This is an exciting time of year for many state legislators. The states are where the hard work of education policymaking and reform is actually accomplished, and the critical period of the legislative session is happening right now for many states.
This is a time for state policymakers across the nation to consider what specific issues they will prioritize in the coming months. While every state faces unique challenges and will develop unique solutions (just as it should be in educational policy!), many are focused on a host of issues that all revolve around enhancing the profession—and professionalism—of teaching.
In the last year and right up to the moment as we write this, a huge amount of attention is being paid to teachers for their walkouts and strikes in states including Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado. In spite of the attention, a much deeper and far-reaching discussion of what the future of the teaching profession could look like has been drowned out.
We know that conservative state lawmakers are intensely interested in this big-picture issue. We believe it is time for this discussion. We encourage our colleagues across the country to consider the many policy facets of teacher professionalism.
Here are five:
- Better tools and information. Imagine if a doctor only received patient X-rays or lab results months after making the critical clinical diagnosis. Nobody would find that acceptable, yet that is exactly the situation state policies routinely place teachers in. Critical information about the educational status of students is not available to teachers until well after the student is off to the next grade level. Even then, the information is so general it is of little use for designing an individualized course of instruction. State leaders should consider pursuing various solutions that will give teachers more real-time information that they, as professionals, can then act on in a timely fashion to the benefit of their students.
Imagine if a doctor only received patient X-rays or lab results months after making the critical clinical diagnosis.
- Better professional development. School districts currently spend millions of dollars on professional development that, unfortunately, accomplishes very little beyond checking off a box. It is bad enough that this wastes taxpayer funds and teacher time—both of which are scarce. The real travesty, however, is the opportunity cost. Policymakers should continue to examine alternative approaches to empower teachers and leaders at the school level, such as giving teachers more control over their development paths. Resources can then be used to help drive and enhance academic achievement.
Professionalized pay, evaluation, and tenure systems. In any professional system, length of service is only one of many metrics that matter. The achievement of specialized rank and benefits—such as the award of tenure—are not automatically granted to anyone who just stays around long enough, regardless of the job. Compensation usually reflects a particular mix of critical factors, including experience and educational attainment, but these are far from being the sole driving factors.
There can also be more differentiation in pay. It is true that overall professionalism tends to raise overall compensation while creating significantly greater financial opportunities. State leaders should pursue ways to bring these constructive influences of professionalism—differentiated compensation, control over continuing education, and accountability—into the educational realm.
- Prioritize resources to improve instruction and academic achievement. In the past several decades, state leaders have dramatically increased state spending on K-12 education, according to 2016-2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet, too often these funds are not used to improve instruction directly. Policymakers should work to ensure that resources, such as money, time, attention, and budget increases, are allocated to prioritize academic achievement.
- Refocusing the profession. The recent Janus v. AFSCME U.S. Supreme Court decision—which prevents teacher and other public employee unions from collecting agency fees from nonmembers—should help propel a new discussion on the teaching profession and the influence unions have on education policy and education reform. While nobody disputes the right of employees to join together to work on issues important to them, too often a dogmatic adherence to a collective-bargaining mentality thwarts common-sense innovation and reform in our schools. Legislators should continue their work to be sure their states actually adhere to this important new U.S. Supreme Court decision, in order to encourage a renewed focus on liberating teachers to become innovative leaders.
By enhancing teacher professionalism, states can improve their schools and student performance. We realize different states will focus on different teacher professionalism policies, but the overall goal is the same. States are where the rubber of educational policy meets the road. We cannot have a great school without great teachers. We call on conservative policymakers committed to improving education to reflect on these teacher policies, so that we can encourage great teachers and better student outcomes.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week