In my last blog, I made the case that the recent headline-grabbing strikes of school teachers are a response to an increasingly beleaguered occupation, which, under increasing attack in recent years, is proving to be increasingly unattractive to capable high school students, provoking a lowering of standards for becoming a licensed teacher, thereby making the loud outcry about “stagnant” student performance a joke. Did we imagine that policies that could only lead to lower teacher quality would somehow produce higher student performance?
In that blog, I pointed to a variety of things that the countries with the best-performing education systems have done to assure a steady supply of first rate teachers, not just for the children of the rich, but all students. These include raising the standards for admission to teacher education programs, much more rigorous programs of education in the subjects to be taught and much better training for the craft of teaching, the development of sound analogues to the teaching hospital, much more support for new teachers through apprenticeships with master teachers, creation of real career ladders, compensation that is comparable to that in the high status professions. These changes and many more will be familiar to the readers of this blog and to those of you who have delved into Empowered Educators, the landmark study of teacher quality done by Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues.
But this list is, in a way, misleading. It is misleading because it cannot simply be layered on to the system we now have. The system we now have is the legacy of the industrial-age, blue collar system of education instituted in the United States in the early years of the last century, and then greatly reinforced by the growth of teacher unions and collective bargaining when teachers began to lose ground in compensation in the 1970s. The framework for that collective bargaining was provided by the Taft-Hartley Act, which assumed that workers, on the one hand, and managers and owners on the other hand, were natural enemies and the job of the federal government was to lay down and enforce the rules of engagement. I tell this story in an article I did a while back for Education Next. In that article, I showed how very different the evolution of trade unionism was in Europe and how the way it evolved in the United States reinforced a conception of teaching in this country, but not elsewhere, as an occupation with many of the characteristics of blue collar work.
And this brings me to the main point, the reason why the policies and practices I listed above cannot simply be layered on to the system we currently have in place. Checker Finn, in a review of Empowered Educators that he did for Education Next, points to key features from our industrial-age forms of school work organization that will pose formidable obstacles to implementation of a truly professional form of work organization in the American schools.
The theorist of American industrial-age work organization was Fredrick Winslow Taylor. Taylor advised the giant American manufacturing firms that were then emerging on the most efficient and therefore most profitable way to organize the factory floor. Parodied in Modern Times and The Pajama Game, his method was for engineers to study the workers to find the most efficient worker, write down in detail the method used by that worker and then tell all workers to do it that way. By following these instructions, the firms could hire almost anyone to do the front-line work. They could replace highly skilled craftsmen with low skill workers, any one of whom could do the work of any other. The skill was in the machine, not the people who operated the machine. The engineers who did the observations and wrote up the instructions were professionals but there was no need for professionals on the factory floor. The workers were fully interchangeable, just like the parts of the machines they tended. They were presumed to do the same job and were therefore entitled to the same pay for the same number of widgets produced in a given amount of time.
This model of industrial work organization was more fully implemented in the United States than in any other industrialized country and was at its most influential at the precise moment when the current organization of American schools was taking shape, at the time when the American economy was swiftly becoming the most powerful economy in the world.
The organization of work in the countries with the best-performing education systems took its current shape over the last few decades, not in the first few decades of the 20th century. It was far less influenced by the ideas of Taylor and his colleagues and far more influenced by the ideas of Peter Drucker and other post-war thinkers who were interested in the advantages to be enjoyed by companies willing to entertain the abandonment of the mass-production industrial age system in favor of professional forms of work organization better suited to competition based on the generation and application of new knowledge.
Put simply, American education, which has continued to embrace the blue-collar model first trumpeted by Fredrick Winslow Taylor, has been left in the dust by countries that have moved to a professional model of teaching and of school work organization.
As I have pointed out many times and as Checker Finn says in his Education Next piece, we have paid a dear price for this failure to modernize our conception of what it means to be a teacher. Over the last forty years, the cost per student of our system has more than doubled, after accounting for inflation. A very large fraction of that increase has gone into reduction of class size, both by increasing the ratio of regular classroom teachers to students and by increasing the numbers of teachers’ aides and other non-teaching personnel in the classroom. These may be the most expensive and least effective measures any system can take to improve student performance.
All of this is in profound contrast to the way professionals are treated in high status professions in the United States or anywhere else.
The picture that emerges from Empowered Educators is clear. It costs no more to run a high-performance education system that produces high achievement and high equity than it does to run a low-performance system that produces low average achievement and low equity, like the one we have in the United States. The essential ingredients are very high quality teachers and forms of work organization that are designed to make the best use of high quality teachers.
But that will force some tough choices.
What the record shows is that teachers with a better command of the subject they teach, better training in the craft of teaching, more support, better leadership, more opportunity to work together to improve the curriculum and instruction and more opportunities and stronger incentives to get better and better at the work can do a much better job than teachers for whom these things are not true.
It is also true that they can do a much better job for their students under such conditions than the typical American teacher even when the ratio of teachers to students is lower and there are fewer teachers’ aides and non-teaching personnel in the classroom. Fewer, better teachers treated like real professionals are more effective than more teachers who are treated like blue collar workers. There is abundant evidence for that proposition.
But we cannot have it both ways. There is not enough money in any nation’s coffers to afford to mandate both high compensation and reduced teaching load and, at the same time, very small class sizes and a school staff that is twice the size of the professional teaching staff. Put another way, no nation can afford to pay for the most expensive features of both the blue-collar, industrial age model and the modern, professional model.
One little detour is necessary here. Some observers will say that the picture I have painted leaves out an important piece of history. School districts were forced to reduce average class size in part to pay for teachers of special education students, who require small class sizes, and they will have to continue to do that. But we observe that the proportion of the total student population accounted for by special education students in the top performing countries is about half the proportion accounted for by special education students in the United States, and those countries typically do better on equity than we do. That is because the five percent of students who would be assigned to special education in our country but who are not so assigned in their country perform at significantly higher levels in those countries than they would perform at if assigned to special education in our country. This is just another stunning case in which our system produces much worse results at much higher cost than a system run on the professional model.
The elephant in the room here is the teachers unions. Many people who are inclined to agree with the analysis I just shared nonetheless see the unions as implacable —and ultimately successful—opponents of a move to what I have described as the professional model of teaching. But several of the top performing countries are also home to some of the strongest teachers unions in the world. In those countries, however, compensation is rarely the focus of negotiations. Why? Because those countries have policies designed to enforce parity between teachers’ compensation and compensation in the high-status professions. These are countries that are determined to treat their teachers well because they think that is the key to high student performance, not because they are made to do so by their unions. Bargaining is much more likely to focus on better professional development than salaries.
But compensation is not the only issue. As I pointed out above, it will prove impossible to combine the high cost elements of both the blue collar, industrial model and the new professional model. Something’s got to give. In the United States, especially where collective bargaining is the rule, the union will have to be right in middle of the discussions and a role will have to be found for the unions in the new order that they are comfortable with. This has worked in Massachusetts, where many elements of the new model are in place, and in several provinces in Canada. It can work in your state, too.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.