Calling for more change, really? 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling for a change in how perspective Teachers are taught in our nation’s schools of education.  I am a big fan of change and think it is great that the Secretary is addressing one of the foundations of the American Education System.  Not having gone through one of these schools of education myself however leaves me perhaps missing the point.  Any change in these institutions is not going to have a real effect for several years to come and it will do nothing to address the plight of the current generation of teachers now serving in the nation’s classrooms not to mention their students.

So let me jump outside the box and offer a more radical prescription for change.  I think everyone agrees that while there are a myriad of factors that can affect student learning, teachers have the potential to have the most impact.  I also know that Duncan is pushing for pay for performance as a means to possibly motivate good teachers and move out “bad” ones.  Watch Dan Pink’s TED talk about the Science of Motivation and tell me you still think pay for performance is a good idea for the 21st Century.

I don’t think pay is the issue but it makes for good politics.  So how then do you get all teachers to do better?  I think the answer is simple and yes, it will cost money.  What good teachers need is more time to prepare and collaborate with one another.  What struggling teachers need is more help and support (basically more time).  In a world where 50 minutes out of 450 is spent on “prep” and you are lucky to get 5 days of professional development a year, how can anyone be expected to keep their head above water, let alone master their profession and impact students without being an extraordinary person.  I think we’ve built failure into the system at a fundamental level.

If it takes extraordinary effort to be a great teacher, how can one realistically expect every teacher to be great.  We can’t all be Teacher’s of the Year.  So changing the schools of education won’t make every graduate a great teacher (not that they shouldn’t change for other reasons but lets stay focused here).  I think one of Secretary Duncan’s other ideas, the longer school day/year, does have merit.  Extending the school day and year could address several issues if done right.  Dedicating some of that additional school time for teachers to develop their skills and adjust their instructional strategies and curriculum would help all teachers (and students); both the great and the mediocre.  More time for collaboration would also allow for implementing innovations like Danny Silva’s idea for 20% time in class which are now next to impossible given the lack of planning time in today’s system.  More hours at school would also have the added benefit of addressing pay, because no one should expect teachers to work additional days for free even though to be successful in the current system you absolutely have to.

But how does extending the school day/year address the problem of the teacher that just won’t put in the effort?  I think just the additional work time would weed out a subset of teachers.  Add to that the requirement of continuous professional and course/curriculum development (a metric less subjective than observation) and you’ll start to see the bulk of the coasters and survivors drop away.  The institution of school has provided cover for under performing teachers (and administrators to be perfectly honest) because it does not promote (as a general rule) the development of teachers as professionals.  It is easier to hide away in a classroom for years teaching the same thing the same way than it is to improve, grow and change.  And everyone knows most of us are predisposed to take the easy route.

As a second year VocEd teacher that came to the profession in a round about way, I can honestly say that teaching is the hardest job I’ve ever had.  And by hard I mean it tests me in new ways every day.  It forces me to think, to be creative and to challenge my preconceived notions on a daily basis.  I don’t know if this is sustainable in the long run, but I sure hope it is.  What I am proposing is a change so radical it calls for taking away the easy option and treating teachers like the professionals they should be.  If we are trying to build an education system for the next century, which I believe we should be doing, according to Dan Pink, the focus should be on empowering teachers through autonomy, mastery and purpose.  In that kind of environment, mediocrity and apathy cannot survive.  Pay has nothing to do with it.