Professional Development Opinion

A System of Learners

By Susanna Loeb, Dan Goldhaber & Mike Goldstein — April 25, 2011 7 min read
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The fourth in a seven-part series

Teachers and principals play the most direct and central role in creating learning opportunities for students in our schools. Indeed, there are striking examples that show the power that exceptional teachers and school leaders have to make a difference for students. This is obvious. This comports with personal experience. We also know this empirically. A weaker math teacher, for example, might get students to learn about a half-year of material; a strong teacher can get the same children to learn a year-and-a-half, or three times as much.

Unfortunately, the present education system makes poor use of the potential offered by many current and aspiring professionals. Outdated and unnecessary regulations; bureaucracies that lack direction, motivation, and capacity to improve student learning; and traditions of practice that diminish the distinctive strengths of individual educators all serve to sap the strength of schools.

Together, these constraints discourage strategic approaches to hiring, assigning, retaining, and distributing effective teachers. They limit incentives for educators not just financially, but also in terms of offering differentiated opportunities and rewards, innovation, ambition, and excellence in a career path. They deplete the spirit that in other professions animates cultures of continuous improvement and inspires individuals and groups to excel as their careers develop. As a consequence, pockets of success do not spread naturally, and student learning is far less robust than it could be.


We envision a system that taps the potential of all school professionals to learn, formally and informally, and that creates an engine driving toward the goal of improved learning outcomes for all students, especially those on the wrong side of our achievement gaps. Such a system would allow expanded opportunities to enter the profession with a stronger connection between preservice training and the in-service needs of novice teachers. It would provide clearer expectations about what students need and provide teachers with individualized rigorous feedback. Success would be measured fairly but clearly, and professional opportunities would be based on demonstrated effectiveness.

Continued success, both individual and collective, would quickly yield new chances for advancement in the profession, with a wider range of differentiated jobs where individual educators could play to their strengths. Career and professional development would be more tightly coupled, so it could drive accomplishment at greater scale, with more opportunities to lead.

Teachers need a solid foundation of skills, and then systems that give them opportunities and incentives to improve their practice and their careers. Teaching is a complex and difficult task, which can’t be reduced to a set of scripts. Adaptation to learning environments and student needs means that teachers may be successful with one approach in one classroom, but unsuccessful with the same approach in a different context. Recognizing the diversity of students’ needs, however, is not to disregard the importance of understanding teaching strategies. It is to say, we ought not to micromanage what teachers do in their classrooms.

No knowledge base will provide all the information necessary to guarantee a teacher’s success. Yet, unlike in other countries, we in the United States have resisted creating a shared professional language that describes basic teaching skill. This lack of a common language makes it difficult to advance our discussion of what teaching techniques work the best for students. We envision an education system that has developed and continues to refine such a shared knowledge base.

Teaching is a complex and difficult task, which can't be reduced to a set of scripts."

Currently, the job of novice teachers is, in a broad sense, almost identical to the job of more experienced teachers, including those who have demonstrated exceptional effectiveness. In fact, the job of novice teachers is often more difficult, as they tend to be assigned to more challenging classrooms. This distribution does not reflect our best use of the key resource in schools: experienced teachers. This is the result of profound flaws in the political, regulatory, and cultural dynamics that shape the profession of education.

We envision a school system in which new teachers are given narrower roles than they have now. Novice educators could teach a single subject to students with fewer academic challenges. Some might even need the structure that comes with following prescribed instructional practices. With the demonstration of comfort level and skills, the complexity of their jobs should increase. Expectations would likewise rise and, for some, their roles would change. Teachers demonstrating the capacity to move into mentor or master roles would become role models and instructional coaches, helping to spread their expertise throughout schools and school systems. This differentiation of roles—between expert teachers and novice teachers—offers a better allocation of talents. And we envision that these talents would be rewarded, with both recognition and additional compensation.

About This Series

A working group on the “Futures of School Reform,” organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and led by Robert B. Schwartz and Jal D. Mehta of Harvard and Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, includes more than two dozen researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from around the country. The group is seeking to engage a wider audience in an “urgent” conversation—one that it hopes can advance the national dialogue on improving public education for all children. The working group has received convening support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

Education Week is running a seven-part series of Commentary essays expressing visions of members of the “Futures” group. The series, which concludes in the May 25 issue, is accompanied by a blog, The Futures of School Reform, written by the group. Readers are invited to participate by posting comments on the blog, or writing letters to the editor.

There is little evidence that the present practice of top-down professional development for teachers has a measurable impact on student learning. This does not mean that professional development cannot be a valuable tool to upgrade teacher skills, rather that the organizational context in which this type of professional development is usually delivered does not encourage uniformly high-quality offerings or encourage educators to get as much out of the learning experience as they might. We believe that the structure of professional development needs to be rethought from top to bottom so that it creates clearer reasons for teachers to engage in their own improvement.

Professional development and career development need to be intentionally interlocking. Incentives for improvement, such as promotion that is linked to effectiveness, will both encourage teachers to make better use of development resources and demand training opportunities that are likely to lead to improved practice. States require teachers to have a given amount of seat time to maintain employment eligibility, and administrators push for programs that will upgrade their entire workforces. The current system is not designed to address the individual professional needs of teachers or to inspire them to utilize their professional-development opportunities, but it needs to be. Optimizing professional development requires that the training teachers receive be driven by their own desire to improve.

Schools that inspire students and teachers and utilize resources effectively also need school leaders who can lead. In many schools, principals do not have the authority, flexibility, or skill set necessary to ensure that the complex tasks of running a school are carried out successfully. These concepts go hand in hand: Principals need the capacity to make judgments about their staffs, but they also must have the authority to hire and assign teachers, as well as the responsibility to make sure that their teachers are effective in the classroom.

Highly skilled school leaders may be the scarcest human resource in schools today. The typical pathway to school leadership, combined with constraints of the job, discourages potential leaders from pursuing a job as principal. For one thing, schools are rarely organized in a way that allows teachers to try—and succeed or fail—at leading. Under the system we envision, the differentiated roles for teachers would allow some to prove their leadership chops. In this scenario, the transition then from teacher to school leader would be more of a progression, based on performance, and less about obtaining the state-bestowed credentials that now determine eligibility to serve as principal.

See Also

The authors of this commentary and other members of the Futures of School Reform Group will expand upon and discuss their visions for the future of schools in an Education Week blog. Visit the The Futures of School Reform blog.

This vision is aspirational. The details are, of course, complex. Central to our idea is that the system must support and recognize people as individuals (not as widgets with various paper credentials) and provide teachers with clear assessment goals for their students (not limited to state-chosen standardized tests). There should be performance-accountability measures for teachers, the results of which could be professional opportunities that marry teaching and leadership.

All of this must be present in order to have a profession where demonstrated talent is rewarded, successful educational approaches are replicable and brought to scale, and the education system is built for continuous improvement.

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as A System of Learners


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