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Getting Teacher Professionalism Right: Notes for the Biden Administration

Years ago, Finland closed down its nearly 50 teacher preparation programs and opened eight new ones in its research universities. In one stroke, it had limited who would become teachers in Finland to those high school students who could gain admission to its research universities.  That one step guaranteed Finland’s future students that they would be taught by the Finns who had a deep understanding of the subjects they would be teaching.

You would think, as most American policy makers do, that raising the standards for becoming a teacher would reduce the supply of teachers. That isn’t what happened. First-rate students who would never before have considered going into teaching changed their minds when the standards went up. Eventually, it became harder to get into Finland’s education schools than its law schools and Finland wound up with many more highly educated students who wanted to become teachers then it could accommodate.   

There were other benefits of limiting access to teaching to research university graduates. The students found themselves in an environment in which it was natural to find out what the research said before tackling a problem, they learned how to distinguish good research from bad research and, perhaps best of all, gained enough knowledge about research methods to learn how to do good action research on their own teaching.

Respect for teachers, already high in Finland, went through the roof. When young people were asked whom they wanted to marry, the leading answer was a teacher. Everyone knows that the Finns trust their teachers and that trust and respect is one of the main reasons that top high school graduates want to be teachers. That trust does not come from nowhere. They know their stuff and everyone knows it.

Ok, you just said, you knew all that. But did you know that, when you look across the list of the countries whose students perform the best on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), most have followed Finland’s lead? It would not be unreasonable to suggest that limiting the right to offer a teacher preparation program to one or a handful of research universities is the threshold condition for any state or nation that aspires to world-class performance of its elementary and secondary school students.

If that is the threshold condition—the minimum requirement—then what would a country or state have to do to be even better, to set the global standard for teacher quality?

The next step is getting its teacher preparation program right. As I see it, that mostly involves doing five things well:

One is making sure that what is taught in the teacher preparation program is closely aligned with what the state expects the students to learn. At a minimum, this means preparing teachers to teach the national curriculum well for students from many different backgrounds. In the United States, it will typically mean preparing future teachers to teach students what they need to learn to reach state standards. This may sound obvious, but traditions of academic freedom often make it difficult or even impossible for states to take this obvious step.

Another is making sure that these future teachers have a thorough and deep understanding of the findings from cognitive science and neuroscience about how students learn. Very, very few U.S.-based teacher preparation programs do this. It is as if we were teaching our future doctors how to cure patients while omitting the relevant findings from biology and biochemistry about what science knows about how the body works, or preparing our future engineers while failing to make sure they understand what is known about the relevant physics.

Still another is apprenticing our future teachers to the masters of the craft of teaching. It is a craft, and, like any craft, is best learned under the close supervision and mentorship of someone who is very, very good at it. This is actually impossible in the United States, because we have no systematic way of designating master teachers. Most future teachers in the United States do some practice teaching, but they ordinarily do it with anyone the coordinator of that program can get to do it in a nearby district’s schools.

Fourth is doing whatever is necessary to make sure that our future teachers are expert diagnosticians and, having diagnosed a student’s challenges correctly, know how to find an effective practice to deal with that challenge. This, too, would seem to be an obvious requirement, just as obvious as making sure that our teachers understand the findings from neuroscience and cognitive science that underlie their practice, but, as in that case, is rarely done in the way or to the extent that is needed.  

Fifth is preparing teachers to function in schools that use modern forms of professional work organization, schools that are, in other words, organized the way the best professional service organizations are organized in high-status professions, such as law firms, engineering firms and architectural practices.

I’ll get to what I mean by “modern forms of professional work organization” in just a moment.

Let’s stop here for just a second. I said above that almost all the top-performing countries have restricted access to teaching to students who can get into one or a handful of their rigorous research universities. But that is not true of the list I just shared of best practices in schools of education. In my experience, there are very few university teacher preparation programs in those countries that do more than one or two of the things in the list I just shared.

You are most likely to find them in Shanghai and Singapore. That is not an accident. Several decades ago, Minxuan Zhang in Shanghai and Sing Kong Lee in Singapore made close studies of best practices and policies in organizing the work of professionals generally and then put what they learned to work for teachers.

In both cases, the work did not end with the development of state-of-the-art policies and practices for the sourcing of future teachers and their development in the universities where they were prepared. It continued with the development of very forward-looking policies and practices once their teachers went to work in the schools.

This is where “modern forms of professional work organization” comes into play. There are three main components.

First, teachers in all the top-performing countries spend much less time than teachers in the United States in front of students. They spend much more time working in teams. Some teams are organized to work in a very disciplined way on the development of curriculum units and instructional methods that are much more effective than those they have been using. Some are organized to focus on students—identifying students who seem to be falling behind, pooling their knowledge about that student to identify the problem, working out a strategy for dealing with that problem, assigning a team member to implement the strategy and then reconvening to see if it is working. In schools organized this way, teachers are in each other’s classrooms frequently, observing, learning, critiquing and sharing. 

But the time that is freed up is not all spent working in teams. A good deal of it is freed up to enable the teachers to work one on one or with a small group of students who need extra help, to give students the additional time and special attention they need to keep up with the other students. You may be wondering where the time comes from to do all these things. Generally, class sizes in the top-performing countries are larger than in the United States, there are fewer central office staff and fewer aides. All these trade-offs work in favor of higher student achievement.

Second, there is a real career for the teachers. In Singapore, classroom teachers can choose between three tracks in the progression. The Teaching Track goes through Senior Teacher, Lead Teacher and Master Teacher to Principal Master Teacher. The Leadership Track goes from classroom teacher all the way to the top of the whole system, Director General of Education.  And the third, the Senior Specialist Track, takes the teacher into specialties like curriculum, assessment and policy analysis. Teachers in the teaching track go up these ladders as they demonstrate more and more expertise in teaching, make more and better contributions to the work of the teams, show that they can lead the teams effectively and display strong skills as researchers. As teachers go up these ladders, they gain responsibility, authority, status and compensation. The combination of the teaming approach with the career ladder design provides strong incentives to teachers to get better and better at the work and, at the same time, to share their growing expertise with other teachers.

The third leg in this design for modern work organization is the Singaporean performance management system. In a nutshell, it calls for leaders to identify individuals who show great promise for advancement and carefully structure a scaffold of ever-more challenging opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge, providing, at each step, strong supports to enable them to succeed. It is a system for systematically growing an ever-stronger pool of candidates for the higher steps on the career ladders. The best modern professional service organizations have had systems like this for years, but very few school systems have adopted them.

This cluster of systems for promoting teacher quality in Singapore has enabled it to hit the ball out of the park on every Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measure of quality for teacher professional development, including teacher satisfaction with the training they get. They could rest on these laurels, but that is not what they are doing.  

Singapore is moving from off-site workshops to “job-embedded learning” that includes creating an environment in which all the participants engage with each other in critical inquiry about their work, moving from training that focuses on increasing the knowledge and skills of the individual to the kind of learning from one another that occurs naturally when they work together in teams and observe and critique each other’s work, moving from the kind of learning that occurs when a trainer delivers a workshop to the kind of learning that occurs when teachers work together on a problem facilitated by a talented teacher leader, moving from training that is limited to learning about theories developed by university researchers to learning that is also based also on research that the teachers are doing in the schools, moving from professional development that is mandated by school administrators to professional development that grows out of the work that teachers are doing and the problems they want to solve.

I sighed when I saw this. What is being described is the kind of professional development I do for myself every day. It has been years since I’ve been workshopped. But I am learning all the time, sometimes from a firehose, from my colleagues, my own research, the reading I do, the schools I visit. That’s what professionals do, all the time. The move from the isolated teacher in the isolated classroom to teamed schools in which everyone can assess everyone else’s performance as they learn from one another creates an environment in which everyone feels compelled to learn—from each other, from the literature, from a visit to another school or another country.

Singapore and Shanghai were among the very first to look outside education for first-rate models of professional development for professionals. They are still in the vanguard.

I very much hope that the Biden administration gives some thought to these issues. I have laid out here the whole trajectory of the development of high quality in the teacher workforce because the United States has a window —a small window—in which it can deal with these issues. There is not a single state in the United States that has a system remotely like what I have just described. We are way, way behind the leaders. Nothing is more important for high student performance than first-rate teachers. What I have just shared is a template for producing just that. Is anyone interested?