Assessment Opinion

Top Performers Offer U.S. Much More Effective Models of Teacher PD

By Marc Tucker — January 21, 2016 8 min read
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Last week’s blog previewed an event in Washington at which NCEE released two reports on teachers’ professional development commissioned by our Center on International Education Benchmarking. That event has now taken place and I thought I might use this blog to share some reflections on some of the things said by the panelists who commented on those reports.

Before I do that, however, I’ll summarize very briefly the essence of the two reports for those who missed both my blog and the event itself. Ben Jensen’s report described the common elements of teachers’ professional development in Shanghai, Singapore, British Columbia and Hong Kong as follows: 1) the development of teachers’ professional expertise is seen by the people who run those systems as the key to improving student performance; 2) much more of teachers’ time is devoted to it than in the United States; 3) school principals are held accountable for their contribution to teachers’ professional development, which is a key component of their performance evaluation; 4) teachers who are selected to lead professional development in their schools have senior status in the school and are compensated at higher levels for this responsibility; 5) professional development is not mainly done by sending teachers to workshops, but rather by engaging teachers in teams that work together to systematically improve every aspect of the school that bears on student performance; 6) that collaborative work is done in a very disciplined process of continuous improvement in which teachers work together to first research the literature on the problem they are addressing and then develop and implement interventions based on the research, and then use the data produced during implementation to improve the effectiveness of the intervention to the desired point.

ImageClick here to watch the release event.

Jensen pointed out that two of the four jurisdictions he researched--Singapore and Shanghai--have further developed this model of professional development by creating multistep career ladders for teachers. Minxuan Zhang described the Shanghai model in detail. In that model, teachers face students only 10 hours a week. The rest of their time is spent improving the operation of the school. Teachers work in three types of teams, one organized by grade, another by subject and the third by research topic. As teachers progress up the lower steps of the ladder, the most important criterion for advancement is their growing expertise as a teacher, but later, as they progress to the middle and upper steps, their expertise in mentoring other teachers, in leading them and in conducting research becomes more important. Professor Zhang pointed out that the research criterion for advancement is not about whether the teacher has made an original contribution to the research literature, but rather the degree to which the teacher is able to use research in a disciplined and effective way to improve the instructional program of the school.

Professional development in this model is not so much what happens when teachers sit in workshops as it is the process of learning that takes place in an environment in which the school is organized so that continuous learning is built into the very fabric of the teachers’ work itself.

Both Professor Zhang and Professor Sing Kong Lee, who described the Singapore model, pointed out that some of the features of the model used by both systems have been features of Asian systems for a long time. But the centerpiece of their model, the career ladder system, has not. Professor Zhang said that this feature was actually borrowed from Western education systems. Very early in his career as a teacher, an exchange program was developed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chairman Deng Xiao Ping, and Zhang was chosen as a participant. While in England, he noticed that in the British higher education system instructors started out as teaching assistants and then rose through the ranks to become assistant professors, associate professors, full professors, chair professors and so on, only gaining tenure after demonstrating a very high level of expertise. The American system of viewing all schoolteachers as having the same expertise and commanding the same responsibilities and compensation struck him as more Communist than capitalist. He brought the career ladder system he had seen in British higher education back to China, from which it then emigrated to Singapore.

There was a bit more to it than that. Professor Zhang said that the creation of the career ladder was seen in part as a way, despite Shanghai’s lack of money, to convey the view that teaching is a profession and not a blue collar occupation, to make teaching attractive to talented young high school students choosing a career.

During our session, I observed that Mao Zedong had shut down the whole Chinese education system for ten years during the Cultural Revolution, so that, after he died and the Gang of Four was gone, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission had to rebuild the whole system from scratch, with hardly any money at all. Professor Zhang confirmed my understanding that they had decided to put the small amount of resources available for the initial training of teachers into making sure that their prospective teachers had a thorough mastery of the subjects they were going to teach. Their strategy for making sure their new teachers mastered the craft of teaching those subjects was very different. That would be done in the schools, after the new teachers had graduated from teachers college, by apprenticing the new teachers to master teachers in the schools. This would not have worked, of course, without the career ladder design, because it was the career ladder design that enabled them to identify the master teachers and to carve out the role of mentor of new teachers. Because they relied on the master teachers in the schools to teach the new teachers how to teach, the master teachers were and are still expected to spend much more time in this role than is common for mentors in the United States to spend on this task.

This system has other consequences that struck me as very important. The new teachers have only a provisional license to teach when they first join a school staff, and the master teacher responsible for teaching them their craft plays a very important role in determining whether they will get to the next step on the career ladder. Later, after the event, I was talking to Professor Zhang about recent developments in Shanghai. He told me that the system recently added a new step to the top of their career ladder, the title of Professor Teacher. This title, given to only a few teachers at the pinnacle of the system, gives the person who holds it the same rank as a professor in a research university. Their reasoning is straightforward. One can only achieve this rank if one has demonstrated outstanding skill in teaching, training teachers and doing research. These are the very skills one has to demonstrate to achieve the rank of professor in the university. Why not give schoolteachers access to this rank, if they have demonstrated the same expertise? This development struck me as epitomizing the Shanghai attitude toward teacher professionalism.

Lily Eskelsen García, the President of the National Education Association, told me later that she listened to the opening presentations with growing excitement. Eskelsen García started out teaching in a one-room school, later becoming a sixth-grade teacher. She said that she would have given a lot to get the same kind of intense, sustained assistance at the beginning of her career that the Shanghai teachers get, and the idea of being able to have a real chance at a long-lasting career in teaching, with responsibility increasing with increasing expertise, was no less appealing to her. She agreed with my comment that, although the career ladder idea as developed in Singapore and Shanghai is a form of merit pay, it is very different from the kind of merit pay systems we have seen in the United States. The systems in both Shanghai and Singapore both take into account, for example, the views of a teacher’s performance from other teachers in a kind of 360-degree view of that performance from both mentors and mentees. The idea of using teams of teachers led by teachers to improve the effectiveness of instruction, relying on a disciplined system of continuous improvement, would, she said, be welcomed by the NEA, as would a system in which compensation would be tied in part to increasing responsibility for teachers as they climb the ladder.

I asked Joshua Starr, the CEO of Phi Delta Kappan, how he thought the authors who regularly contribute to the PDK journal would react to the conception of professional development presented in the reports being discussed at this meeting. Starr said that he thought most would find it congenial, but that, speaking as a former superintendent of schools, the challenges would come not so much at the conceptual level as in actual implementation. Finding the time in the school day to do what teachers do in top performing education systems would not be easy, especially if that time came at the expense of increasing class size. Nor would converting teachers’ contracts from compensation systems based on experience and courses to ones based on experience and demonstrated increases in expertise.

I asked Linda Darling-Hammond what she thought about the trade-off that Shanghai has made in concentrating pre-service teacher education on mastery of content and leaving preparation in the craft of teaching to an intense apprenticeship to a master teacher once the new teacher is employed. Professor Darling-Hammond quite reasonably responded by saying that, given the constant changes in leadership and direction at the local level in our system, it might make sense to rely more than Shanghai does on teacher education institutions to prepare new teachers in their craft. But, it seems to me, if we were able to identify a growing group of first-rate master teachers in our schools who have the skills needed to closely mentor new teachers, there is real merit in the Shanghai approach to craft development for teachers. This will be a fine topic for debate on another day.

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.