Teaching Profession Opinion

Searching for Consistency Without Standardization in Teaching

By Jal Mehta — October 09, 2015 5 min read
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This week, myself and my colleagues at Transforming Teaching released a white paper, From Quicksand to Solid Ground, drawing on several years’ worth of interviews and analysis, arguing for the need to build a system to support quality teaching. You can read it here, who endorsed it here, or an Education Week story describing the effort here, but today I just wanted to say a bit about the motivation for the work.

One big framing question is how we might generate consistency without standardization. You are not going to get to the kind of deep learning we want for students--learning that requires students to think, problem solve, collaborate, create--by scripting the actions of their teachers. Hence the problem with standardization. But at the same time, every child in America, particularly those who have been least well served by the school system, deserves a chance at a good learning experience, every day, in every classroom. Hence the appeal of consistency.

How might we create consistency without standardization? I’ve long been attracted to the professional model as the way to achieve this. Professions tend to use the following model: developing knowledge about practice, organizing careful training in that knowledge, limiting licensure to those who demonstrate sufficient knowledge and skill, and creating mechanisms (like peer review or hospital rounds) that enforce the field’s standards in an ongoing way. This approach permits significant professional discretion in particular situations, but in ways that are informed by the overall knowledge of the field. Every patient is different, every landing of a plane is different, but the instruments, tests, and modes of reasoning that one uses in each situation are informed by the collectively developing knowledge and practice of the field.

Education has the trappings of these things, but not the full form. There is certification, but the standards are low and people can practice without it. There is research, but there is not a shared knowledge base (or bases) that confidently can guide work. (This is true overall, there is more developed knowledge in some subjects and grade levels; early reading, for example.) There are increasing levels of collaboration and data sharing in schools, but many of these conversations are at the surface level and do not get deeply into questions of teaching and learning. If we want consistency across classrooms, without deskilling the profession, these are challenges that will need to be addressed.

A particularly key part of building such a system is establishing a technical core that is somewhat insulated from political winds. A new hospital administrator can choose to build a new wing, to invest in this specialty or not that one, to tighten the budget or explore new projects, but she cannot alter the core practices of medicine. In contrast, a new superintendent can, and frequently does, significantly shift the goals of the system and the strategies for achieving it. Research suggests that the average superintendent introduces 12 initiatives every three years, and that the average tenure of a superintendent is three years. From the classroom level, that means a cacophony of ideas that are constantly changing, which leads many teachers, even or especially good teachers, just keeping their heads down determined to wait out the changes from above. That may be the rational choice for their students, but it is not a good way to build a system of consistent high-level practice.

That’s the technical challenge. But there is also a related point about politics and power. Part of what professions do is that they take control over the work. They work in systems that may be paid for by the state or patronized by customers in a market, but they do their best to argue that the reason to have a profession in the first place is that the state is ceding some degree of authority to the profession in return for the profession developing mechanisms to ensure quality practice. There are reasons for professions to be regulated by the state, especially if the state is paying for the service, but there needs to be a balance between public oversight (which is appropriate with respect to overall goals and to avoid abuse) and professional authority (which is appropriate for organizing licensing and making decisions about the technical core).

How might we move towards such a system? We think that this is a question that is less for us to answer and more for the field to try to figure out. For that reason, we conclude our report not with recommendations but with 12 design challenges, problems that we hope that different people and organizations will take up in ways that are appropriate for their contexts. There are challenges in three domains: 1) knowledge and R and D (what would it take to build an R and D system in education?); 2) teacher learning (from pre-service through induction and into ongoing learning in schools; 3) policy and politics (building political will and reshaping the profession). We will be organizing work on some of these challenges and invite anyone with ideas to be in touch.

A final point ties to this blog’s stated emphasis: deeper learning. As we move to design a system that would reliably produce classrooms featuring great learning, we need to organize it around tomorrow’s competencies rather than yesterday’s goals. While much of the professionalization agenda I describe above has been in the water since the 1980s, these structures and systems need to be cross-cut with the goals of deeper learning. We have seen some progress in recent years around creating more ambitious goals for student learning (Common Core, but also Next Generation Science Standards and much of the discussion of deeper learning competencies); the next step would be to develop a similarly ambitious agenda for teacher learning, and use those next generation teacher standards to guide the work of teacher preparation institutions, professional development, and other mechanisms for adult learning. Doing so would go a long way to creating the right kind of consistency without resorting to standardization.

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