Who Gets to Write the History of Teacher Quality?

Cross-posted from Education Week

“History,” said Winston Churchill, “will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”  That’s the kind of history that Andy Rotherham and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel have just written of the events leading up to the current focus on teacher quality in their report, Genuine Progress, Greater Challenges: A Decade of Teacher Effectiveness Reforms.  Notwithstanding Rotherham and Mitchel’s acknowledgement of the challenges ahead, their account reminds me of another Churchill admonition to the effect that history will be written by the victors.

By this report’s account, “Until recently,…Policy efforts to increase teacher quality emphasized…increased regulation, additional credentials, or a profession modeled after medicine and law.  Even as research emerged showing how the quality of each classroom teacher was crucial to student achievement…School systems treated one teacher much like any other, as long as they had the right credentials….”  Then, beginning in the late 90s, everything changed.  The result is “noteworthy progress…”  How has this progress revealed itself?  “Between 2009 and 2013, the number of states that require annual evaluations for all teachers increased from 15 to 28.  The number of states that require teacher evaluations to include objective measures of student achievement nearly tripled, from 15 to 41; and the number of states that require student growth to be the preponderant criteria increased five-fold, from 4 to 20.”

It is incontestably true that this view of teacher quality and how to get it is in the ascendancy.  A certain measure of triumphalism is to be expected from a group of researchers and advocates who have had unusual success at getting their ideas translated into national policy.  But we should bear in mind that there is no evidence that success in getting these policies implemented will lead to improvements in student performance.  Regular readers of this column know that I am deeply skeptical on this point, and will probably be relieved to learn that I do not intend to rehearse the reasons for that skepticism here.

What I do want to do here is call the reader’s attention to some other aspects of their essay.

First, like Churchill, the authors presented a narrative that cast themselves and others who share their policy agenda as the heroes and heroines of the tale.  They cast their adversaries as advocates of increased regulation, additional credentials or, God forbid, “a profession modeled after medicine and law.”  These things are clearly bad and to be disparaged.

I am, of course, one of those adversaries.  Back in 1986, when my team and I were at Carnegie Corporation of New York, we released a report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century in which we said that the nation was not likely to produce the needed changes in student performance unless the entire system was transformed from one based on a blue-collar conception of teaching to one based on a conception of teaching as a high status profession.  The call for a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was only one element in that design.  In that same year, the Holmes Group made its report, calling for all teachers to have a master’s degree and for much more rigorous preparation programs for teachers, which would include the development of schools organized to perform the same function in the education of teachers that teaching hospitals play in the education of medical doctors.  If I were writing the narrative history, that is where I would start.  And I would note that the Holmes Group report’s authors included many of deans of the leading graduate schools of education and the Carnegie report included among its contributors some very notable members of the education policy community at the national, state and local levels, including the heads of both national teachers’ unions.

Both the Holmes Group report and the work of the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession got a lot of national attention for the teacher quality agenda derided by Rotherham and Mitchel.  Later, an agenda built on very similar values and strategies was offered by Linda Darling-Hammond and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.  More recently, that agenda was cast in national policy terms by Pasi Sahlberg in Finnish Lessons, by Vivien Stewart in A World-Class Education and in Surpassing Shanghai, a volume I edited.  This is hardly an exclusive list.  Indeed, the line from the Holmes Group report and the Carnegie report to the present has been wide enough to accommodate many voices.

It is very important to observe the contrast in the visions of success offered by these two very different narratives.  The narrative offered by Rotherham and Mitchel, as we have seen, offers as its measure of success the implementation of systems of teacher evaluation.  The image of success offered by the group of which I am a part is of an occupation transformed from a blue-collar occupation into a true high-status profession, an occupation that has made the journey from policy based on furnishing the schools with a steady supply of low-cost teachers to an occupation staffed by highly educated college graduates trained in first-class professional schools.  This is no minor difference.

The other thing that struck me is the politics of the issues under discussion here.  Rotherham and Mitchel tell us that their definition of teacher quality is the product of a close working relationship between people whose professional home base was far to the right on the political spectrum with others far to the left.

That, I think, is not quite accurate.  The Clinton administration brought what the British called “Third Way” preferences into a Democratic White House which was elected on a platform that had moved to the center.  Rotherham and the Public Policy Institute abandoned traditional Democratic policy positions to embrace values and strategies that made their positions on education issues virtually identical with a very influential branch of the Republican commentariat.  The press, of course, noticed, and one of the consequences was that what this new cross-party coalition called “education reform” was accepted by the press as education reform.  Those opposed are painted as resisting reform. It is hardly clear how this will end, but it is very clear that the narrative of reform put forward by the paper is not the only available narrative.