In service of The Line’s mission to foster thoughtful civil discourse, we invited former Line editor-in-chief John Deasy, superintendent of Stockton Unified School District, and Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of 50CAN, to share their perspectives and insights on what elevates the teaching profession. Their conversation follows here.
Generally speaking, as communities, as a country, have we undervalued the teaching profession?
John Deasy: We’ve completely undervalued the teaching profession, and I believe it’s not accidental. Other countries that value the teaching profession, it gives them an entirely different place in terms of student achievement.
Derrell Bradford: I agree and disagree with that. I would say we’ve undervalued the teaching profession. Absolutely.
However, we are also completely unwilling to do what it would take to value it at the same level as nations, like Finland, where people say teachers are highly regarded.
The question of how to improve the stature of teaching is one that is complicated because, for instance, one of the best ways to improve teacher quality — I hate to have to say this — is to have fewer of them. The more people you have in any profession, the more likely you are to get people who are less good at it, right?
If you look at Finland, it is extremely difficult to become a classroom teacher there. You compare that to how we do it in the U.S. and it is demonstrably less difficult.
I think we’ve engineered ourselves into this box about how to be a teacher and that has been to the detriment of the perception of teachers as well.
John Deasy: I agree mostly with my colleague in that places like Singapore and Finland are spot on. I also am not 100% sure I agree with the notion that we need fewer of them. I think we need a much more dedicated, national approach to creating faculty that make a difference.
We seem to be a country perplexed and distressed over poverty. We would like to end poverty and give people an education, and then a job.
Derrell Bradford: This is partly where I agree with my colleague. I am not arguing for fewer teachers. I am saying that one way to improve the stature of the teacher profession could be to have fewer teachers. However, and I’m sure John would agree, the research says, “A great teacher is the most important in-school factor for improving any child’s learning.” And you can ignore that at your own peril. And I feel in a lot of places in America, that’s exactly what we do.
What factors have contributed to the current state of the teaching profession?
Derrell Bradford: I think there are confluent factors. One is the unintended consequences of the feminist movement. In the middle of the 20th century, if you were an extremely bright and capable woman, you had very few job options but to go teach. And now, women have lots of job options, and so many people who would have taught do not teach. They’re running companies, for example.
The second thing is people say that teachers don’t get into it for the money, but teacher pay remains an issue and until salaries are competitive with the other options that really capable people have, the teaching profession will be behind the eight ball.
The third thing — given those two things, particularly pay — is that you can’t pay everybody more without talking about excellence. And I do think, especially given the blowback from the teacher evaluation wars, that right now it is very difficult to define classroom excellence in any objective way. That has actually made it harder to isolate the best folks and pay them
a ton more, if need be, and to find folks in the middle and support them a ton more because they have a lot more potential.
John Deasy: So, I think a number of factors have contributed to the current state of the profession. One, we as a country, particularly in the space of higher education, have determined that where we would pull teachers is from
a space where the competitiveness of entering that space is much less than, for example, engineers, lawyers or medical professionals. That input around quality has been determined to be not needed at the same level of others. That’s eminently correctable.
Two, I’m going to exceptionally disagree with my colleague in that I think that one thing we do know is that we are able to determine what high quality and outstanding teaching is. I think we’ve chosen a path for a variety of reasons to not make those discernments. And I think that has been to our detriment as a total profession. We absolutely are able to measure, and we are able to identify highly successful teachers and teaching practices. We just need to choose to compensate, develop or identify those. That’s the problem.
Third, I completely agree with my colleague that the nature of the profession at one point flipped from a highly selective pool by virtue of quite terrible circumstance where highly skilled women were shut out of jobs. With that flip, the level of that skill set went with it. And I think that’s been a problem.
And then the last thing I would say is we simply have not tried to figure out in the current economy, given the fact that people move from job to job, how do we adapt the job to today’s workforce trajectory?
Derrell Bradford: There is a question about the nature of teaching as a lifetime profession at this point that millennial job picking and switching patterns confound.
So, it is one thing to look at the job in an era where people have two jobs in their life, and they’re spending maybe a couple of years at the first one and 30 years at the second one. And we’ve come to identify that sort of longevity, for good or ill, with excellence in teaching.
But for millennials, they quit jobs like every two or three years. So, there is the question of whether or not we can sustain large numbers of people over very long periods of time in the profession given the labor trends of all the people who are going to fill that pipeline. I’m not saying that’s great or that’s bad. I am saying that you can’t ignore the fact that younger people like to work less time at different places and switch jobs more often. That too has an effect on who teaches, for how long and, potentially, how well.
John Deasy: I completely agree. What’s striking about this conversation so far is that I don’t think anything in either of our comments has emerged that is not actionable or correctable.
From a policy perspective, what steps should be taken to elevate the teaching profession?
John Deasy: I want to say something politically that I personally own: I want the secretary of education to give a damn about the profession. So I might start by saying, how about actual policy positions that acknowledge these needs and who seemingly want to do something about them. I don’t see that at the national level right now.
Number two, if education was considered an indispensable, viable necessity — just like you consider early childhood medical treatment — that would go a long way.
Third, if you would take a look at the path of just ending the whole notion of young people who can’t read at grade level by third grade, young people who aren’t afforded free high-quality pre-school. And then there’s a whole host of issues about what it means to have instruction that is oriented for college, career and community all at the same time. Then, we will have a very different set of outcomes.
Derrell Bradford: I think I agree with most of that, John. Though, on the one hand, I do think that much like the universe, matter is not evenly distributed. It’s in clumps. And in education, normally the clumps of great teachers who are working together are in schools that have great culture, great results and high demand. And this is one of the reasons why I support choice policy in particular because it’s a way to short circuit a kid getting to a great teacher sooner rather than later. I think there are lots of levers that match a kid with a great teacher that aren’t just about improving teacher training and assignment and pay.
Here’s the one thing I think we actually should not do. I’ve been troubled by the discussion, particularly during the Democratic presidential primary, about essentially paying for increases in teacher pay with large increases in Title 1 funding without regard to teacher quality. On the one hand, I think one of the worst things we could do in terms of the sustainability of public schools in America is to make their funding like higher ed, which seems to be what people want to do.
Two, one of the worst things people can do, like our policymakers at the federal level shouldn’t do, is send a signal that all teachers should be paid more without also acknowledging that there is variance in teacher quality.
You can be for paying teachers more. And I completely believe that in a lot of places, especially given the workload, that teachers should be paid more. However, I think it is a mistake to send a signal that more money without more performance or more money without excellence is the way to improve the teaching profession because I don’t think that’s correct.
John Deasy: Fundamentally, no disagreement with that position. I would want to add the term accountability. I think we as a nation have experienced a period of time where accountability was uneven, disruptive, uncomfortable, and so therefore, we’ve fully abandoned it. I think that any increase in funding, albeit well-needed, should be tied to results. And I am not talking about narrow measures like test scores. There’s a whole host of ways to look beyond as both healthy and responsible. There isn’t any other profession that separates or abdicates the notion of accountability and performance with funding like the education profession.
And another point. Derrell, you use the term choice and I think that like always, it’s a bit of a land mine. High quality public choice as a country, as a national norm is totally accepted in everything — even including health care — but not in education. And that has been to our detriment.
Derrell Bradford: I think I agree with that. In New York, we don’t have any private school choice policy, but if you live in the South Bronx and you go to your zoned school and you are a low-income kid of color, you are among the most likely of kids in New York State to have a teacher who needs help — I’ll put it that way. But you also could go to Success Academy, and score in the top 1% of all schools in New York if you win the lottery, right? Because teacher quality, prep and support are real priorities there.
John, I agree with your point about prioritization. However, there is a very real opportunity to provide options where you go from a place where the quality of teaching needs to be improved a great deal, to a place where it could be so demonstrably excellent that you are scoring like you are in the upper income quintile of all Americans. We should continue to take that seriously as well.
If we elevate the teaching profession, what outcomes will we see for teachers and ultimately for students?
Derrell Bradford: Here’s the number one thing that I’d want to see: happy teachers. I want to see more educators who feel proud to have their jobs, and who fully shoulder the weight of the responsibility of this job because they know that we know how important it is and we think they are the right people to do it. That to me would be ideal. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is a lot more literate, numerate kids who can tell you stories later in their lives about how a fourth-grade teacher or a sixth-grade teacher put them on the path of something amazing that helped them be the best version of themselves. If we do those two things, I’m going to feel really good about what happened.
John Deasy: That’s a big yes, and awesome, terrific, happy. I actually think that we will see in very short order individuals who feel two things: “I am contributing, and I matter.” And we know that both of those things are an essential core to this notion of regard for others. And I think that’s highly virtuous.
Second, I think that if we couple this with the fact that this does not and should not need to be a lifelong profession, which means you need to restructure the whole departure benefits piece. If you have people who can enter this field for a period of time, then we will avoid the notion that you can only be in this field for an entire career. And I believe the notion that it has to be 30 years plus to be respectable in any way is deeply problematic in this entire process. That can be done in a whole series of economic structures, but the notion that you will see people contributing in other sectors as well, that will be a byproduct.
Then, the third thing is it will inevitably, in my opinion and my beliefs, contribute to the best form of recruitment we can ever hope for. So, young people will see this and inspire in ways that we don’t currently see, which is the thing you hope for in the sustainability of a high-quality teaching profession.
If each of you had to choose one thing that you could implement that would elevate the teaching profession, what would it be?
John Deasy: Oh, I would make Derrell a teacher tomorrow.
Derrell Bradford: That’s funny. I’m trying to figure out what I could do to top that.
Here’s the one thing I would do: I wouldn’t supplant any other pipeline in the teaching profession because I think there are different ones that give us different things. For instance, Teach for America, whatever you want to say, is the most diverse teacher pipeline we have currently. Half the applicants are minority, a lot of them are men. I think residency models of teacher prep, while they are expensive, are underused. We need to make sure that a person gets to the job prepared for the job — not the job that they think they’re going to have. Preparing them for the job they’re actually going to have in the school they’re actually going to be in would go a long way to improving the experience, then the results and, ultimately, the perception of the profession.
John Deasy: Immediately, I would establish federally, with a public-private partnership, a series of service academies to develop the next generation of teachers, just like West Point or Annapolis. Just like what we did when we needed leadership in the military to make our military forces number one in the world. We should be establishing a set of gold standard teacher preparation academies — not the teacher prep programming that feed the entities of higher ed, but solely dedicated best-in-class academies. That would be my one thing to implement.