interviews with //
Daniel Weisberg &
Society has a “defeatist view of teaching,” says Daniel Weisberg, CEO of a national nonprofit that develops and deploys effective teachers. And, in comparison to other countries, fewer American teachers choose teaching to be their first career and too many leave the profession quickly, says Andreas Schleicher, a high-ranking education official at the OECD in Paris.
According to these experts, teaching clearly suffers from a lack of prestige, a problem that increases in compensation alone — though much needed — will not solve. Rather, teachers are operating in systems that simply do not provide them the training and leadership necessary to succeed, though Weisberg and Schleicher have differing opinions on exactly what is missing.
For Weisberg, prestige is low because expectations of teachers are low. Society has conceded that teachers are “powerless to help students learn in the face of any challenges they face outside the classroom.” A self-fulfilling prophecy, this results in students being routinely taught below their grade level.
Underachievement becomes the accepted norm. Weisberg calls for school systems to better equip teachers for the really hard work of making challenging material accessible to all students, believing the profession will be elevated when — even under the hardest of circumstances — students are expected to keep academic pace and teachers deliver on that expectation.
Schleicher, on the other hand, argues the crux of the problem is that traditional professional development fails to address the very issues that teachers struggle with most. For example, teachers need and want training on how to motivate students, navigate increasingly multicultural learning environments, instruct special needs students and use technology in the classroom. To professionalize teaching, he believes teachers must be treated as professionals — given greater autonomy within a collaborative culture, where teachers are co-owners of change, accountability is geared toward development and not compliance, and institutions are built around learners — not the “habits of systems.”
“Teaching will become prestigious when we start treating it that way: one of the hardest jobs in the world, but one that can and must be well done.”
“We expect [teachers] to have a deep and broad understanding of what they teach and when they teach because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference in student learning.”
|Civil Discourse Prompts|
|Are teachers recognized as professionals?
Would more recognition as professionals draw better teachers?
What will define a professional?
Daniel Weisberg is the CEO of TNTP, a national nonprofit that helps school systems provide excellent teachers and effective teaching in every classroom.
Ask almost anyone for the best way to raise the status of the teaching profession, and they’ll probably tell you to give teachers a big raise. It’s a solution that’s worked its way all the way up to the platforms of several major presidential candidates.
In some ways the conventional wisdom is right on target. Teacher salaries are unconscionably low in many states and, overall, don’t reflect the high-stakes and intellectually challenging nature of the job. My organization has advocated for giving every teacher the potential to earn six figures within their first six years on the job — a modest benchmark for such an important
But even with that huge increase over current salaries, the profession wouldn’t get the respect it deserves. That’s because low salaries are a symptom, not the cause, of teaching’s lack of prestige. All elite professions — medicine, engineering, professional sports, Navy SEALs, you name it — share two things in common: They’re extremely difficult, but we expect people to do them well anyway. You’ll never hear anybody say, “We shouldn’t expect heart surgeons to actually save patients who face big health challenges. Let’s just be grateful anybody is willing to take on such a tough job.”
Yet that, in a nutshell, is society’s prevailing attitude about teaching. We view teachers as largely powerless to help students learn in the face of any challenges they face outside the classroom. We admire teachers for signing up for a very hard job, but we don’t credit them with the ability — and the responsibility — to do it well. National teachers’ unions have pushed these low expectations even further, labeling almost any attempt to ask what goes on in classrooms and whether it’s preparing kids to meet their goals as an attack on teachers’ professionalism — even as they continue to bemoan the profession’s low status.
This defeatist view of teaching insults the talent and dedication of teachers who embrace ownership of their students’ learning and the quality of their experiences in school as the core of their job. We’re fortunate enough to work with teachers across the country who bring this mindset into their classrooms every day — and we’ve seen the positive impact it makes on their students. In our recent study, “The Opportunity Myth,” we found that belief in a student’s ability to meet college-ready standards can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In classrooms where teachers had those high expectations, students who started the year well behind their peers academically gained an additional eight months of learning in a single year compared to students whose teachers had lower expectations.
But too many of the 4,000 students we studied were stuck in schools and systems that didn’t prioritize high expectations — and didn’t set students up to achieve the big goals they have for their lives. Students in our study spent hundreds of hours a year on work that was below their grade level and irrelevant to their lives. We routinely saw fifth graders assigned math problems better suited for third graders, and high school English classes centered on worksheets with one-word answers. Students traditionally neglected by schools — those of color, from low-income families, who are learning English or with mild to moderate disabilities — got grade-level opportunities and strong instruction far less often than their peers. And once students fell behind academically, they were less likely to ever get the grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement and high expectations that could help them make big gains and catch up. The result is that hundreds of thousands of students each year graduate unprepared for the lives they want to lead — not because they couldn’t do the work, but because they never had a real chance to try.
Our research is just the latest to confirm that teachers have enormous control over whether students get the opportunities they need from school. But it’s just as clear that teachers are often at the mercy of poor choices made at the system level: training that doesn’t prepare them to make challenging material accessible to all their students; mandates to spend too much time on low-quality curricula or unproductive test prep; and, yes, salaries that don’t even
provide a living wage.
Any system that wants its teachers to take responsibility for the opportunities they’re providing students must first adopt the same commitment itself, along with a real strategy for delivering on it (which will require even more attention to what’s happening in classrooms each day, not less). We can’t blame teachers for underestimating themselves or their students if we’re not equipping them to turn high expectations into reality — or if society and even their own unions are telling them it’s an impossible task. It’s up to all of us to choose a version of the teaching profession rooted in the belief — and expectation — that teachers have the power to help every student reach their goals, and an education system that gives them the resources and support to actually do it. Teaching will become prestigious when we start treating it that way: one of the hardest jobs in the world, but one that can and must be done well.
|Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills|
Andreas Schleicher is director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, and special advisor on Education Policy to the secretary-general at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. As a key member of the OECD senior management team, Mr. Schleicher supports the secretary-general’s strategy to produce analysis and policy advice that advances economic growth and social progress.
It is precisely these aspects that motivate the vast majority of people to become teachers: According to the 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), nine out of 10 middle school teachers in the 48 participating education systems consider the opportunity to influence children’s development and contribute to society a major motivation to join the profession.
It seems many school systems can do better to support teachers in achieving that mission: Less than 60% of American teachers made teaching their first career choice — compared with 93% in Vietnam — and many leave the profession after a few years. To find the teachers schools need, the U.S. and other countries will need to make teaching not just financially, but also intellectually more attractive by better supporting a teaching profession of advanced knowledge workers who operate with a high level of professional autonomy and within a collaborative culture. American teachers not only report working longer than their peers in most countries, but also spend a larger share of their time teaching. Singaporean teachers work equally hard but teach just 13 hours per week, compared with 22 hours in the U.S., leaving them much more time to work with individual students, observe other teachers’ lessons or collaborate with them on pedagogical practice. Add to this that novice teachers in the U.S. are more likely to end up in more disadvantaged schools than their more experienced peers, and that the incidence of bullying and disruptive incidents are more prevalent than elsewhere in the world, and it becomes clear that entering the teaching profession can be tough and solitary.
Almost all U.S. teachers said that they participated in some kind of professional development in the last year or so, more so than on average across countries, but a below-average share said their training had a positive impact on their teaching. The makeup of classrooms is changing, and teachers stressed that they need further training for teaching in multicultural and multilingual settings, and teaching students with special needs. Teachers also said they felt more comfortable with traditional instruction — things like providing alternative explanations or crafting good questions and varying instructional strategies — than with motivating students who show low interest in schoolwork.
Moreover, while two-thirds of U.S. teachers said the use of technology for teaching was included in their initial training, less than half feel well-prepared for using it. The good news is that, across countries, teachers say they’re using more information technologies for schoolwork than when TALIS was last administered five years before. Nearly 80% said that their colleagues strive to develop new ideas and help each other road test new approaches. However, while around 90% of the teachers in Georgia, Vietnam and Shanghai agreed that most teachers in the school are open to change, that percentage was lower than 60% in Portugal (U.S. 71%).
The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers. So, attracting, developing and retaining the best teachers is a formidable challenge for education systems. Successful schools will be places where great people want to work and where their ideas can be best realized, where they are trusted and where they can put their trust. Taking an interest in the professional views of teachers is an important part of this: The laws, regulations, structures and institutions that education policy tends to focus on are just like the small visible tip of a huge iceberg. The reason it is so hard to move education systems is that there is a much larger invisible part under the waterline. This invisible part is composed of the beliefs, motivations and fears of the people who are involved — parents and teachers included. This is where unexpected collisions occur because this part tends to evade the radar of public policy.
Educational leaders are rarely successful with education reform unless they help people recognize what needs to change, and build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change; unless they focus resources, build capacity, and create the right policy climate with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation and development rather than compliance; and unless they tackle institutional structures that too often are built around the interests and habits of systems rather than learners. Where teachers are not engaged in the design of educational reform, they won’t be well positioned to help with the implementation of reform.