Since the mid-1980s, when influential reports by the Holmes Group and the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession set teaching on its current course toward professionalization, the field of education has looked to medicine as the preferred standard for professional work. Today, the allure of medicine’s successful transformation remains as strong as ever.
Yet, after a quarter of a century, teaching has made little progress toward achieving full professional status. While in some respects teaching and medicine share certain attributes—having been shaped by many of the same social, economic, and cultural forces—the education field has not developed a coherent, agreed-upon knowledge base comparable to that of medicine. Relying on a combination of “expert judgment,” “best practices,” and “conventional wisdom”—which, in turn, are informed by an ambiguous and inconclusive body of evidence—educators struggle to develop meaningful training, induction, mentoring, and professional-development programs, and engage in endless debates about the appropriateness of current licensure, certification, and evaluation procedures.
The inconsistencies and ambiguities that characterize the knowledge base in education are well illustrated in the pages of The American Public School Teacher, Past, Present, and Future, a book I co-authored that is being released today at the National Education Association Convention by the Harvard Education Press. The book draws on 50 years of data from the National Education Association’s “Status of the American Public School Teacher” surveys. In one instance after another, the limits of current research are laid bare, and one is reasonably led to conclude that the education community has failed to achieve consensus concerning even the most fundamental issues.
But there is some good news. While the field of education has not yet succeeded in developing a foundation of knowledge comparable to that found in medicine, it is by no means starting at zero. Insights stemming from decades of research and practical experience can serve as the basis for generating hypotheses and informing the development of a comprehensive research agenda going forward. Already, with the increased use of quasi-experimental and randomized controlled designs, knowledge in education is beginning to grow at an accelerating pace.
Still, such efforts are undermined by the lack of mechanisms for directing and systematizing the multitude of disparate research activities to ensure that the field accumulates a coherent, consistent body of knowledge.
The field must also find ways to overcome the many obstacles associated with conducting research in traditional public school settings—including the nearly ubiquitous use of narrowly constructed state accountability tests as measures of achievement, administrative databases that fail to accurately match students with teachers, nonrandom assignment of students and teachers to classrooms, and a lack of detailed background data on students.
The recently launched Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET, project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, addresses some of these issues—randomly assigning teachers to classrooms and supplementing state tests with assessments designed to evaluate higher-order thinking skills in selected subjects—but even such a well-conceived study cannot overcome all of the limitations of conducting research in traditional schools.
While the MET project randomly assigns teachers to classrooms, parents of students assigned to teachers perceived to be less effective may still insist that their children be reassigned, or simply engage the services of a private tutor. And while the project’s use of supplemental assessments represents an important advance over most other studies, many subject areas and potential outcomes remain unassessed, simply because to do so would encroach too much on already-limited instructional time.
One potential strategy for addressing these remaining obstacles involves an expanded role for the nation’s professional-development schools. These schools—partnerships, really, between colleges and schools or school districts, resembling teaching hospitals in concept—have played pivotal roles in the movement to professionalize teaching and are widely acknowledged as laboratories for experimentation and development. But the kinds of studies typically conducted in these institutions, although useful for individual practitioners within specific contexts and for focusing attention on a common problem, do not typically translate into knowledge that can be brought to scale. To accomplish this, the professional-development schools and their affiliated colleges and graduate schools of education will need to think more collaboratively, designing and implementing parallel development activities with common frameworks and common measures.
Professional-development schools could, for example, seek waivers to extend the school year to accommodate the administration of assessments designed to measure a wider range of educational outcomes, including critical analysis and higher-level thinking skills in every school subject, without sacrificing instructional time. They might also collaborate on the development of a universal strategy for training cadres of former educators to score performance assessments, a unified approach to the collection and management of data, and even a common methodology for conducting value-added analyses of assessment results.
Finally, these professional-development schools could work together to develop uniform compacts between schools and families that would make enrollment conditional on students’ and parents’ agreement to commit to a longer school year, accept random classroom assignments, complete detailed background questionnaires, and accept other conditions that enhance the validity and reliability of the research being conducted.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has independently acknowledged the disparate, uncoordinated nature of education research and has emerged as a leading advocate for a revamped research-and-development infrastructure. The foundation is playing a catalyzing role in developing “networked improvement communities,” or NICs, which are collaborative communities of practice designed to encourage collective action and coherent solutions to complex problems. Viewed in this light, the call for the development of a coordinated network of professional-development schools may be seen as a proposal for the creation of a specific type of NIC that would address a broad range of research problems in public K-12 education.
But as Carnegie researchers have learned all too well, NICs generally do not arise organically, but rather require leadership and nurturing. Therefore, over the coming year, the NEA and Carnegie will explore the interest in and feasibility of such an undertaking. Ultimately, of course, any such enterprise can only be successful if it wins the support and participation of staff and administrators in professional-development schools across the nation, as well as that of the faculty and administrations of their affiliated colleges and graduate schools of education.
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week