Over the years, our organization, the Center on International Education Benchmarking at NCEE, has shown that the nations with the most effective schools have evolved, highly complex education systems composed of many integrated subsystems. Each subsystem is well designed, in the sense that all components are designed to support the others and all are aligned with the goals of the designers. In the same way, the subsystems are designed to complement and support one another. [This is, of course, an idealization of reality, because, in real life, there are politics and individuals and conflict and compromise.] Nonetheless, the degree to which countries are successful because of the unusually effective system design is striking. I say this because I am about to introduce what may appear as a discordant note, though I do not think that is the case.
The opposite of the effective system is the silver bullet solution. In this case, I want to call your attention to the way in which some of the most successful systems rely to a significant extent on a particular approach to teacher professional development to get their results. This is the silver bullet in question, a silver bullet I will describe in some detail in a moment. When I have described it, I will argue that this is not really a silver bullet at all, but rather a collection of highly integrated and very powerful systems. The professional development system is the performance management system is the accountability system is the modern system of school organization and management is the incentive system that motivates the school faculty to get better and better at its work. If ever there were a secret sauce, this must be it.
I will begin by describing this system as a strategy for teacher professional development and then, at the end, hold these other lenses up to the system I have described. The description is based on two reports just released by our Center on International Education Benchmarking. Ben Jensen’s report describes the common elements of teachers’ professional development in Shanghai, Singapore, British Columbia and Hong Kong as follows: 1) the development of teachers’ professional expertise is seen by the people who run those systems as the key to improving student performance; 2) much more of teachers’ time is devoted to it than in the United States; 3) school principals are held accountable for their contribution to teachers’ professional development, which is a key component of their performance evaluation; 4) teachers who are selected to lead professional development in their schools have senior status in the school and are compensated at higher levels for this responsibility; 5) professional development is not mainly done by sending teachers to workshops, but rather by engaging teachers in teams that work together to systematically improve every aspect of the school that bears on student performance; 6) that collaborative work is done in a very disciplined process of continuous improvement in which teachers work together to first research the literature on the problem they are addressing and then develop and implement interventions based on the research, and then use the data produced during implementation to improve the effectiveness of the intervention to the desired point.
Jensen pointed out that two of the four jurisdictions he researched—Singapore and Shanghai—have further developed this model of professional development by creating multistep career ladders for teachers. Minxuan Zhang’s report describes the Shanghai model in detail. In that model, teachers face students only ten hours a week. The rest of their time is spent improving the operation of the school. Teachers work in three types of teams, one organized by grade, another by subject and the third by research topic. As teachers progress up the lower steps of the ladder, the most important criterion for advancement is their growing expertise as a teacher, but later, as they progress to the middle and upper steps, their expertise in mentoring other teachers, in leading them and in conducting research becomes more important. Professor Zhang pointed out that the research criterion for advancement is not about whether the teacher has made an original contribution to the research literature, but rather the degree to which the teacher is able to use research in a disciplined and effective way to improve the instructional program of the school.
Professional development in this model is not so much what happens when teachers sit in workshops, as it is the process of learning that takes place in an environment in which the school is organized so that continuous learning is built into the very fabric of the teachers’ work itself.
Some of the features of the Shanghai model have been used in Shanghai, Singapore, Japan and other Asian systems for a long time. But the centerpiece of their model, the career ladder system, has not. Very early in Professor Zhang’s career as a teacher, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chairman Deng Xiaoping developed an exchange program and Zhang was chosen as a participant. While in England, he noticed that in the British higher education system instructors started out as teaching assistants and then rose through the ranks to become assistant professors, associate professors, full professors, chair professors and so on, only gaining tenure after demonstrating a very high level of expertise. The American system of viewing all schoolteachers as having the same expertise and commanding the same responsibilities and compensation struck him as more Communist than capitalist. He brought the career ladder system he had seen in British higher education back to China, from which it then emigrated to Singapore.
There was a bit more to it than that. Professor Zhang said that the creation of the career ladder was seen in part as a way, despite Shanghai’s lack of money, to convey the view that teaching is a profession and not a blue-collar occupation, to make teaching attractive to talented young high school students choosing a career.
Mao Zedong had shut down the whole Chinese education system for ten years during the Cultural Revolution, so that, after he died and the Gang of Four was gone, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission had to rebuild the whole system from scratch, with hardly any money at all. They had decided to put the small amount of resources available for the initial training of teachers into making sure that their prospective teachers had a thorough mastery of the subjects they were going to teach. Their strategy for making sure their new teachers mastered the craft of teaching those subjects was very different. That would be done in the schools, after the new teachers had graduated from teachers college, by apprenticing the new teachers to master teachers in the schools. This would not have worked, of course, without the career ladder design, because it was the career ladder design that enabled them to identify the master teachers and to carve out the role of mentor of new teachers. Because they relied on the master teachers in the schools to teach the new teachers how to teach, the master teachers were and are still expected to spend much more time in this role than is common for mentors in the United States to spend on this task.
This system has other consequences that strike me as very important. The new teachers have only a provisional license to teach when they first join a school staff, and the master teacher responsible for teaching them their craft plays a very important role in determining whether they will get to the next step on the career ladder. The Shanghai system recently added a new step to the top of their career ladder, the title of Professor Teacher. This title, given to only a few teachers at the pinnacle of the system, gives the person who holds it the same rank as a professor in a research university. Their reasoning is straightforward. One can only achieve this rank if one has demonstrated outstanding skill in teaching, training teachers and doing research. These are the very skills one has to demonstrate to achieve the rank of professor in the university. Why not give schoolteachers access to this rank if they have demonstrated the same expertise? This development struck me as epitomizing the Shanghai attitude toward teacher professionalism.
Indeed, it is this consistent effort to fully professionalize the occupation of school teaching that underlies everything I have described here. Fully developed career ladders convert teaching from an occupation with many characteristics of a blue-collar occupation into one offering a real career, of the sort one finds in all high status professions. Offering teachers an opportunity to work in teams in a highly disciplined way to systematically improve the school performance involves the same kind of profound shift from a blue-collar environment in which the presumption is that improvement will be driven by school administrators and university researchers to one in which the professionals leading the process of innovation and improvement are the teachers themselves, who have finally been given the authority, the training, the time and the access to information they need to do it. The idea of teacher as researcher, not just the consumer of someone else’s research, drives this whole point home.
Ever since the first results came out from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995, the first administration of what is now known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), the world has noticed that the world’s league tables of student achievement have been led by Asian nations. In the West, the word is that this is largely a result of the ancient Confucian devotion to education combined with the Confucian veneration for their teachers. It is soothing to think that this is so, because this cultural explanation for Asian school success absolves Westerners of any responsibility for finding ways to match the Asian achievement.
But I think this explanation is just plain wrong. The Asians are perfectly willing to ditch aspects of their culture that they think no longer work for them. And they are no less willing to adopt aspects of Western culture that they think will work better than what they are doing. The Cultural Revolution was an apocalyptic effort by Mao Zedong to wipe out those features of Confucian veneration of the old ways of doing things that Mao thought were barring Chinese economic and political progress. Professor Zhang as I said, brought the core idea on which the new system of professional development was built back to China from England when he was a young man. Yes, elements of the old Chinese system were judiciously mixed in with the new ones to create something better than anything that had gone before, but the mainspring of the new system was not some Confucian cultural artifact that is simply not available to the West.
The result was a new professional development system for teachers. It could just as easily be described as a new system of school organization and management. Or as a new system for school accountability. Or as a new system for performance management. It is all these things, woven together in a way that provides very powerful incentives for school faculty to get better and better and better at their work. That is the essence of it, the real driver for improvement of student performance.