Look at what's worked. Read — and don't misinterpret — research. Invest in high-quality teacher education.
Those were among the messages that the speakers at the Cubberley Lecture at Stanford Graduate School of Educationwould give to the nation’s next president for how to improve education in the United States.
Prodded by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was an adviser to President Barack Obama during his transition into the Oval Office, journalists Dana Goldstein and Elizabeth Green offered their suggestions for those seeking the White House.
The three women were the keynote speakers at the May 7 Cubberley Lecture that delved into the policies, practices and perceptions of teachers and teaching.
"I'll take the bait on this," said Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, when Darling-Hammond asked the reporters to, for a moment at least, wear the hats of political advisers.
Goldstein said she would suggest that the next president read up on the latest < a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/04/upshot/an-atlas-of-upward-mobility-sho...">upward mobility research that explains what factors influence a child's success (beyond teachers) and ask whether we can get to where we want to go with what we've been doing so far.
"We have not," she said, "been looking at the intense socio-economic and racial isolation of our neediest kids."
Green , author of Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works and How to Teach it to Everyone, cautioned, however, that it would be foolish to ignore what's worked despite skepticism of some educational interventions.
"It's worth the next president remembering some of the progress that's been made," she said, including more adoption of student-driven instruction in classrooms and more coherence on educational standards.
Darling-Hammond, for her part, added that it's also worth investing in future educators.
"I would love a day when there is huge investment in teacher education at the federal level," she said.
The conversation around proposals for an incoming president came about two-thirds into the evening's event, entitled Reimaging the Profession of Teaching." Dean Deborah Stipek kicked off the night by acknowledging its timing during National Teacher Appreciation Week and recognizing the many current and future teachers in the audience at Cubberley Auditorium.
Darling-Hammond then framed the evening's conversation, arguing that the debate over improving or changing teaching really starts with what you believe about teaching and teachers. Are they factory bureaucrats, she asked, or skilled professionals?
"The status of teaching depends on the knowledge base and its acquisition by teachers," she said. "There's an inverse relationship between our ability to produce well-informed, thoughtful, objective teachers and our intention, as a society, to micromanage their work. The more we entrust the people in the schools the more we're willing to give them the collective professional autonomy to make judgments about the work."
But, she continued, "The more we distrust the capacity of people in schools, the more we're pressed toward scripted curriculum and micromanaging that work."
Teaching past and present
Goldstein walked the audience through a history of the profession, noting that the roots of today’s hot-button issues in education go back much further than many people are aware.
"If you think that better teachers are subjected to controversy and unfair attacks in 2015, you might find it interesting to think of 1846," she said.
That's when a movement dawned to make K-12 education free, universal and taxpayer supported. Getting so many new teachers was an expensive proposition, and the early K-12 champions adopted a strategy of “feminizing” the teaching force, which at the time was predominantly male. Goldstein offered a quick summary of their thinking: "If we attract women to this job, we could pay them 50 percent as much as men." And as part of this seismic shift in the profession, men were attacked as morally unfit to teach children.
By the late 19th century, men were seen less and less in teaching jobs.
Goldstein said that we remain all too familiar with the idea that improving education simply requires supplanting large numbers of teachers with new people recruited to the profession. Over the past couple decades, for instance, policy debates have cast “bad teachers,” protected by tenure and unions, as a major cause of failed schools.
Goldstein said that there’s reason to be skeptical of proposals that call for getting tough. "We cannot fire our way to the top," she said. "We cannot decide tomorrow to get rid of 66,000 to 495,000 teachers and make sure their replacements would be better. How do we know they would be better?"
She highlighted a study by Stanford education Professor Susanna Loeb and colleagues that found high teacher turnover means less learning for children . And she noted that research has found teachers can improve their practice by observing and modeling expert teachers.
"But our politics of education have never prioritized building a system that allowed teachers to learn and lead together collaboratively," she said.
Building a coherent system that supports teacher learning is one proven way to improve teaching, argued Green, co-founder and CEO of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering education issues.
She said her perceptions of teaching changed while researching her book. "I actually had the wrong ideas about teaching," she said.
She said she was inspired to take on the book project to dispel myths and misperceptions about teaching and what it takes to be a good teacher.
"While the average adult needs to have a working knowledge of many subjects," Green said, "a teacher doesn't just need to know the right answers to questions, she needs to know why students are going to get wrong answers."
Through her research, Green said, she learned that teaching is a highly specialized skill but Americans don't treat it that way.
She said U.S. teachers are often isolated from each other, are often not given time for high-quality professional development and are often given competing dialogues about what they should be teaching and how.
She said it's a "devil's choice" when teachers are forced to choose between the time they spend with their students and the time that they spend learning.
"In the U.S., teachers spend about 1,000 hours [per year] working in front of students. In countries that outperform us, it's almost half that, about 600 hours," Green said. That leaves 400 plus hours for teachers to spend time studying teaching, watching each other, preparing and reading the latest research.
Darling-Hammond urged policymakers and educators to look outside the United States for good examples from high-performing nations for how to improve teaching.
She noted that in countries such as Singapore, Finland and Canada they've built systems that enable all teachers to be prepared and have the resources to continuously improve. Teacher preparation programs in these countries are mostly well-designed, highly regulated and free. She said graduates are inducted into the profession by mentor teachers, have continuing opportunities to learn and have the opportunity to be evaluated and supported in a context that values teacher collaboration.
"A wise person learns from his own mistakes," she said. "A wiser person learns from the mistakes of others."
As the speakers cited research on best teaching practices, lauded high-quality teacher development programs (including a nod to former Stanford Professor Pam Grossman, co-founder of the Stanford Center to Support Excellence in Teaching and acknowledged the complexities of the profession and the infrastructure that supports students and teachers, they also began to wonder whether people expected too much from the 3 million plus men and women who take on the job.
"Are we setting them up to fail by throwing all this attention to them as the change agents?" asked Darling-Hammond.
Historically, Goldstein said, "you see the focus and demands on teachers raise as we become cynical about our other social systems."
Teachers can't be to blame, the three agreed, for all that ails us, nor can they be the scapegoats for the lack of improvement related to the effects of deep poverty and limited social safety nets.
"I think that the expectations are unrealistic but I think we do have to have high expectations because the alternative is worse," Goldstein said.
Added Green: "We need to honor the impact teachers make. It is incredible. It'd be foolish not to support them."
The 90-minute discussion ended with questions from the audience. An alum of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) asked about professionalizing early childhood education and an alum of the GSE's policy program, POLS(link is external), queried how to get teacher "buy-in" to the latest trends in education.
A second grade teacher asked the panel about implementation of the Common Core standards that demand more critical thinking skills from students, and one audience member wondered how Stanford could leverage its teacher education program as a model of practice.
Darling-Hammond said Stanford already is a model — even noting that the high-performing Finns have observed STEP and adopted some of its practices. But, she agreed, one challenge to expanding or building quality teacher education is the cost to students.
"People have to go into significant debt to become a teacher in the United States, where they'll earn 60 percent of what other college educated graduates earn," she said.
The Graduate School of Education is exploring how to spark a nationwide change. Dean Stipek told the audience that the GSE has set a goal to make Stanford the first university to have a university-based teacher credentialing program that is tuition free. Already STEP offers scholarships, forgivable loans and even full tuition fellowships for qualifying students.
But, Darling-Hammond noted, the cost issue extends beyond this university and needs federal help to solve.
She's still waiting, she quipped, for Obama to say, "If you teach, we will pay for your education."
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