There’s a lot of talk today about making our schools better and our teachers more effective. Researchers have confirmed that, under the right conditions, teachers can make a big difference in how much students learn—even in the most challenging schools. But scholars as well as administrators and teachers (and their union leaders) still disagree, sometimes vehemently, over what constitutes effective teaching—what role student test scores and value-added statistical formulas should play in determining effectiveness—and whether new teachers should be extensively trained or expected to remain in the classroom for a career.
Historical accounts of America’s teaching profession tell a stormy and convoluted story, documenting more than a century of struggle to determine who will teach what and how, under what conditions, and at what cost. As we enter the 21st century’s second decade, education decisionmakers still opt for a patchwork teaching policy that often lowers entry standards to keep salaries and preparation costs down—and judges teacher performance using a narrow band of data from standardized tests built upon 100-year-old principles of teaching and learning.
Many reformers propose a “superhero fix” for our highest-need schools, quickly placing young recruits in challenging classrooms for just a few years. However well intentioned, it’s a solution that largely ignores the problem: Teaching in the 21st century is complex, challenging work. And we need millions of well-prepared, highly savvy teachers who teach in school organizations designed to share their expertise with colleagues down the hall as well as in virtual communities. To move the profession closer to where it needs to be to benefit our students, we must reframe the current reform narrative and enact aggressive new policies that drive a new vision for teaching and learning.
A New Vision for Teaching and Learning
For the past several years, with generous support from the MetLife Foundation, I have traveled on a remarkable intellectual journey with the 2030 TeacherSolutions Team, a group of 12 accomplished teachers from across the nation. We began with an urgent question: What must America do to build a 21st-century teaching profession that can fully meet the needs of students who will enter our public schools between now and the year 2030? We looked forward 20 years, because that is when today’s young teachers will be middle-aged and leading their profession. We reached for fresh “third way” solutions that transcend much of the current policy debate—solutions that not only address the issues we see today, but also anticipate the trends predicted to shape education tomorrow. At the Center for Teaching Quality, where I serve as president, we spent many months in an online community researching the issues, conferring with experts, and applying our team’s expert pedagogical know-how and deep understanding of the dilemmas facing students, families, and schools to the problems at hand.
Our team determined that effective teachers now and in the future must know how to:
We need millions of well-prepared, highly savvy teachers who teach in school organizations designed to share their expertise with colleagues down the hall as well as in virtual communities.
• Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual-reality games and can find out almost everything with a few taps of the finger;
• Work with a student body that’s increasingly diverse (by 2030, 40 percent of students or more will be second-language learners);
• Prepare kids to compete for jobs in a global marketplace where communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving are the “new basics”;
• Help students monitor their own learning using sophisticated tools to assess whether they meet high academic standards, and fine-tuning instruction when they don’t; and
• Connect teaching to the needs of communities as economic churn creates family and societal instability, pushing schools to integrate health and social services with academic learning.
Carrie Kamm from Chicago, one of the members of the team, suggested that “whether students receive the majority of their education in a brick-and-mortar setting or if they split their time between the school building and online-learning options, students will need learning environments that are safe, promote discipline, and expect and insist on high levels of engagement.”
In 2030, the teaching our team envisions is framed both by emerging technologies and energetic school organizations fully connected to communities.
We view teaching’s future through four emergent realities, drawing on visible trend lines such as the rapid escalation of global communications and technological innovation, as well as creative teaching-policy developments, both here and abroad.
Emergent reality 1 foresees a transformed learning environment in which digital tools allow students to learn 24/7 and develop and use skills demanded by both the local and global economies. Many of the same tools allow teachers to learn from each other anywhere, at any time, while helping them take ownership of a school accountability system that can inform policymakers and the public with far more accurate information about who is learning and why.
Emergent reality 2 posits that expert teachers, who know how to reach the “iGeneration” student and serve as community organizers, will create seamless connections between learning in cyberspace and in brick-and-mortar schools. Even as online learning explodes, an unstable economy and growing socioeconomic divides will require that teacher-leaders on the ground build strong school-community partnerships that provide a wide range of integrated services to students and their families. As team member Jose Vilson from New York City noted: “We have high hopes that technology will help close the achievement gap. But we must remember that quantity of access does not equal quality of access.”
Emergent reality 3 envisions differentiated professional pathways so teachers with different skills and career trajectories will join in collaborative teams to maximize their respective strengths. Career lattices, not old-school hierarchical ladders, will allow many teachers to lead in a variety of ways, with the premium placed on expert generalists—those who commit to teaching and broker learning and support services for students and families, as well as colleagues.
It's time to revamp and revitalize teaching as a profession to reflect a complex, 21st-century world.
Emergent reality 4 predicts the need to develop 600,000 “teacherpreneurs,” defined as those who are the most effective teachers and who continue to teach regularly, but also have the time, supports, and rewards to design new instructional programs, orchestrate community partnerships, and advance new policies and practices. Some teacherpreneurs will be the “highest-paid anybody” in a school district—and their roles will finally blur the lines of distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead.
Levers for Transformation
We are well aware of the uphill climb that’s needed to reverse teaching’s complicated history—one marked by a lack of clarity and rigor in becoming a teacher, limited prestige and income, and siloed classrooms that isolate teachers’ pedagogical expertise and muffle the policy voices of our best practitioners. But we cannot transform our schools unless we first imagine a more effective future.
As our team looks forward, we see six interlocking levers of change crucial to creating the 21st-century teaching profession that students need. These levers are: (1) investing in public engagement, and marketing the fact that teaching is complex work that demands new investments in teacher development; (2) rethinking school finance systems to drive the integrated delivery of services and new partnerships among school districts, universities, health and social-service agencies, and community-based organizations; (3) transforming teacher education and licensing by drawing on performance assessments to determine who is ready to teach and in which contexts; (4) cultivating improved working conditions and making challenging schools easy to staff by ensuring that all teachers have the opportunity (e.g., resources, time, and access to tools and expertise) to teach effectively; (5) reframing accountability to promote 21st-century student learning through indicators that not only identify which schools are more effective, but also why, and what needs to done to improve teaching and learning overall; and (6) morphing teachers’ unions into professional guilds, with expectations that their members meet serious performance metrics and that the skills of the most effective teachers are brokered both locally and globally.
We understand that the technical know-how still needs to be developed and the political will has yet to be cultivated for these profound changes to occur. But we also know that many teachers, and their advocates, are frustrated with the status quo. They are ready to push school administrators to blur the lines of distinction between those who lead schools and those who teach in them and expect unions to reframe collective bargaining as a tool to support effective teaching, identify expertise, and cultivate teacherpreneurs. Finally, teachers know they must support and work with policymakers who are ready to invest in teachers in ways that transcend current debates and advance a real teaching profession.
Team member Renee Moore from the Mississippi Delta put it best:
“We stand on the cusp of a great opportunity to end generations of educational discrimination and inequity, finally to fulfill the promises of our democratic republic. I believe the noblest teachers, students, and leaders of 2030 will be remembered by future generations as those who surged over the barriers to true public education and a fully realized teaching profession—while myopic former gatekeepers staggered to the sidelines of history.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as We Can Create the Profession Students Need