anthony Cody: I do think there is a value to a common curriculum, because it provides the basis for collaboration and we can learn from one another.

Nancy Flanagan: But once the pacing guides come out—every teacher in the same place at the same time—you know that goal isn’t learning. It’s “efficiency.” I work with first-year teachers. Their pacing guides are useless to them, and make them feel defeated every day.

Susan Graham: I find that pacing guides, if they are tools, are useful. When they become the measure of success, they frustrate. Tight standards do result in consistency and if that’s your goal, that’s fine. But we’re not making widgets. No Child Left Behind means that No Child Gets Ahead. Mediocrity is easier to manage system-wide even while teachers are being asked to differentiate at the student level. I wonder if the misuse or overuse of pacing guides might be related to the turnover and underpreparedness of new teachers.

Anthony Cody: There needs to be a balance.

Anthony Rebora: Let’s switch to those inexperienced teachers: Do you think teacher preparation has improved or changed over the years? How ‘ready’ do you think new teachers are today?

Anthony Cody: Most new hires in my district are interns who have had a six-week crash course. They are less well-prepared than I was. The turnover is rapid as well. Three years after they were hired, more than half of these interns are gone. Many never even got their credentials.

Nancy Flanagan: I think we’re getting closer to understanding the body of knowledge and competencies that teachers need. But teacher preparation is so uneven…My new teachers have learned better “stuff” than I learned—more about pedagogy, more about content, more about instructional strategies. But they still make classic beginners’ mistakes. And their challenges are different—ESL kids in increasing numbers, the idea that they’re fully responsible (failure can’t be blamed on bad kids any more—well some still do, but they’ve been told that all children can learn), and a huge range of special education needs.

Here’s one thing: Our new teachers have a whole range of special needs kids in their classrooms, mainstreamed. They often have no clue how to differentiate their learning. We need “residencies” for well-meaning new teachers who can’t cope with the cultural realities of the schools they’re coming into.

Anthony Cody: I am working with a team of experienced science teachers to provide content-specific mentoring to new science teachers in my district. I believe that is making a difference.

Susan Graham: In my experience they usually know their content, but they may not know strategies or classroom management. In working with new teachers I find they are overwhelmed by the part of teaching that is below the surface. Until you have a functional workplace system, school site, and classroom level, everything is harder than it should be. Back to why it’s hard to recruit and retain good teachers to weak schools. …

Nancy Flanagan: Oh yeah, young teachers also need help using technology for professional reasons. They’re great at Facebook and buying things on ebay. But having a professional conversation is a major challenge. It’s not the tech tools—it’s about building communities of practice.

Anthony Cody: We are relying more and more on curricular safety nets. That troubles me because it feels as if we are trying to “teacher-proof” the curriculum. I heard New Orleans superintendent Paul Vallas being interviewed a few months ago, and he said he wasn’t worried about teacher turnover and the use of interns, because of “high quality curricular units.”

Anthony Rebora: So the focus is on curriculum rather than the teachers?

Nancy Flanagan: Right, teacher-proofed curriculum. Schools are notoriously unwilling to invest in mentor training, full-scale induction programs, following through. Part of it is the egg-crate culture, but mainly, they’d rather spend money on other things, and hope that their new teachers would rather swim than sink. Human beings are so unpredictable. But if you get the right curriculum, the teacher matters less (tongue thrust into cheek).

Anthony Cody: That is not a joke as far as many publishers are concerned. There are vested interests advancing our dependence on tests and test prep curriculum.

Susan Graham: When we were looking at some computer-based materials a few years ago, I told an administrator that a good teacher would always trump good software. He agreed, but pointed out that in a high-need content area, good software was a safety net for unprepared teachers.

Anthony Cody: To me, sustained reform depends on building up expertise and high-level professional practices among your teachers. That is a cultural shift that must be led from within each school. Your teacher leaders and administrators need to work together to make this happen.

Nancy Flanagan: If we know that teachers don’t hit their stride until year three or later, why should we be willing to accept turnover, and leave success up to a structured, one-size-fits-all-curriculum? It makes no sense.

Susan Graham: If you equate quality teaching to correct scores on a factoid test, then the conclusion is that the teachers must not know the facts so you focus on that. The problem is that getting the facts right isn’t really the point. Understanding is more complex.

Anthony Rebora: What skills do you think kids need most today? What sort of things should schools be concentrating on?

Anthony Cody: I believe students need to be critical thinkers who can use their academic skills to meet new challenges. I am seeing a lot of excitement in schools that are moving towards Problem-Based Learning. We need to embed the learning of academic content into solving real-world problems. This allows students to understand their role, their power, their agency, and the value of the skills they are learning. We need to move away from the educationally bankrupt notion that the reason we learn something because it is on the test.

Nancy Flanagan: The number one thing they need is a solid knowledge base—broad, comprehensive curriculum, the good stuff for everyone. Number two is application of that curriculum. Not just memorized for tests—real-life problem-solving, creation, critique, risk-taking. I’m not sure what 21st century learning is—and I understand how it’s possible to scoff at “teaching creativity,” for example. But I do believe 21st century learning is a real thing—and that our students will be working, living and learning differently.

Susan Graham: We need to move beyond the spelling bee mindset. Knowing how to spell a word has no value it you don’t know what it really means, and even if you know what it means it has very limited value if it is not in common usage for communication. I do believe Henry Ford is the role model for many education policymakers. How can we turn out adequate (not outstanding students) at minimal cost in an assembly line format?

Nancy Flanagan: Speaking of Henry Ford, the Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, MI has a wonderful, innovative program for its HS, where every student studies “design” with a different focus every year—they design products, policies, art, inquiry experiments. It’s fabulous. That’s 21CL.

Anthony Cody: We are seeing success in some of the career -linked academies—bio-tech and health, and engineering academies.

Nancy Flanagan: When teachers say teaching is more rewarding today, I think they’re looking at models like HFA—opportunities to structure interesting experiences for kids. Their students are only so-so on the statewide tests, BTW.

Anthony Rebora: Anthony, Nancy, do you think what you’re recommending is a kind vocational education?

Anthony Cody: I think there is a lot of interest in a new vision of voc-ed. I think we need to expand what our view of success is for our students.

Nancy Flanagan: Actually—I wouldn’t call it vocational education. While HFA is a public school academy, it takes all students, without selectivity. And when you say “vocational"—unfortunately! and wrongly!—people think “not college-bound.” That’s another thing we need to get rid of: The idea that the 4-year degree represents success.

Susan Graham: Yes, we do need more career connections and yet the success of our high schools is measured on college admissions only. I find it frustrating that often learning to do is seen as inferior to learning how to codify what someone else has done.

Nancy Flanagan: I’d love to see students out of the classroom frequently in high school, in real-world situations, trying their skills out, being responsible for more than homework.

Anthony Cody: I want my sons to be ready to be happy and productive. I want them to be ready for college if that is what they choose, but I would be happy for them to find success in a variety of occupations, following a variety of paths.

Anthony Rebora: What issues in teaching have really changed (for better or for worse) since you entered teaching? How is the reality of teaching different?

Anthony Cody: I would say that there is a widespread recognition of the challenges teachers face as a profession.

Nancy Flanagan: The gap between “good” schools in “good” places and unsuccessful schools is the number one change. It’s dangerous, and the most critical issue in education, potentially shredding the social fabric. The belief that testing measures something important or innate has gotten stronger, unfortunately. The diversity of American students (which contributes to the gap) is another huge change. More public discourse around education is another change. Unfortunately, much of that discourse is uninformed, and cliché-ridden.

Anthony Cody: I think teachers are at the center of a whirling storm within our society that really does not know how to respond to systemic problems like poverty and racism. And I think some leaders treat our schools as if they can take on the challenge of overcoming these inequities single-handedly. Most teachers are aware that this is unrealistic, so this can become frustrating in the extreme. We need recognition of the very real impact poverty and violence have on the lives of our students.

Nancy Flanagan: Also, the kids I work with now are just as smart as kids I worked with in my first year of teaching, 1974. But their ability to focus on a single task has changed. Their brains have been re-wired by constant, shifting inputs.

Susan Graham: I remember a time when relationships were “easier.” You could take a child home if they missed the bus, you could talk to a parent without worrying about legalities, you could work with colleagues more flexibly. Some might think of it as overly casual, I remember it as relationships based on trust.

Nancy Flanagan: The idea that teachers are by and large responsible for achievement is also new. The feeling 30 years ago was that “kids are responsible--and when they’re not, it’s the parents’ fault.” That has gone away, almost totally. To the point where columnists are now saying that schools should not try to increase parent involvement to improve schools—that they need to improve first, and the parents will come. That’s disingenuous—and another way to push society’s problems off on public education.

Susan Graham: Education was not politicized as it is now. Inequities were there, but it was the exception rather than the rule to make the welfare of children a political football.

We also set such unrealistic goals. I see kids participating in activities at school because they are “resume building.” Parents want their kids to be honor students in advanced classes, star athletes, artistically gifted, and involved in student leadership. A part-time job would be a good thing as well. The options are to dance like they’re on fire or just go up in flames and quit.

Nancy Flanagan: Yes, schooling as credentialing—rather than a place of real learning, or community-building.

Anthony Rebora: What things do you feel positive about in the profession, especially looking down the road a bit? What’s happening in teaching that you think is a good sign?

Anthony Cody: I think we have a president with a great capacity to learn, who has a sister who is a teacher. That makes me hopeful that over time he will listen to teachers.

Nancy Flanagan: I see a growing movement of teacher leadership—not tied to associations or disciplinary organizations. Teachers who are not content to do the same thing for 30 years—who want real opportunities to lead and shape change, who want their expertise to count for more than just their students. I believe that identifying expert teachers, and bringing them to the policy table is the greatest opportunity to “do it right’ on the horizon.

Anthony Cody: I think the National Board has led to a new way of teachers looking at ourselves as professionals, as accomplished teachers, who have a right to a voice in policy. I think our unions have been learning as well, and are taking steps to be clearer advocates of real change for the schools.

Nancy Flanagan: I agree: Unions will have to shift paradigms, or lose members. Their new members have different goals and perspectives than the old adversarial veterans.

Anthony Cody: And I think we are in for a last burst of energy focused on data systems, but hopefully it will become clear that creative, intelligent teachers are the true heart of real reform.

Nancy Flanagan: Ah, the magic of data. To a man with a computer, every problem looks like a need for more data.

Anthony Cody: Men...

Nancy Flanagan: (laughing …)

Susan Graham: Here’s what I see as an exciting development for teachers--if we work in isolation it is not because we have no opportunity to connect with our colleagues. Ten years I ago I might have a collegial conversation with someone outside my building a few times a year. Now, I communicate daily with my Teacher Leaders Network colleagues all across the country. Anthony just wrote that intelligent teachers are the heart of reform. We have become a voice that can be heard.

Nancy Flanagan: I also agree with the crisis-as-opportunity meme that’s part of our national conversation right now. We MUST do something about the gap—or we’ll all go down together.


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