Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

The ‘Trilemma’ Dysfunction

By Vivian Troen & Katherine C. Boles — May 14, 2003 8 min read
On knowing what ails elementary schools — and finding out how to cure it.

A critical examination of elementary school education reforms of the last century reveals a record of prodigious effort and little accomplishment. Too many schoolchildren still aren’t learning what we think they should.

The magic bullet has eluded us, even though we keep pouring more money into programs that yield too few successes. Few of the reformers who tout their favorite solution are completely wrong. But each proposal is too narrowly focused. Public education is like the proverbial elephant viewed by a blind man, with each would-be reformer a blindfolded diagnostician exclaiming that the animal is like a wall, or a serpent, or a tree—and designing reforms based on those assumptions. From another perspective, education is the donkey of parlor-game fame and like-minded would-be reformers clutch their favorite tails, labeled school vouchers, or more homework, or high- stakes testing, or smaller classrooms, or tougher standards (take your pick), blindly groping to hit their target.

Yet, despite the rhetoric and the billions of dollars spent, schools remain remarkably resistant to substantive change. Clearly, change is needed. But if change is to be effective and long-lasting, it must be instituted not from the top down but from the bottom up. That means starting at the very lowest level of the education food chain: the classroom teacher.

We are not recruiting, training, and keeping excellent classroom teachers. Why not? Because public education suffers from what we call a “Trilemma Dysfunction"—a three-part cycle that stymies effective education reform:

  • Not enough academically able candidates are attracted to teaching.
  • Teacher education programs do an inadequate job of preparing classroom teachers.
  • The professional work life of the teacher is, on the whole, unacceptable.

The first component of the Trilemma Dysfunction is the pool of candidates from which classroom teachers enter the pipeline. When teaching was one of the few career choices open to educated women and minorities, the quality of those entering the profession was high. Today, although some excellent candidates are filtering into classrooms, fewer of the most academically able graduates choose teaching. Aspiring teachers typically come from the lower third of their graduating classes.

Then, when these candidates enter teacher education programs, they receive poor preparation—the second component of the Trilemma Dysfunction. Colleges of teacher education, like airlines or restaurants, stay in business only by putting bodies in seats. As the candidates available to them sink lower on the academic scale, they must ratchet down their admissions standards or close their doors.

And do these underqualified and poorly educated teachers receive adequate supervision, well- trained mentors, and meaningful professional development when they enter the classroom? We know that they do not.

The students who need the highest level of any teacher's skill and experience get a teacher with the most to learn and the least to give.

The first victim of this dysfunctional setup is the beginning teacher, who faces several daunting challenges, all at once. In contrast to the first-day office worker, who is likely to be escorted to a clean desk and given the required materials, the beginning teacher is in for a shock. She will probably enter a room picked over by veteran teachers who have taken everything they can from the room to supplement their own inadequate supplies, leaving the new teacher with outdated books and an assortment of discarded desks and furniture. As the new kid on the block, she will not have had time to establish relationships with the custodian and the guardian of the supply closet, so it will be a while before she has nearly the amount of materials and equipment she needs. She has entered a culture in which it takes years to build one’s own cache of supplies, and those are guarded jealously.

This is something like the experience of novices in other professions who are forced to deal with those vocations’ rites of initiation—with one big difference.

New lawyers get stuck with boring cases, for example, and medical neophytes are relegated to scut work and long hours. But in addition to the annoyance of coping with the physical space, a beginning teacher faces a formidable obstacle to success, and the one that makes the least sense: As a novice, she will be given the most challenging children in her grade level.

Experienced surgeons vie for the toughest challenges; experienced attorneys fight to get the big cases. Conversely, experienced teachers often maneuver to acquire the easiest kids—leaving the problem cases to the new teacher. So the students who need the highest level of any teacher’s skill and experience get a teacher with the most to learn and the least to give. The teacher who needs the easiest year of her career in order to get off on a solid footing gets thrown into a minefield of trouble instead. And she receives little or no help. It’s sink or swim.

Victims of a culture established in the 19th century, when teaching was a part- time career for young women, teachers are socialized to be individualistic and private. They learn quickly that one does not ask for help in schools. A teacher is hired with the assumption that she knows all she needs to know. Should she ask for help, a red flag is likely to go up among her colleagues. “She’s in trouble” is the signal that’s flashed, not “How can I help?” Seeking advice from other teachers is often considered an admission of incompetence. Teachers rarely offer, nor do they seek, another teacher’s advice or counsel. When a teacher has a problem, she solves it by herself or the problem remains unsolved.

While it is important to acknowledge how little teachers are paid, teachers who leave the classroom do not cite financial reasons as their largest concern.

The high standards of medicine and law bring with them the expectation that physicians and attorneys constantly acquire new knowledge and skills, reflect on their practice, and enter into dialogues with other professionals. In education, a good deal is said about professional development, but nearly all professional-development programs delivered to teachers are misdirected and pathetically inadequate.

While it is important to acknowledge how little teachers are paid, teachers who leave the classroom (almost half within the first five years) do not cite financial reasons as their largest concern. What ultimately defeats them is their poor education, lack of mentoring and professional-development opportunities, and little supervision or support.

There we have the third element of the Trilemma Dysfunction: The professional work life of the teacher is, on the whole, unacceptable. Hardly anyone of superior abilities wants to enter a career in which there are no rewards for increased knowledge, experience, or contributions. And that perpetuates the cycle of Trilemma Dysfunction: Underqualified people receive poor preparation to do a job that has become more difficult and less attractive.

It is easy to see why we face a critical shortage of over 2 million teachers in the next five years, and why those who will stand in front of our children will be even less qualified than the ones who stand there today. When good teachers do find their way into the classroom, they are often the first ones to leave. This is a problem that no education reform currently on the horizon is going to solve.

It is simplistic to view the teacher shortage as either a recruitment problem or a retention problem. In fact, it is neither, because there will be no meaningful, lasting education reform until we first transform the practice of teaching itself. We need to make teaching a real profession, with real career opportunities and real rewards. We need to create prospects for promotion and advancement that attract good teachers and keep them in the classroom.

How can we reinvent an occupation that has remained essentially unchanged for the past 150 years? By changing the elementary school, and the job of the teacher, within an organizational structure we call a “Millennium School.”

How can we reinvent an occupation that has remained essentially unchanged for the past 150 years?

A Millennium School organization chart would show a principal at the top, directly supervising not 60 to 80 teachers as in today’s schools (an impossible assignment), but a cadre of “chief instructors.” These chief instructors are well-paid, highly trained veteran teachers who have been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Each chief instructor supervises, and is responsible for the performance of, a team comprising “professional teachers,” teachers, associate teachers, teacher interns, and instructional aides. Professional teachers are veteran classroom teachers who, in addition to teaching, also carry supervision, mentoring, or research responsibilities.

An important benefit of the Millennium School is the strong support provided to the incoming novice. Associate teachers are first- and second-year teachers who carry less than a full teaching load while they receive ongoing instruction, supervision, and mentoring from professional teachers and chief instructors. Teaching interns are graduate or undergraduate students attached to a college or other teacher-preparation program. The bright, dedicated novice who would ordinarily be burned out within five years finds career options for promotion and increased responsibility. The less-well- educated and underprepared novice is given a support system committed to her success: meaningful professional development, a supportive environment of mentoring, extended clinical training, and realistic expectations for improvement.

Team teaching and a professional career ladder serve to transform teaching from an isolated freelance culture in which mediocrity is the accepted norm into an open, collaborative culture that fosters excellence and accountability.

When teaching becomes a real profession, more academically able people will be drawn into it (and stay), colleges will be forced by market competition to improve the quality of their education, and better-prepared teachers will enter the classroom and improve the profession.

The Millennium School could help break the Trilemma Dysfunction once and for all.

Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, both veteran classroom teachers, co-founded the Learning/Teaching Collaborative, one of the country’s first professional-development schools, and Trilemma Solutions, an education consultancy. Ms. Boles is a lecturer at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, and Ms. Troen is implementing professional-development-school initiatives at Brandeis University. This essay is based on ideas from their recent book Who’s Teaching Your Children?, published by Yale University Press.

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