Curriculum Opinion

What If Teachers Were More Like Airline Pilots?

By Dave Powell — January 30, 2016 6 min read
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Millions of people have flown on commercial airplanes; you’re probably one of them. Those planes have to be flown by someone, right?—someone with expertise, someone trustworthy and responsible, someone who knows how to get the bird in the air and, more important, how to get it back down again.

Where do those pilots come from? I don’t know exactly, but our friends at WikiHow have a nice overview of what it takes to become a pilot. Here are the takeaways: it’s expensive and time consuming, and there are no guarantees of success. A four-year degree is required to fly for any major U.S. airline. In other words, it’s a lot like becoming a teacher.

But what interests me most about becoming a pilot is the very simple accountability mechanism pilots are judged by: either they can fly and land planes safely, or they can’t. Pretty simple. Of course there are no doubt other performance evaluations conducted, and you can be sure that some pilots, in spite of their ability to fly and land planes perfectly well, lose their pilot licenses for one reason or another. But you wouldn’t expect a person who couldn’t fly a plane to be granted a license, would you?

Can the same thing be said of teachers?

I don’t know, but I doubt it. Like I said, when you get right down to the end of the rope pilots are ultimately judged on one thing, and that’s their ability to fly (and land) airplanes. Luckily for them, it’s pretty easy to tell if they passed the test or not. For teachers, things aren’t quite so simple—"landing the plane” can mean different things for different students. Take it from someone who does this for a living: it’s harder than it looks to say for certain that a beginning teacher will actually be a good professional teacher.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Some beginning teachers clearly have the potential to become great teachers, but it’s hard to know exactly what kind of teacher each one will become until some serious time has been logged in the classroom. It can take as many as 3,000 hours of flying time to qualify to become a commercial pilot. For comparison, many student teachers complete a 12-week internship before achieving certification. If we say each day of that internship provides seven hours of “teaching” time—which I think is generous—then a total of 420 hours will have been logged by the end of the experience. That’s a far cry from 3,000.

Now, granted, it doesn’t take 3,000 hours of flight time to earn a pilot’s license; this is what it takes to score the most coveted and lucrative jobs in the profession. But the comparison raises two points. One is that teachers, generally speaking, lack a career ladder like the one pilots enjoy. Sure, teachers can become administrators, but this is really a fundamentally different kind of work, and one not necessarily well suited to the skills and dispositions of outstanding teachers. Commercial pilots, on the other hand, are essentially doing the same job they were doing when they first learned how to fly; they’re just doing it with more responsibility.

The second thought is that we shouldn’t confuse entry requirements with what it takes to become a full professional. In my experience, the first two or three years of teaching are the ones where you really learn how to do it; the fourth and fifth are the ones where you really have things figured out. The preparation experience before teaching definitely matters—that’s the part where you learn how to fly—but you never know how well you can actually do it until you’re on your own in the cockpit. I have no idea if pilots are provided with mentors in their first few years of flying but I know this: teachers need time to be on their own, but they need the support of other professionals too.

In a perfect world, those mentors would themselves have completed a rigorous professionalization experience within their first five years of teaching—a second induction, if you want to look at it that way. The first induction is to the idea of teaching; the second is to the act. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has it right, from where I sit: their certificate program is rigorous, research based, and specifically targeted at early- to mid-career teachers. It used to come with a pretty nice pay raise, too, before politicians got their hands on it. In some places it still does.

There was a time when NBPTS was at the forefront of policy discussions centered on improving education, but it was quickly eclipsed by other propositions. In teacher education policy we’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction suggested by the professionalization efforts of NBPTS as organizations like Teach for America have continued to rake in private and public money to encourage college graduates just to try out teaching for a few years before moving on to a life as an MBA student or a Senior Treasury Quantitative Analyst or a Human Capital Senior Consultant. I don’t mean to demean these career choices—I happen to think we’d all be better off if more of our Senior Treasury Quantitative Analysts had spent some time in front of a classroom—but the hard fact is that their service does nothing to enhance the overall quality of teaching in schools.

We’ve embraced a policy agenda that drives experienced teachers out of the classroom and does almost nothing to enhance the professional prospects of people entering the profession now. In fact, we’re driving them away too.

So what would I do differently if I had a magic wand? Well, for starters, I’d double down on university-based teacher education, which provides the time young teachers need to explore teaching as a profession and allows them to have a structured induction experience that prepares them for the challenges of their first years of teaching. The focus of teacher education programs would be explicitly on preparing beginning teachers—teachers ready for their first five years in the classroom. After that, the programs’ work would be done.

But then I’d add a second tier, a second induction experience. This one would be school based, and completed under the direction of a qualified mentor with advanced certification. Imagine a world where beginning teachers are offered five year contracts, not one year contracts, and where their mentors are given similar security. It would turn the approach we take today completely on its head.

Would it work? I don’t see why not. Sure, people move and they change positions and sometimes the mentor-mentee relationship might not work out (it’s easy enough to amend contracts if necessary). But I have to think we’d bring a lot more qualified people into teaching if we could offer this kind of security and commitment to them from the outset.

And evaluation? Instead of using questionable metrics like value-added scores or unreliable teaching evaluations conducted by principals on the fly, I think we could get pretty close to the “can she fly or can’t she?” standard applied to pilots: make achievement of a professional certificate, granted by an independent organization and scored by other professionals, a condition of earning that second (I’ll add here tenured) contract. With teachers and their mentors held to that standard, they’d have a clear goal to reach for and a clearly-defined path for getting there.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.