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Cross-posted at Education Week

This is the third and last round in my interview of Gene Wilhoit, the former Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who led the effort to create the Common Core. My series on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards comes to an end with this blog.

Marc Tucker: The best professional development I have seen is in Shanghai, where teachers work together, without facing students, for a substantial part of every day.  They have well-developed career ladders, and the teachers near the top of the ladder lead work teams composed of teachers further down the career ladder to improve instruction in the school and to address a myriad of challenges the school faces.  In Shanghai schools, professional development is not a matter of “workshopping” teachers, but of organizing schools so teachers are the drivers of improvement, and they are learning all the time.  They have to do that in order to meet the expectations of their fellow teachers.

Gene Wilhoit: First, this issue of how we expect teachers to use their time is one of the most important differences between our system and the systems in the top-performing countries.  When I first started visiting schools in the top-performing countries, one of the first things I noticed was that those countries understand that sustained conversations among teachers are critical to the improvement of student learning.  Something has to give to accommodate that.  For example, districts in the United States decided to make reduction of the ratio of students to teachers a very high priority.  We do not have unlimited resources, so conversations about what we compromise to capture precious time will be very hard, but it is very important to do so.

Beyond the issue of time, like you, I noticed how other countries identify the best in the profession and give them leadership responsibilities and the opportunity to mentor new and underperforming teachers.  They find time for faculty to operate as a team.  It’s regrettable we have institutionalized professional development days as the means for growth.  We must make more time available for teachers to work with each other in teams.  I can see a model in which every professional in a school is a member of one or more teams, each of which is working to improve some aspect of the school program, whether that is a particular lesson or the way the school handles student disciplinary problems.  Teachers interact with each other daily and are in each other’s classrooms all the time, critiquing and learning from their colleagues.  The teachers would be linked to the best teachers and researchers in the country, using those connections to constantly improve their own practice.  When I go into a hospital for an important procedure, the whole process is recorded, and, when appropriate, shared across the medical community.  The medical community is constantly learning from one another.  I can see this happening in American schools.  We need to have the capacity to share problems and solutions.  This is a completely different model than the one we now have for professional development in the United States.

MT: Let’s go back to the issue of the nature of the pool from which we recruit our teachers and the way they are trained.  Top performers recruit from the top one-third to the top five percent of their college-going high school graduates.   We recruit from the bottom half.  Not only is the quality of our pool low, but it is also true that the criteria for graduating from these institutions and entering the teaching work force are very weak. How important is this issue?

GW: The evidence is overwhelming that strong academic background, along with high verbal capacity and broad and deep content knowledge are essential to good teaching.  We must recruit high quality people into the profession.  But we’ve dug ourselves into a much deeper hole on this issue than we realize.  It will not be easily addressed.  We will have to make a career in teaching much more appealing to capable high school graduates and we will also need to make the prospect of attending a teacher education institution much more appealing.  Neither will be easy.  Making a career in teaching more attractive will certainly involve improving teacher compensation.  But capable high school students will need to see that teachers are treated as real professionals, too.  That will require us, among other things, to use aggressive career ladders to create a rewarding career, and, as we were saying to each other a moment ago, to create opportunities to work collaboratively with other professionals in their school and beyond.  Young people making career choices will need to have confidence that the leaders in the schools have a handle on curriculum, instruction, and the skills to manage a cadre of professionals.  That implies a real focus on leadership in our schools and more latitude in decision making for professionals.  These are not challenges that can be addressed with silver bullets.  We will have to tackle all these simultaneously to rebuild the profession.  We have allowed the status of teachers and teaching to degrade over the years.  We have accepted an inferior product from our schools of education and accepted lower standards in our professional workforce.  Capable young people aren’t excited about entering a profession where they see little opportunity to advance and be rewarded.  Yet, there are outstanding professionals in US schools.  We can identify them, put them into leadership positions, and restructure our schools.  It is not the fault of the teachers that we are where we are.  Society has done this.  We know the importance of teachers.  But we have not yet acted on our knowledge.

MT: Recruiting our most capable into teaching was one issue you identified.  Talk a bit about the teacher education institutions and their programs.  In Finland they have nine teacher education institutions and they are in research universities.  In North Carolina there are 49 and few of our teachers are taught in our best universities.  What do we have to do to reinvent our teacher education institutions?

GW: The states have a major role here.  Programs exist, both strong and weak, because we have allowed them.  States need to make much more aggressive use of their authority to approve the preparation programs of the teacher education institutions.  We should not allow any program to exist without a high quality design, and good outcomes.  The criteria for admission to and exit from teacher education programs must be high.  Third, when we have a teacher shortage, we simply lower the standards for hiring teachers.  We need very high standards for entry into the profession.  Those standards need to be based not on a paper and pencil test alone, but on a demonstration of high teaching competence.  Until we make these tough decisions, we will continue to have a proliferation of programs with limited capacity.

MT: You’ve covered the whole territory.  We see the world in very much the same way–to really implement the common core in the spirit in which it was designed requires a transformation of the whole system.

GW: Yes it does.  I sometimes feel people put too much weight on the Common Core.  Standards by themselves will have no effect if not translated into strong instructional design, professional development, and support for the profession, all things that this country has not yet had the will to do.

MT: Most of the countries with the best student performance committed to wrenching changes in their education systems because they saw that the dynamics of global competition have changed, and they would face a bleak economic future if they didn’t produce a globally competitive workforce.  It is unclear to me if we are in that place.  Our relative economic success, based on a workforce schooled twenty or thirty years ago, is making it much harder for Americans to understand that there could be a crisis waiting if we don’t transform our education system.

GW: I still hear people say the great recession was just an adjustment.  The reality is they are not seeing the big shifts that are right at our doorstep.  This is characteristic of a country which has been very successful for a very long time.  Most people don’t understand what is likely to happen if we fail to transform our education system.