Making the Commitment to Professionalizing Teaching

Where are the Democratic Education Reformers?

Diane Ravitch has a long track record of challenging the educational system to do its best. Conservative and liberal reformers of education receive equal scrutiny from her. Recently she tweeted about the shift of the democratic party away from promoting teachers and toward attacking teacher unions. Starting with Bill Clinton, the democrats joined the position of the republicans of wanting to develop competency testing for teachers.

Blame Arkansas Teachers

Diane Ravitch quotes Jennifer C. Berkshire’s “How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party.” to help us understand the shift away from supporting teachers:

To begin to chronicle the origin of the Democrats’ war on their own—the public school teachers and their unions that provide the troops and the dough in each new campaign cycle to elect the Democrats—is to enter murky territory. The Clintons were early adopters; tough talk against Arkansas’s teachers, then among the poorest paid in the country, was a centerpiece of Bill’s second stint as Governor of Arkansas. As Hillary biographer Carl Bernstein recounts, the Arkansas State Teachers Association became the villain that cemented the couple’s hold on the Governor’s mansion—the center of their Dick Morris-inspired “permanent campaign.” The civil rights language in which the Democratic anti-union brigade cloaks itself today was then nowhere to be heard, however. And little wonder: Civil rights groups fiercely opposed the most controversial feature of the Clintons’ reform agenda—competency tests for teachers—on the grounds that Black teachers, many of whom had attended financially starved Black colleges, would disproportionately bear their brunt (“How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party“).

Neoliberal Detour

By the early 1980s, there was already a word for turning public institutions upside down: neoliberalism. Before it degenerated into a flabby insult, neoliberal referred to a self-identified brand of Democrat, ready to break with the tired of dogmas of the past. “The solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties,” wrote Randall Rothenberg in his breathless 1984 paean to this new breed, whom he called simply The Neoliberals. His list of luminaries included the likes of Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Gary Hart and Al Gore (for the record, Gore eschewed the neoliberal label in favor of something he liked to call “neopopulism”). In Rothenberg’s telling, the ascendancy of the neoliberals represented an economic repositioning of the Democratic Party that had begun during the economic crises of the 1970s. The era of big, affirmative government demanding action—desegregate those schools, clean up those polluted rivers, enforce those civil rights and labor laws—was over. It was time for fresh neo-ideas. (“How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party“).

Why Didn’t We Invest in Teachers?

Actually, I would argue that the failure of the American Education system to keep up could be laid at the feet of the democratic party in general, but really at the feet of the neo-liberal school reformers in particular. Although school reformers have been quite vocal over the years, they were not able to fully convince the entire system to build the capacity to train teachers with all of the great ideas for teaching and learning that have been discovered over the last 100 years. And to be very precise, some of the teachers were well trained and some were not. Those teachers that have been well trained, well supported while they teach, and who continue to receive the best guidelines for what makes good teachers successful, have been leading our best schools. They are the reason that there are so many fine examples of good schools driven by good teachers. And this would help to explain why good teachers teach in classrooms right next to teachers who need more education. Uneven support for establishing and maintaining a profession of teachers is a very good explanation for the unevenness of our 15,000 school districts.

Schools, Districts, Countries

This conversation about supporting teachers can become nebulous when talking about teachers across schools, districts or even countries. How can these be compared? Internationally, those countries that recognize the centrality of teachers to the success of schools and their students are doing better. Their policies were changed primarily by summoning the political will to change their education systems to reflect the importance of teachers. The United States continues to try school reform strategies that change the structure of schools rather than finding the political will to fund and support educating teachers to be their best. We must make the commitment to professionalizing teaching.

We must make the commitment to professionalizing teaching.

The world is changing and so are its schools.  In recognition of the need to prepare students for an evolving and increasingly interconnected world, a growing number of countries have remodeled their education systems to deliver an education built for the 21st century, producing higher achievement and greater equity than the U.S.

How are they doing it?

Among the strategies these systems have pursued, none have been more important than the policies they have developed to ensure that high-quality teaching takes place in every classroom, in every school, for every child.

Empowered Educators is a landmark, international comparative study of teacher and teaching quality in the world’s top-performing education systems.

With the support of the Center on International Benchmarking at the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), one of the world’s preeminent education researchers, Linda Darling-Hammond launched the work from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) at Stanford University. Darling-Hammond, now leading the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) in Palo Alto, CA, drew together a global team of education researchers in the three-year study, producing unparalleled insights for U.S. educators, researchers and policymakers.

The researchers investigated seven jurisdictions across four continents.  Their findings reveal two principle answers to the central question of how other countries have surpassed the U.S. in preparing their students to compete in the 21st century global economy:

  • First, these countries have focused on building effective systems, opting not to chase silver bullets or short-term, narrow-focused solutions.
  • Second, these countries have held at the core of their work a commitment to professionalizing teaching as an occupation.

The centerpiece of the study, Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World from Jossey-Bass publishers, is a cross-cutting analysis of all seven systems.  Also from Jossey-Bass are five e-books offering deep dives into each jurisdiction studied.

For policymakers and researchers, CIEB and NCEE is proud to host a series of in-depth policy and country briefs as well as a rich online resource library featuring interviews with international education leaders and original tools and documents from the countries studied (NCEE website).

The United States could try school reform strategies that change the structure of teacher support. Democratic and Republican leaders should join each other in changing the conversation from conservative vs. liberal to support for building the capacity of teachers to articulate excellent teaching and learning strategies. Teacher recruitment, training and ongoing professional development needs funding just like the upgrade of new machinery needed to increase the quality of manufacturing. Our nation needs to support educating teachers to be their best so that our children will learn their best. We must make the commitment to professionalizing teaching.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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