Tucker’s Lens: Research on Teacher Education—Around the World

Teacher ed around the worldBy Marc Tucker

I just finished reading a recent book from Routledge, Teacher Education Around the World, edited by Linda Darling-Hammond and Ann Lieberman.  It is a very rewarding read, full of new information and fresh, insightful analysis.  The editors asked an impressive team of researchers to do chapters on Finland, Singapore, the Netherlands, the UK, Hong Kong and Canada.  Darling-Hammond did the chapter on the United States and the two editors pulled the threads together in the last chapter.

Two things jump out at this reviewer.  The first has to do with the scope of the changes taking place around the world as nation after nation concludes that better teachers are the key to their goals for their students.  The other has to do with the nature of the battle for the souls of policymakers over the best strategy to do that and the way policymakers are responding to the contending forces.  I’ll tackle the latter first and then return to the former.

As Darling-Hammond and Lieberman see it, the policy battle taking place around the globe is being fought between those who believe that the effort to professionalize education has failed and those who believe that that effort has only just begun, that student performance will improve radically only if teaching is converted from a blue-collar occupation into a true profession.  More accurately, perhaps, this battle pits those who believe that teaching can and must have all the attributes of a true profession against those who think it neither can nor should do so.

In a way, this is a battle about who is entitled to wear the badge of the reformer.  Through one lens, reform is converting teaching from an occupation requiring little technical knowledge and expertise into a true profession requiring a good deal of both, and, on the other reform is battling an entrenched education bureaucracy with all the tools that market forces and the entrepreneurial spirit can bring to the revitalization of moribund industries.

To some extent, of course, this battle involves the facts.  The first question here is whether those who want to turn teaching into a true profession are making any progress.  Darling-Hammond, Lieberman and their coauthors paint a detailed picture of changes taking place along a broad front within the professional education community over the last 20 years or so, all designed to raise the quality of the pool of young people from whom new teachers are selected, improve their mastery of the subjects they will teach, help them better understand the way young people grow and develop, learn their craft, and practice that craft under the supervision of first rate teachers until they either become first rate teachers themselves or leave teaching.

All of this makes sense, of course, only if one believes that there is a substantial body of professional knowledge and practice that must be mastered if a raw recruit is to become a good teacher, above and beyond the knowledge of the subject one is going to teach.  If you believe that, then reformers are the people who put in place all the elements needed to turn teaching into a true profession.

One of the most important hallmarks of a true profession is the presence of sound professional standards, so I was particularly interested in the way the authors show how new standards—for entering teacher education institutions, for accrediting teacher education institutions, for licensing teachers, for determining who advances up the newly created career ladders and for awarding certification to advanced professionals—are providing powerful drivers for the whole new system of development of high quality teachers in a growing number of countries.  They point out that, whereas teachers used to advance through their own education and training and sometimes through their subsequent careers on the basis of courses taken, they now advance on the basis of careful, sophisticated assessments of their actual performance, such as those recently developed at Stanford University.

teacher_in_classroomThe book shows how the most advanced countries have worked hard to identify and use the best research on the factors that make for great teachers, much of it done in the United States, but also to provide teachers with important research skills, enabling them to constantly improve their own practice in a disciplined way.  They show how a new breed of school is developing around the world that serves as an analogue to the teaching hospital in medicine.  The best of these institutions is clearly changing the university at least as much as the school, resulting in a constant dialogue between clinical faculty and research faculty in which both together create the curriculum for the education and training of new teachers and find a way to blend theory and practice in a way the makes the former come alive and that provides insight into the latter in a much more powerful program of instruction than was previously available at these institutions.

The picture one gets from this book of the broad upgrading of the selection, preparation and support of new teachers is nothing if not varied.  The details of how these countries are going about this transformation are very different, and there is no doubt that that fact will enable us all to learn a lot from the variation.  But the themes are clear.  Teaching is increasingly viewed as a profession like other professions.  That means that:

  • there is an important body of professional knowledge and practice to be acquired over a period of years,
  • so much discretion is required in its application that the trained professional must be trusted to apply that knowledge with wide discretion in the workplace,
  • the work needs to be regulated, but the regulations need to be based on professional standards and those standards must come from the profession itself, and
  • the advancement of practice will come only with more and better research, the results of which are incorporated into the training of the professionals and the support provided to the professionals as they constantly seek to improve their practice.

From the point of view of the authors of this volume, that is what it means to be a professional, and turning teachers into true professionals is the only way to create mass education systems capable of educating virtually all students to global standards.

And then there is the other camp.  They see all this as a thinly veiled attempt by a failed bureaucratic establishment to hang on to the old ways.  If teacher educators knew how to or even wanted to improve their appalling performance, they would have done it years ago.  No self-respecting high school student who could get into a first-rate university would choose to go to a school of education, which will let anyone in and provides a program with standards so low that no one ever fails.  This camp is very fond of pointing to actual examples of very highly qualified research scientists willing to become high school teachers in their retirement, but who cannot do so because they do not wish to take the intellectually vacuous courses and mindless tests required by the teacher training institutions and the state to become a teacher.

To the people in this camp, it is obvious that there is no craft of teaching that rises to the level of serious intellectual activity.  What is needed are young people and older people who can demonstrate that they know the subject they are expected to teach and the rest will take care of itself.  The way to get the teachers we need is to break the hammer lock of the establishment on teacher training, and open the training of teachers to anyone or any institution prepared to let the market decide whether their product is worth hiring.  The market, in other words, can bring in strong competition for the established institutions and do what markets do best: drive costs down and quality up.  The people in this camp celebrate Teach for America and its relatives in several other countries, because they have succeeded in bringing some of America’s most capable young people into teaching—if only for a couple of years and in very few classrooms—by requiring only a few weeks of teacher training.  All over the world, the people who hold this view are championing policies that allow many kinds of institutions to train teachers, and reduce the training that new recruits get in the craft of teaching and in the research on student learning to a minimum.  It is, I think, not unreasonable to conclude that the people in this camp do not believe that there is, properly speaking, a profession of teaching, but rather that teaching is an occupation or a calling, but not a profession.

teacher and studetnsWhat is particularly interesting about this clash as portrayed in this book is the way this conflict is playing out country by country.  The authors present both Singapore and Finland as wholly in the first camp, with policies that are internally consistent, all of which reflect a commitment to the idea that teaching is and ought to be a profession, for which people are selected as professionals, trained as professionals, supported as professionals and managed as professionals.

But the authors show that, after that, the picture on the ground is much more mixed.  If one end of the dimension line is represented by Finland and Singapore, the other is represented by the United States and the UK.  In between, they show us countries in which both sides of the conflict have won their policy battles.  In those countries, we see a real effort to put in place policy measures intended to build a true profession of teaching right alongside others that make it possible for individuals to minimize or even eliminate the training required to become a licensed teacher, the standards for which are being raised in other statutes on the books of the same country.

One gets the sense that the world is in a race.  On one side are those hoping to strengthen the profession of teaching and, on the other, are those who are seeking to blow up the very institutional structure the former are trying to build.  If those who are trying to professionalize teaching succeed fast enough, they will invalidate the case being made by those who are trying to blow up the establishment.  Because education is an inherently conservative enterprise, they may get the time they need. But, if they take too long to reach their objective, or their methods are sufficiently weakened by the other side along the way, they will lose and those who believe that market forces are all, or almost all, of what is needed may prevail.  And then it will be most interesting to see which countries are most successful in educating their children.