Making Teaching and Teacher Education Respected Professions

I had an interesting conversation at the recent AERA meetings with the editor of my Pearson educational psychology text, Kevin Davis. He posed a question to me: “How can we convince school leaders, politicians, and the public that schools of education provide something of value to future teachers?”

I’ve thought a lot about this question, and about an even broader question: How can we increase respect for the teaching profession itself? These two questions are closely linked, of course, because if teachers were respected, the schools that produce them would be respected, and vice versa.

My answer, you may not be surprised to hear, drew from the history of medicine. Long ago, doctors were little respected because few of their treatments actually worked. My own grandfather, an immigrant from Argentina, believed that doctors had nothing to offer, and he refused to go to a doctor or hospital unless absolutely necessary. “Hospitals are where you go to die,” he always said (Note: he was healthy into his nineties and died at 96. In a hospital.).

However, physicians gained in status as their profession gained in proven treatments. In the 19th century, doctors could set bones, help in childbirth, administer smallpox vaccines, and prescribe various treatments that were mostly useless. However, in the 20th century, there was progress in what doctors could do. In mid-century, discovery of sulfa drugs, penicillin, a polio vaccine, and many other advances truly made medicine, physicians, and schools of medicine respected. Since 1962, when federal laws began to require randomized experiments for medications, the pace of discovery and application of effective treatments has exploded, and as physicians can reliably treat more and more diseases, respect for them and the schools that produce them has grown apace.

In education, this is how our profession and our schools of education will grow in status. As in medicine, this change will not happen all at once or overall, but it will happen as schools and teachers increasingly embrace and apply proven approaches.

Imagine, for example, that primary teachers were universally trained to use programs capable of ensuring reading success for their children. That secondary math teachers could ensure an understanding of algebra for every student. That science teachers could make American schools competitive with those in East Asia. Each of these accomplishments would be hugely beneficial for students, of course. But think what it would do for our profession. Picture this. A first grade teacher walks into a party. The room falls quiet. Parents meekly approach her to ask how they can help, or supplement her efforts with their children. Others are impressed by the school of education she attended. She gets this respect because everyone knows that she can teach every child who enters her class to read, no matter what. She has proven skills and knowledge that the world at large does not possess.

That’s how our profession must earn its respect. When every teacher has knowledge and skills that are proven effective and learned in schools of education, we’ll be respected. And we’ll deserve it.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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Implementing Proven Programs

There is an old joke that goes like this. A door-to-door salesman is showing a housewife the latest, fanciest, most technologically advanced vacuum cleaner. “Ma’am,” says the salesman, “this machine will do half your work!”

“Great!” says the housewife. “I’ll take two!”

All too often, when school leaders decide to adopt proven programs, they act like the foolish housewife. The program is going to take care of everything, they think. Or if it doesn’t, it’s the program’s fault, not theirs.

I wish I could tell you that you could just pick a program from our Evidence for ESSA site (launching on February 28! Next week!), wind it up, and let it teach all your kids, sort of the way a Roomba is supposed to clean your carpets. But I can’t.

Clearly, any program, no matter how good the evidence behind it is, has to be implemented with the buy-in and participation of all involved, planning, thoughtfulness, coordination, adequate professional development, interim assessment and data-based adjustments, and final assessment of program outcomes. In reality, implementing proven programs is difficult, but so is implementing ordinary unproven programs. All teachers and administrators go home every day dead tired, no matter what programs they use. The advantage of proven programs is that they hold out promise that this time, teachers’ and administrators’ efforts will pay off. Also, almost all effective programs provide extensive, high-quality professional development, and most teachers and administrators are energized and enthusiastic about engaging professional development. Finally, whole-school innovations, done right, engage the whole staff in common activities, exchanging ideas, strategies, successes, challenges, and insights.

So how can schools implement proven programs with the greatest possible chance of success? Here are a few pointers (from 43 years of experience!).

Get Buy-In. No one likes to be forced to do anything and no one puts in their best effort or imagination for an activity they did not choose.

When introducing a proven program to a school staff, have someone from the program provider’s staff come to explain it to the staff, and then get staff members to vote by secret ballot. Require an 80% majority.

This does several things. First, it ensures that the school staff is on board, willing to give the program their best shot. Second, it effectively silences the small minority in every school that opposes everything. After the first year, additional schools that did not select the program in the first round should be given another opportunity, but by then they will have seen how well the program works in neighboring schools.

Plan, Plan, Plan. Did you ever see the Far Side cartoon in which there is a random pile of horses and cowboys and a sheriff says, “You don’t just throw a posse together, dadgummit!” (or something like that). School staffs should work with program providers to carefully plan every step of program introduction. The planning should focus on how the program needs to be adapted to the specific requirements of this particular school or district, and make best use of human, physical, technological, and financial resources.

Professional Development. Perhaps the most common mistake in implementing proven programs is providing too little on-site, up-front training, and too little on-site, ongoing coaching. Professional development is expensive, especially if travel is involved, and users of proven programs often try to minimize costs by doing less professional development, or doing all or most of it electronically, or using “trainer-of-trainer” models (in which someone from the school or district learns the model and then teaches it to colleagues).

Here’s a dark secret. Developers of proven programs almost never use any of these training models in their own research. Quite the contrary, they are likely to have top-quality coaches swarming all over schools, visiting classes and ensuring high-quality implementation any way they can. Yet when it comes time for dissemination, they keep costs down by providing much, much less than what was needed (which is why they provided it in their studies). This is such a common problem that Evidence for ESSA excludes programs that used a lot of professional development in their research, but today just send an online manual, for example. Evidence for ESSA tries to describe dissemination requirements in terms of what was done in the research, not what is currently offered.

Coaching. Coaching means having experts visit teachers’ classes and give them individual or schoolwide feedback on their quality of implementation.

Coaching is essential because it helps teachers know whether they are on track to full implementation, and enables the project to provide individualized, actionable feedback. If you question the need for feedback, consider how you could learn to play tennis or golf, play the French horn, or act in Shakespearean plays, if no one ever saw you do it and gave you useful and targeted feedback and suggestions for improvement. Yet teaching is much, much more difficult.

Sure, coaching is expensive. But poor implementation squanders not only the cost of the program, but also teachers’ enthusiasm and belief that things can be better.

Feedback. Coaches, building facilitators, or local experts should have opportunities to give regular feedback to schools using proven programs, on implementation as well as outcomes. This feedback should be focused on solving problems together, not on blaming or shaming, but it is essential in keeping schools on track toward goals. At the end of each quarter or at least annually, school staffs need an opportunity to consider how they are doing with a proven program and how they are going to make it better.

Proven programs plus thoughtful, thorough implementation are the most powerful tool we have to make a major difference in student achievement across whole schools and districts. They build on the strengths of schools and teachers, and create a lasting sense of efficacy. A team of teachers and administrators that has organized itself around a proven program, implemented it with pride and creativity, and saw enhanced outcomes, is a force to be reckoned with. A force for good.

Remembering Al Shanker: Teachers and Professionalism

Back in the day, I knew Al Shanker, the founder of the American Federation of Teachers. No one has ever been more of an advocate for teachers’ rights – or for their professionalism. At the same time, no one was more of an advocate for evidence as a basis for teaching. He saw no conflict between evidence-based teaching and professionalism. In fact, he saw them as complementary. He argued that in fields in which professionals possess unique knowledge and skills, backed up by research, those professionals are well respected, well compensated, and play a leading role in the institutions in which they work.

If teachers want to be taken seriously, they must be seen to be using methods, technologies, and materials that not just anyone knows how to use, and that are known to be effective. Think physicians, engineers, and lawyers. Their positions in society depend on their possession of specialized and proven knowledge and skills.

Yet when I speak about evidence-based reform, I often get questions from teachers about whether using evidence-proven programs will take away their professionalism, creativity, or independence. I am sympathetic to this question, because I am aware that teachers have had to put up with quite a lot in recent years. Teaching is increasingly being seen by government and the public as something anyone can do.

But how can the teaching profession turn this around? I think Al Shanker had the right answer. If teachers (and teacher educators) can honestly present themselves to the public as people who can select and use proven programs and practices, ones that not just anyone could use effectively, that would go a long way, I think, to enhancing the public’s perception of the professionalism of the field. It would also be awfully good for students, parents, and the economy, of course.

Al Shanker knew that teachers were going to have to publicly and fervently embrace evidence, both to do their jobs better and to make it clear that being a teacher requires knowledge and skills than the general public can respect. I’m certain that he would be a big fan of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) evidence standards, which will help educators, policy makers, and researchers identify and put to use proven programs and practices.

Evidence-based reform is essential for kids, but also for teachers. Al Shanker knew that 30 years ago, and his AFT has been a champion for evidence ever since.

Love and Evidence

Valentine’s Day is this Sunday. If you are spending it thinking about effect sizes or research designs or education policy, shame on you. Unless, of course, that sort of thing turns you on.

So what does love have to do with evidence? Everything, actually. Our field is education. Education is empty without love. Evidence helps teachers and principals give every child the best possible chance to achieve success in school and in life. An educator who loves children wants the best for them. The purpose of educational research, development, and evaluation is to provide educators with pragmatic means of showing their love for children. Love without effective teaching is not enough, of course, and technically proficient teaching means little without love. But the two together are the most powerful force in education.

Children, especially young ones, completely trust their teachers. They look up to them with hope and respect. They are easy to love, even if sometimes hard to teach. But how can we give them any less than what we know how to give? Evidence does not provide all the answers or solve all the problems, but how is it responsible and loving to ignore evidence that could help students succeed?

I recently heard a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. A mother in a poor, Appalachian school in Kentucky came to meet with her daughter’s middle school principal. The school was using our Success for All program, which was adopted to improve very low reading proficiency rates. Even though the staff voted to adopt the research proven approach, there was some grumbling about the instructional processes that were required by the program among some of the staff. After all, change is hard. The principal was considering letting some teachers opt out.

The mother told the principal that her daughter, now in eighth grade, had never been able to read. Because of the school’s new program, she was now learning, excitedly bringing home books to read aloud to her.

The mother burst into tears. She’d never heard her daughter read to her before. She urged the principal to hold her ground and keep the program. Ultimately she did so.

This incident, repeated thousands of times every year for many proven programs, is a direct product of decades of research, development, and dissemination. All that R&D might sound technical and boring. But the outcome is a concrete expression of our love for children.

Love comes in many forms. On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate one of them. But the rest of the year, let’s remember that as educators, our love for children has to drive everything we do, including our choice of programs and practices that work. How can we want anything less than the best for the children who depend on us?

Farewell to the Walking Encyclopedia

Like just about everyone these days, I carry a digital device in my pocket at all times. At the office, I have a powerful desktop, and in the evening, I curl up with my iPad. Each of these contains the knowledge and wisdom of the ages. Kids and parents have as much access as I do.

The ubiquity of knowledge due to digital devices has led many educational theorists and practitioners to wonder whether teachers are even necessary anymore. Can’t everyone just look things up, do calculations, and generally provide themselves with just-in-time wisdom-on-the-spot?

Unfortunately, the truth is that digital devices are not yet transforming education. But what they are doing is putting the last nail in the coffin of the teacher as walking encyclopedia.

In the old days, a teacher could contribute a lot just by knowing more than the students. Teaching was composed of content knowledge (what the teacher knows and can transmit) and pedagogy (how the teacher manages classrooms, motivates students, makes complex ideas clear, and teaches learning-to-learn skills). Content knowledge is still crucial, but a “walking encyclopedia” is of declining value when everyone can find out everything all the time.

Does the decline of the walking encyclopedia diminish the role of the teacher? Just the opposite. When kids are immersed in too much information, what they need is a guide to help them learn how to comprehend complex texts and understand and organize information. They need to know how to write, how to solve complex problems, how to set up and carry out experiments, how to work well with others, how to contextualize their own thoughts to reason productively, how to manage their own behavior, how to maintain positive motivation, and how to be productive even in the face of difficulties. Each of these objectives, and many more, are at the heart of effective pedagogy. All are aided by content knowledge, of course, but a teacher who knows a lot about his or her discipline but not much about managing and motivating students is not going to succeed in today’s world.

It is my experience that the teaching innovations most likely to enhance student learning are hardly ever those that provide new, improved textbooks or digital content. Instead, they almost invariably provide extensive professional development to teachers, followed up by in-school coaching. In each case, the professional development and coaching focuses on pedagogy, not content. We’ve found the same pattern in all subjects and grade levels.

The task ahead of us in evidence-based education, I believe, is to use evidence of what works in pedagogy to help teachers grow as motivating, engaging, self-aware learning guides, capable of using general and subject-specific pedagogies effectively to help students become eager and capable learners. My encyclopedia walks with me in my pocket wherever I go. That’s true of students, too. They don’t need another at the front of their class. What they do need is someone who can make them care about, comprehend, organize, synthesize, and communicate the megabytes of information they carry.

Accountability for the Top 95 Percent

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Perhaps the most controversial issue in education policy is test-based accountability. Since the 1980s, most states have had tests in reading and math (at least), and have used average school test scores for purposes ranging from praising or embarrassing school staffs to providing financial incentives or closing down low-scoring schools. Test-based accountability became national with NCLB, which required annual testing from grades 3-8, and prescribed sanctions for low-achieving schools. The Obama administration added to this an emphasis on using student test scores as part of teacher evaluations.

The entire test-based accountability movement has paid little attention to evidence. In fact, in 2011, the National Research Council reviewed research on high-stakes accountability and found few benefits.

There’s nothing wrong with testing students and identifying schools in which students appear to be making good or poor progress in comparison to other schools serving students with similar backgrounds, as long as this is just used as information to identify areas of need. What is damaging about accountability is the use of test scores for draconian consequences, such as firing principals and closing schools. The problem is that terror is just not a very good strategy for professional development. Teachers and principals afraid of punishment are more likely to use questionable strategies to raise their scores—teaching the test, reducing time on non-tested subjects, trying to attract higher-achieving kids or get rid of lower performers, not to mention out-and-out cheating. Neither terror nor the hope of rewards does much to fundamentally improve day to day teaching because the vast majority of teachers are already doing their best. There are bad apples, and they need to be rooted out. But you can’t improve the overall learning of America’s children unless you improve daily teaching practices for the top 95% of teachers, the ones who come to work every day, do their best, care about their kids, and go home dead tired.

Improving outcomes for the students of the top 95% requires top-quality, attractive, engaging professional development to help teachers use proven programs and practices. Because people are more likely to take seriously professional development they’ve chosen, teachers should have choices (as a school or department, primarily) of which proven programs they want to adopt and implement.

The toughest accountability should be reserved for the programs themselves, and the organizations that provide them. Teachers and principals should have confidence that if they do adopt a given program and implement it with fidelity and intelligence, it will work. This is best demonstrated in large experiments in which teachers in many schools use innovative programs, and outcomes are compared with similar schools without the programs. They should know that they’ll get enough training and coaching to see that the program will work.

Offering a broad range of proven programs would give local schools and districts
expanded opportunities to make wise choices for their children. Just as evidence in agriculture informs but does not force choices by farmers, evidence in education should enable school leaders to advance children’s learning in a system of choice, not compulsion.

If schools had choices among many proven programs, in all different subjects (tested as well as untested), the landscape of accountability would change. Instead of threatening teachers and principals, government could provide help for schools to adopt programs they want and need. Offering proven programs provides a means of improving outcomes even in untested areas, such as science, social studies, and foreign language. As time goes on, more and better programs with convincing evaluation evidence would appear, because developers and funders would perceive the need for them.

Moving to a focus on evidence-based reform will not solve all of the contentious issues about accountability, but it could help us focus the reform conversation on how to move forward the top 95% of teachers and schools—the ones who teach 95% of our kids—and how to put accountability in proper proportion.

Shanghai Dreams

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In the October 23 New York Times, Thomas Friedman once again extols the accomplishments of schools in Shanghai, which (as a city) performed better than any country on the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessments). He reports on a visit to an outstanding school there to find its secret. The secret, he says, is no secret: A relentless focus on teacher training, peer planning among teachers, and 30% of the school day to carry out this planning. The schools have high standards, parents are deeply involved, and the whole culture prizes education and values teachers. Friedman’s point, to his American audience, is of course that if we do not do what Shanghai is doing, China will soon overtake the West economically as it has educationally.

There is both sense and nonsense in Friedman’s argument. It is surely the case that American schools need to improve outcomes for all students, and that this will ultimately affect our economy and our future. I also agree that improving teacher professional development is the best way toward widespread gains in student outcomes.

The nonsense in Friedman’s article is, however, striking. First, glittering Shanghai is extremely unrepresentative of the rest of China. As one indicator, 80% of Shanghai children graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary education, according to my friend Alan Cheung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The proportion in all of China is 25%. Shanghai has strict rules, designed to control its burgeoning population, that forbid poor families from rural areas from sending their children to school there. Migrant families routinely send their children to stay with their grandparents in their home villages so they can go to school.

The degree to which Shanghai and a few other big cities are not representative of China goes beyond the numbers. Dr. Cheung, in addition to studying education in China, also runs a foundation that delivers free books to schools in rural China. Volunteers deliver the books to the schools on bicycles.

Putting forward Shanghai, and only Shanghai, to represent China on the PISA tests is just a bit misleading. If the U. S. could just put forth Massachusetts, our wealthiest and highest-achieving state, we’d also have scores among the best in the world, as was illustrated in the recent TIMMS testing in math and science.

One reason for their outstanding performance is that students in relatively rich Shanghai routinely spend a lot of their out-of-school time prepping for tests in cram schools. It seems likely that students who spend a substantial time learning how to take tests might also do well on PISA. Further, I have to point out something blindingly obvious. Chinese-American students in the U.S. also do exceptionally well. I once saw statistics indicating that the international test scores of Japanese students in Japan were slightly lower than those of Asian students in the U.S. (this was at a time when the press was in a froth about Japan rather than China).

The idea that China’s educational excellence will soon lead it to overtake the West economically is, well, preposterous. The average gross domestic product per person in China, according to the World Bank, is $9,233 less than Albania, Tunisia, or Ecuador. Perhaps we should start getting concerned when they pass Botswana ($16,321) or Mexico ($16,731), but it will be a long time before they will rival the U.S. ($49,965) or its developed partners. China has been experiencing the rapid growth spurt seen by many countries when their low wages make them attractive for foreign companies, but this form of growth cannot last, as increasing wealth leads to increasing wages, and other poor countries become more attractive. China may someday follow the path from low-wage competitive advantage to higher-wage stability placed by countries such as Japan and Korea, but this would take a very, very long time.

It may well be that the practices typical in Shanghai, and elsewhere in Asia, could benefit American schools, and it’s always useful to look at what other countries do as a source of ideas for the U.S. But it is never wise to jump to the assumption that high-achieving countries, cities, or schools obtained their success due to any particular practices. What is necessary is to take promising ideas from any source and put them to the test in American schools, conduct evaluations (preferably using random assignment) to compare the schools utilizing the new practice to control schools that continue doing what they’ve done in the past, and then, if the new practices work, disseminate them for the benefit of all our schools and students. But we cannot simply assume that a practice that works in one country will automatically work elsewhere.

Because Friedman is a great writer, has a liberal travel budget, and has a regular column in the New York Times, he has the opportunity to tell Americans on a regular basis about all the educational wonders of far-away places. I wish someone had similar resources to tell the stories of home-grown programs of all kinds proven to work in the U.S., which New York Times readers never hear about. You don’t need to go to Shanghai to see outstanding schools obtaining terrific results; if you visit U.S. schools that use proven programs you’ll see that they are obtaining exceptional results with the children and under the circumstances we have in the U.S.