How do we improve our schools? Anyone familiar with this question knows that there is no simple answer. Taking the complexities into account, a new organization called the Transforming Teaching Project has started working on a plan. In their white paper, From Quicksand to Solid Ground, which is endorsed by the AFT and NEA, the authors present their vision of a well-supported education system and describe the challenges that stand in the way. Read it here:
I anticipate most teachers will view this organization with suspicion at first glance. There are so many actors out there attempting to change our schools and so few are achieving the right results. Many end up subordinating teachers even as they pretend to be “improving the profession.” Others impose a framework adapted from the corporate world–exulting data sets and micromanagement–and end up infuriating us. It’s become second nature to doubt any organization that uses the word “transform” in its motto. Take the overwhelmingly negative response that TeachStrong received when it began its outreach last week (See edushyster, curmudgacation, and Schneider for a start). Much of what TeachStrong describes appears to be moving in the right direction, but it seems best to wait until they put forth more thorough plan before placing a bet. Given the failures of outside organizations in the past few years and the lack of accountability for their blunders, one could argue that it’s our duty to be skeptical.
That said, I would urge you to review this paper and see what you think. The authors don’t seem ideologically slanted in their assessment of the challenges that schools face. One might read their focus on the weaknesses within the teaching profession as consistent with the practices of corporate reformers. However, the authors relied heavily on interviews with experienced teachers to shape their depiction of the problems, and they seem to have listened. Furthermore, the solutions they recommend make no mention of accountability systems, merit pay or data. All of their recommendations hold teachers’ roles in the education system as paramount, and recognize the value of knowledgeable practitioners (see pages 27-35). Their vision includes a restructured school day to provide more time to collaborate, plan, and develop new ways of thinking about teaching. Experienced educators will mentor novices. Teachers will help to decide the research agenda of education schools in order to develop scholarship that has direct application in the classroom. These pragmatic recommendations feel consistent with those of long-time teacher-professionalization advocate Linda Darling-Hammond, who also endorsed the paper.
While the paper is broad in its scope, I’m left with a few questions. First, what does this organization actually do? Their goal is to “work with a growing coalition of education organizations committed to working in concert with one another to deliver transformative change to the teaching profession.” That seems rather vague and doesn’t address how they’ll go about transforming the system in the way they’ve described. One answer I got to this question, from someone who is pretty well-versed with political foundations, was “They don’t know yet, and that’s ok.” They’re a new organization and their plan will materialize as they go. That makes sense to me, but to be honest, I really don’t how these things work.
My other questions are bigger. How do they get the public, who seem to distrust teachers at this point, to support a practitioner-centered vision of schools? It’s commonly believed that teacher’s unions are the primary impediment to public education, and the well-funded proponents of this view are not about to slow down their campaigns. How can we ensure that a vision such as this one–where it is recommended that we invest more in education while teachers have fewer hours of instruction–gains the support of the public? (The authors partially address this on page 10, but leave the question largely unanswered.) Voters aside, how could a proponent of this report secure the support of the legislators who make the funding decisions? Lobbying in the state legislator for educational programs is not new. Perhaps if we forged a coalition that unified the corporate reformers and the AFT and NEA, which found a middle-ground on professionalizing teaching in the right way, the legislators would have no one to disagree with.
In any case, I would encourage you to review their paper, and also to check out their podcast. As Randi Weingarten wrote in a recent blog post, “The tide is turning, and we have the chance to help change the narrative about educators and the role you play; to tell a different story about what works and what doesn’t in public education, based on real experience in classrooms across America.” I hope this is true. Given their definition of the problems and their proposed solutions, it seems like the Transforming Teaching Project wants to help bring about that change. I would keep an eye on them.
School Building’s Favorite Parts
On the challenges to researching teaching, page 14:
Teaching is a social enterprise, involving human beings who have their own ideas about what they want to learn and when. For that reason, it will never have the kind of “if you employ X strategy, then you will get Y result” that you see in the physical sciences. Students’ interests and level of prior knowledge, the chemistry among students, the classroom climate, and many other factors play into whether a given lesson lands or falls flat. (Anyone who has ever taught the same lesson to two classes knows this full well.) These interactions and the dynamic nature of teaching also make it difficult to study in ways that large-scale modern research favors. It is difficult to isolate variables because good teaching brings together many factors, and it is difficult to perform randomized control trials because there is no way to freeze into place the intervention to be tested since good teaching requires dynamic responses to unpredictable interactions.
On the missing R&D system for teaching, page 3:
We are missing a system to produce, vet, disseminate, and get into use knowledge about quality teaching. Plainly put, there is no one responsible for producing actionable, practical knowledge about teaching. Researchers write mainly for other researchers; teachers with knowledge have few incentives and little support to share it. We lack good mechanisms to evaluate whether knowledge is of any quality or of any use to teachers. Nor are there intermediaries that share knowledge with teachers in a user-friendly or accessible format. In short, there is not an R&D system in education in the way that there is in other fields.
The five main aspects of their ideal system, page 26:
- A cohesive knowledge generation system in which universities and teachers collaborate.
- Intermediary organizations that synthesize and disseminate knowledge.
- A differentiated teaching profession that mirrors medicine, including rigorous pre-service education, gradual induction in which experts mentor novices, and meaningful continuing education and career advancement.
- A restructured school day that provides teachers with designated time to collaborate, plan, reflect, and generate new knowledge about teaching.
- A broad ecosystem that supports the four elements above through policy, incentives, and infrastructure.
Quoting Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive of the Center for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education:
“What we should be doing is collecting teachers’ own research questions, doing a matter analysis of their research questions, and using that to shape the research agenda.”
The Transforming Teaching Project’s Podcast (Accessible from any podcast app, I think)
School Building’s post on one of the founders of this organization, Jal Mehta