Teaching in the U.S. Should Be More ‘Intellectually Attractive,’ Global Expert Says

By Madeline Will — June 20, 2019 5 min read
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Teaching was the first-choice career for just 59 percent of U.S. teachers, compared to the global average of 69 percent, according to a massive survey of lower secondary teachers around the world, released this week.

“Everyone has a lot of views about teachers, there’s a lot of talk about teachers, but we rarely ask teachers themselves” about their challenges and motivations, said Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinated the survey.

Schleicher spoke about some of the survey’s other key findings—and their implications on policy—at a panel on Thursday hosted by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Other experts in U.S. teaching policy—including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Jim Blew, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the Department of Education—gathered to discuss the survey results, and what they mean for the future of the profession.

More than 150,000 teachers in lower secondary grades and more than 9,000 principals from 49 education systems participated in the OECD’s survey. In the United States alone, 2,560 teachers in grades 7-9 responded to the survey, as did 165 principals for those grade levels.

The survey found that teachers in the United States like their jobs, but they feel like society doesn’t value the profession. They work more than teachers in nearly every other country, but they also spend more of that time on direct instruction, rather than administrative work, professional development, or extracurricular activities with students. Most of them went into the profession to influence children’s development and contribute to society, but about half of U.S. teachers didn’t feel prepared for several aspects of teaching.

See also: Teachers Around the World Say They’re Satisfied With Their Jobs

As the panelists discussed many of these findings, the conversation sometimes became heated, especially exchanges between Blew and Weingarten. The national teachers’ unions and the Education Department are far apart on many issues.

Here are some of the areas discussed by the panelists:

Professional Development

One of the notable findings in the survey was that U.S. teachers are much less likely to say they have a high need for professional development in any area than their counterparts around the world.

“It begs the question: Why is that?” Blew said. “Is that because the American professional development system is so broken that teachers are literally saying, ‘Please do not subject me to more professional development’? Or is it that they have mastered those areas, which doesn’t make sense to me.”

The Education Department, he said, has proposed in its budget request an experiment: “What would happen if we gave teachers the money and freedom to design their own professional development?”

The budget proposal zeroes out the $2.1 billion Title II grant program that funds class-size reductions and teacher and principal professional development, and replaces it with a $200 million program in which teachers would get vouchers, or stipends, to select training programs tailored to their needs.

The department’s proposal has gotten a lot of pushback from education advocates, who want to keep the Title II funds beuse it’s much bigger pot of money. Several people on the panel, including Weingarten, said that if every teacher in the country were to get a voucher under that plan, it would be about $60 a person—not a big enough sum to replace the professional development that’s currently taking place.

Blew, however, said vouchers could equal between $8,000-$10,000 so teachers would have the freedom to design what they need to be successful.

The majority—82 percent—of U.S. teachers reported taking at least one professional development course or seminar in the past year, the global survey found. That’s much higher than any other form of PD, including coaching or a professional learning community, even though teachers identify collaborative learning as particularly impactful.

Teacher Activism

U.S. teachers place a higher importance on the need to increase salaries than teachers elsewhere, the survey found. Since early last year, scores of teachers have walked out of their classrooms across the United States in protest of stagnant pay and cuts to school funding.

“It’s been empowering to teachers to feel like there’s a path in which they can actually secure the resources and the latitude they need to help their kids learn,” Weingarten said.

Blew shot back with, “That’s a very interesting narrative.” Teachers have been able to increase per-pupil expenditures by going through the proper political channels, he said.

“We don’t need to have strikes in order to accomplish good things on the resource side,” he said. “I think it’s an unfortunate narrative if the only way you’re telling teachers they can get power is by striking.”

Making Teaching Attractive

Schleicher of the OECD said teachers want professional autonomy and opportunities to collaborate with their peers.

“That’s my main takeaway: not to make teaching financially attractive, but more importantly, make it intellectually attractive,” Schleicher said.

For example, he said, teachers in Japan work more hours than teachers in the U.S., but spend less time actually teaching. Instead, they’re working with their colleagues and spending time with students outside of the classroom—and that keeps the job intellectually interesing, he said.

In high-performing systems around the world, Schleicher said, teachers are considered researchers and designers. Indeed, across the world, more than two-thirds of teachers agree that most of their peers in their school are open to change and innovation. The United States was slightly below the global average.

“Professional autonomy is not ‘I do what I want,’ Schleicher said. “Professional autonomy is ‘I do what I know is right.’”

The panelists largely agreed that policies should be put in place to build teachers’ expertise.

“Teaching is really hard,” said Joanne Weiss, who served as the chief of staff to former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, on the panel. “It’s about as close to rocket science as I think you can get. How you take children and get them to learn content is a tremendously complex endeavour. ... Because we’ve all been to school and we have kids who have been to school, we all think we’re experts, and we don’t invest in building a body of expertise to do this complex work.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.