The AFT Embraces Teacher Quality

Cross-posted on Education Week

Everyone, it seems, agrees that teacher quality is key to student achievement. But how should we improve teacher quality? The field has been dominated in recent years by those whose answer is to get rid of the worst teachers. It is the wrong answer. The right answer is increasing the supply of great teachers.

Years ago, when I led the team that designed and built the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, I commissioned a set of papers from Lee Shulman and Gary Sykes on teaching and the professions. From those papers came several simple truths. First, the high status professions do a lousy job of getting rid of their worst performers. Second, the reason their members are more highly regarded than teachers is because it is very hard to get into their professional schools and even harder to pass their licensing exams. That is, the high status professions do their quality control up front, during the selection process, not post hoc, after prospective professionals have entered the profession. Third, the standards for entering the profession and the exams used to implement the standards were developed by the profession itself, not by government or the professional schools. Fourth, this is a case in which the private interests of the professionals are quite compatible with the public interest. Higher standards for getting into these high status professions mean that fewer people can get into the profession. Higher standards mean better performance, which meets the interest of the public. But higher standards also means that fewer people are able to enter the profession, and fewer members curtails supply, which means higher compensation for those who get in. The professionals get higher compensation and the public gets higher student achievement. Everyone wins.

Teachers unions have not been winning much lately. Conservatives have painted them as public enemy number one and liberals have deserted them in droves. Both have seen the unions as protecting the lazy and incompetent at the expense of students and they are sick of it. Both have seen the unions as unwilling to make any distinction between brilliant teachers and duds in terms of compensation or career advancement. Both have seen the unions as putting the bread and butter interests of the teachers ahead of those of students at every turn. The result has been a tidal wave of over-the-top accountability measures designed to rid the schools of bad teachers and put their unions on the defensive.

Now we have a report from the American Federation of Teachers called Raising the Bar, which makes this union a champion, not of poor teachers seeking to hold on to their jobs, but of a process intended to produce great teachers admired for their skills and abilities. It makes this union a leading advocate for teacher quality, and does so on terms that make much more sense to me than the reforms advocated by many others on behalf of teacher quality.

The proposition is simple: To commission the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to create an analogue to the national bar examination, but this time for teachers. It would be set to very high standards. It would assess content knowledge, teaching skills and dispositions and aptitude for teaching. The exams would rely on both written and performance assessments. The whole process would be overseen by a panel broadly representatives of all the stakeholders with professional teachers in the lead. The products, the exams themselves, would not be imposed on any state, but would be available for voluntary state adoption, in much the same way that the national bar examinations are adopted by the states as the basis for admitting prospective attorneys to the bar in those states.

The AFT is not alone in advancing such a proposition. Less than a year ago, the National Education Association released a similar report on teacher quality titled Transforming Teaching. That report called for “national standards for the preparation, licensing and certification of educators.” More specifically, it advocated a system of state licensure based on a “single set of a rigorous, consistent…national standards.” That sounds a lot like a national bar examination to me.

These two reports represent an enormous opportunity for the nation. What Shulman and Sykes reported to us back in 1985 is still true. We will get quality teachers not by firing the worst but by recruiting, training and hiring the best.

Who better to lead the charge than the teachers and their unions? Shulman and Sykes told us in 1985 that the professional standards in all of the high status professions were set by the professionals themselves. In fact, when standards are developed by the professionals, it is one of the most important signs that the occupation is a profession.

Some of you will say that this is nothing more than public relations from an occupation that cannot be trusted to do the right thing, that the unions will continue to protect the lazy and incompetent at the expense of the students and their parents, that they will continue to insist that teacher compensation and advancement systems ignore the obvious differences in talent, competence and diligence among teachers, that they will, in short, continue to behave like the worst industrial unions, notwithstanding this apparent conversion to a teacher quality agenda.

I don’t think so. Younger teachers all over the country are trying to change their unions from the inside on behalf of an agenda that has all the earmarks of changing teaching from a blue-collar occupation to a true profession. But that will be nothing compared to the effect of bringing into teaching young people who have an opportunity to work at Google or Apple or similar firms and choose to work in schools instead. They will want to work in a truly professional environment where competence and achievement count for more than seniority, where distinctions in responsibility and authority among teachers are made and made on the basis of their demonstrated accomplishments in the classroom.

Neither our teachers nor their unions are responsible for poor teachers and poor teaching. The United States has for many years prized cheap teachers over good teachers. We treat our teachers as if they were interchangeable parts. Whenever there is a shortage of teachers, we respond by lowering our already intolerably low standards. We are constantly assigning teachers trained in one subject to classes in a subject about which they know little or nothing. We not only invest very little in teacher training, but we have for a very long time expected our schools of education to produce budget surpluses for use in other parts of the university that we evidently care more about. We offer our teachers much less in the way of compensation than people in the high status professions get. Neither the teachers nor their unions are responsible for any of this.

And there is the rub. The AFT and the NEA are absolutely right is saying that there is no single thing we can do to raise teacher quality that will be more effective than dramatically raising licensure standards. But that will mean that a very large fraction of the people who now apply to our teachers colleges will no longer do so, because they will know that they stand little chance of becoming teachers. They will not be replaced by higher quality candidates unless teaching becomes much more attractive to young people who could go into the high status professions.

Attracting the young people who could pass the new “bar exams” would require us, the public, to be willing to pay teachers more, invest in our teacher training institutions to make their quality comparable to that of the institutions that train our doctors and engineers, improve the quality of school leadership so that schools become attractive professional workplaces and offer teachers the kind of professional autonomy that high status professionals have.

The country can do this. We now train more than twice as many teachers as we need and we would need many fewer teachers than we now need if new teachers stayed in teaching as long as members of the high status professions stay in their jobs. If we trained only as many teachers as we needed, and those we trained remained in the teaching profession much longer because of improved pay and working conditions, we would need to train far fewer teachers every year. The savings would enable us to pay our teachers a lot more. It would cost no more to have high quality teachers than low quality teachers. But that is only true if we are prepared to shut down many of our teacher training institutions. The money to pay for teacher education does not come out of the same pockets as the money we pay our classroom teachers with. That, too, is a problem we have to solve. These things will be hard, but not impossible, to do.

Are policy makers at all the levels of our education system willing to make all these changes? If they are not, if high ability young people are not attracted to teaching in much higher numbers than they are now, then it will not help to institute what amounts to a national bar exam for teachers. The standards for that exam will be lowered until we get enough teachers to fill our classrooms at a price we are willing to pay.

The teachers have offered to accept responsibility for the quality of American teachers and they have offered a very credible plan for doing so. They are ready to lead the charge on teacher quality. Are we ready to play our part?