Monday, February 9, 2009

Teach the Teachers

In our continuing quest to improve education for all across the country, recent reform efforts have spent a lot of time blaming teachers. Think about how often you hear about unions killing education reform efforts or protecting bad teachers who shouldn't even be in the profession. My personal take is that while there is certainly room for improvement in the teaching corps, the way to reach it is not to conduct some sort of purge. Why don't we focus on making the teachers we have better?

Turns out that the U.S. isn't so good at that. In a report from Stanford University and the National Staff Development Council, effective professional development must be "sustained, focused on important content, and embedded in the work of collaborative professional learning teams that support ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice and student achievement." When that happens, professional learning can have a powerful effect on student learning. That makes sense to me. Who's really going to argue that better teachers would be, well, better teachers? Unfortunately, professional development in the U.S. is "episodic, often fragmented, and disconnected from real problems of practice."

Think about the rhetoric you're hearing. Everyone agrees that good teachers produce good student learning. That's a given. With that as a given, which makes more sense? Should we fire every teacher who isn't a great teacher and launch a massive recruitment drive to hire an entire cohort of new teachers who will magically be better and more successful (presumably because they're being paid more and don't have tenure)? Or should we focus data-driven professional development that will turn the teachers we have into better teachers? Consider that there are over 3 million teachers in this country.

When we try to improve student outcomes, we work with the students we have, provide them extra support, and push them to achieve their best. We don't just try to expel them from school. All I'm saying is that we should extend teachers the same courtesy.

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