Teaching Profession Commentary

America’s New Teachers: How Good, and for How Long?

By Katherine C. Boles & Vivian Troen — February 02, 2000 5 min read
No one knows better than educators themselves how fiendishly difficult it is to institute lasting school reform.

There is a story we tell at conferences about an educational reformer who holds a seance in order to call up the ghost of John Dewey. Frustrated with the pace of reform, this person asks the great philosopher of progressive education how to bring about real change in American schools.

“Do you want the realistic way, or the miraculous way?” Dewey asks.

“Well, the realistic way, of course,” says the reformer.

“A million angels would come down from heaven and visit every classroom in America, wave their hands, and education reform would immediately become established,” Dewey replies.

“Then what would be the miraculous way?” asks the puzzled reformer.

“Educators would do it themselves,” explains Dewey.

The story always gets a laugh, because no one knows better than educators themselves how fiendishly difficult it is to institute lasting school reform. Earlier in this Congress, federal lawmakers haggled over how to spend some $2 billion on teacher recruitment and training. We have to ask ourselves why, despite the billions already spent, the problems of public education remain intractable.

We believe the answer lies in the nature of schools and the job of the teacher, both legacies of their 19th-century industrial-style origins, with principals viewed as bosses and teachers as replaceable workers on an assembly line. This history has bred a school culture of isolation and egalitarianism that effectively stymies all attempts at reform.

But don’t blame the teachers. Blame their job. Teaching is a flat career that offers no promotions and pay raises based almost exclusively on years of service or earned academic degrees (which can be in any unrelated or irrelevant subject). There are few external incentives or rewards for acquiring knowledge, sharpening skills, or improving performance. Too often, teaching is a dead-end job with low status, uncompetitive salaries, and poor working conditions.

Creative and highly motivated teachers need career options and professional growth in order to stay interested in classroom teaching. But teachers find little support in attempts to improve their practice. In the rigid school culture, star performance is discouraged by the egalitarian notion that each teacher is the “equal” of every other teacher. This is a system which rewards only seniority and not merit, or knowledge, or expertise, or contributions to the profession. If all teachers are equal, then none is outstanding, and there are no failures.

Obviously, common sense alone discredits the doctrine of equality among teachers, since all students and parents, and teachers as well, understand that there are exceptional teachers who deserve the highest rewards, and incompetent teachers who should not be allowed inside a classroom. That neither happens is symptomatic of other factors hindering professional growth: no mentoring, poor supervision, and practically no accountability.

It’s no wonder teaching is a job that discourages longevity. Currently, according to some estimates, the best and brightest stay in teaching an average of five years before moving into other fields. That should be of serious concern to those who would spend billions aggressively recruiting and training people who are likely to leave the field when they find out what the job is really like.

In the rigid school culture, star performance is discouraged by the egalitarian notion that each teacher is the ‘equal’ of every other teacher.

If excellent teachers are to be induced to stay in teaching as a lifelong career, then the job itself must undergo fundamental change.

Already, the movement toward what educators call “professional-development schools” (collaborations between K-12 schools and colleges for teacher training) is gaining momentum and shows promise of bringing significant change to the landscape of American education. Professional-development schools aspire to a model similar to teaching hospitals, with students taking graduate-level courses in the art and science of teaching and working daily with a mentor teacher, much as an intern works with a veteran doctor. Teachers, much like doctors in teaching hospitals, teach some of the graduate-level courses, and teaching interns observe master-teachers practice their craft. Professional-development schools are achieving a certain success because they have the potential to alter the school culture that has prevented past reforms from taking hold.

We helped pioneer this movement 12 years ago, when, as two classroom teachers, we founded the Learning/ Teaching Collaborative of Boston and Brookline, Mass., a professional-development school that continues to create new career opportunities for classroom teachers. The collaborative gives neophyte teachers the benefits of close supervision as practitioners in working classrooms. Just as important, it provides opportunities for veteran teachers to be mentors, time to engage in meaningful professional-development activities like research and curriculum development, and a forum for sharing ideas and solutions in a team approach to teaching both children and graduate students.

Moreover, these teachers get extra pay for extra work. Many of them tell us that, were it not for the Learning/Teaching Collaborative, they would have left teaching years ago. Graduates from the collaborative are highly sought after and land jobs in the best schools (or the worst schools—their choice) in America.

Other professional-development schools are in place all over the country, from San Jose State University in California, to Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, to Baylor University in Texas, and hundreds of other schools in between. There is a growing realization that this model could lead the way toward the next generation of school reform. Professional-development schools are successful because they take the first positive steps toward altering the culture that has prevented past reforms from taking hold. What is needed next is to change the job of the teacher even further—instituting career ladders that offer opportunities for real promotions, pay raises based on achievement and performance, and a consequent strengthening of public awareness that teaching is a profession worthy of status and respect.

Yes, we need more teachers, and we need better teachers. But we have to give good teachers a job that shows promise for the future as well as fulfillment for today.

Our society can no longer afford to perpetuate an education system that, by its very nature, expels the best of its practitioners so early in their careers.

Katherine C. Boles and Vivian Troen are veteran classroom teachers, most recently at the Edward Devotion School in Brookline, Mass. Ms. Troen is a former faculty member at Wheelock College in Boston, and Ms. Boles is a lecturer at Harvard University’s graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass. They are at work on a book, If You’re So Smart Why Are You Still Teaching?

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A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as America’s New Teachers: How Good, and for How Long?


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