Teacher Preparation Opinion

Teachers and Standards: Sauce for the Goose ..

By Charles Mojkowski — January 13, 1999 5 min read
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Reformers appear to be instituting ‘Carnegie units’ for teachers, even as they question their usefulness for students.

Responding to public criticism about teaching, state legislatures, boards, and education agencies are scrambling to raise their standards for teachers. Just this past summer, for example, the New York state board of regents adopted stricter standards, requiring all teachers to obtain a master’s degree within their first two years in the classroom and all new teachers to complete 175 hours of continuing education every five years. (“N.Y. Regents’ Panel Proposes Stringent Teaching Standards,” June 24, 1998.)

While efforts to raise standards for teachers are laudatory, the specific provisions of these new policies bring into sharp focus the contrast between the learning systems reformers are trying to establish for students and those they require for teachers. In effect, the policies ordain a teacher-learning system that lacks elements considered essential for children’s learning.

Think for a moment about the principal features of current reform efforts focused on student learning: high, measurable standards linked to future roles as citizens and workers, and high-quality, challenging, and motivating learning experiences, leading to and incorporating authentic assessments focused on performance. The focus on results is prominent at every level--classroom, school, and district.

Contrast the student-learning-system design with that for teachers. Rather than focusing on results and classroom performance, standards for teachers focus on inputs--a specific number of contact hours within a specific period. Reformers appear to be instituting “Carnegie units” for teachers even as they question their usefulness for students. I wonder if, in following their instincts to control, state legislatures, boards, and education agencies have overlooked the power of focusing on performance results for teachers and allowing, if not encouraging, innovative responses from districts and schools.

The reasons for the dissonance between the two learning systems are many and complex. It is uncommon to see professional-development activities targeted to specific teacher competencies identified as critical to implementing the new standards and to promoting student learning. Most teachers and their associations censure efforts to evaluate the impact of professional development through an assessment of teachers’ classroom proficiencies.

The disconnect between professional development and growth-oriented performance appraisal is hard-wired into prevailing practice, if not into collective bargaining agreements. Few principals align their evaluations of teachers with expected competencies addressed through professional development. Often, the argument is made that linking professional development to performance assessment will diminish teachers’ motivation to participate in professional development. Perhaps, but I see few educators or policymakers make that argument for students. On the contrary, most reformers argue for a closer alignment of expected results, learning experiences, and assessment.

I wonder how consistent these emerging policies are with the avowed goal of many schools--to become learning communities. My observation of one state’s implementation of a “Carnegie unit” system is that it turned teachers and administrators into accountants. I have heard teachers and administrators, in deciding what workshops to attend, ask about the number of hours given for each offering. Moreover, teachers’ motivation to pursue professional development, fueled by external incentives rather than intrinsic ones, dropped off after they achieved the required number of hours. Is this the classic moral hazard at work, where the policy actually promotes the behavior it was meant to ensure against? Or yet another case of policymakers who reward one behavior--in this case, participation--in the hopes of getting another, improved competence? A scenario from a Dilbert cartoon perhaps, but more likely another instance in which policymakers’ reach exceeds their grasp.

Flaws in design are seldom overcome by increased efforts at fine-tuning operations. Putting new spark plugs in a Model T, as Woody Allen reminds us, will not enable it to get to Mars. Requiring more hours for professional development without attention to requiring a focus on classroom performance may move the system faster in the wrong direction.

What’s the solution? To start, policymakers need to fundamentally rethink professional development based on what we know about learners, learning, and learning environments. What’s good for students should be good for our teachers. In a true learning community, all of the learning systems are aligned. In schools, professional development must be viewed as part of a comprehensive system of human-resource development consistent with the principles and practices of a true learning community. The goal should be to establish a system that supports teachers and administrators in continually improving their proficiency with respect to specific competencies linked to student-learning outcomes.

Such a system need not be demeaning or unprofessional. Principals are accountable for assuring that all teachers are proficient in specific knowledge, skills, and dispositions, yet that does not mean that a system cannot be collaboratively designed and implemented. In fact, the system could be designed and operated by the teachers themselves, based on their knowledge and experience with creating learning opportunities for their students. It surely would improve on the once-a-year classroom visit that most principals struggle to fit into their schedules.

By advocating a system that links results-focused professional development and growth-oriented supervision, I do not argue for a bureaucratic inspection system. Indeed, an appreciation of the goals of a learning community requires that heavy emphasis be placed on self-assessment, with lots of unqualified support and without the fear that suffocates much of prevailing practice with respect to teacher evaluation. Of course, such a system is no talisman against incompetence. A true learning system does not prevent making such judgments; it informs them.

Albert Einstein, in explaining how he had come to develop his theory of relativity, said: “It was easy. All I had to do was ignore a few axioms.” Policymakers at the state, district, and school levels will need to ignore the axioms embedded in the prevailing approach to teacher professional development if they are to realize success in creating powerful learning-support systems for teachers.

Charles Mojkowski is an associate professor in the doctoral program in educational leadership at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 1999 edition of Education Week as Teachers and Standards: Sauce for the Goose ..


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