Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teacher Professionalism and Leadership

My friend and colleague Gamal Sherif teaches at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.  We are both Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the US Department of Education (Gamal this year and me last year), and members of the Teacher Leader Network Forum, part of the Center for Teaching Quality.  We are both also union activists - I'm NEA and Gamal is AFT.  What I love about our friendship is the differences: I’m a rural elementary teacher and Gamal is an urban high school teacher, yet across these differences we share so much.  I asked Gamal’s permission to share his latest blog post and I urge people to follow his excellent blog ProgressEd.
In a recent USA Today article, Wendy Kopp (CEO of Teach for America) and Dennis Van Roekel (President of the National Education Association), recommend “3 steps improve the USA’s teachers.”  
Of course everyone wants to improve, but it would be helpful to determine what the specific problems are before we create policy guidelines.  Once the problems are identified, teachers should be directly involved in creating, implementing and evaluating the solutions.
Specifically, Kopp and Van Roekel suggest that we:
·         Use data to improve teacher preparation.
·         Bring new talent to the teaching profession.
·         Give teachers opportunities for continuous professional development.
Of course teachers are life-long learners and we are, therefore, interested in continuous improvement.  However, when it comes to student learning, the focus on teachers is incomplete.  We should also consider the students' readiness to learn when they arrive at school.  
In order to learn, students need to be well-rested, well-fed, safe, and curious when they arrive at school.  If that's not the case, then we need to look to the social and economic context in which the children live outside of school.  And yes, teachers do have some perspective on that context.
An over-emphasis on teacher quality is a distraction from what truly ails us: students' and teachers' diminished ability to make informed (and careful) decisions about their learning.  
Over-emphasis on teacher quality as the "...single biggest factor in student success..." implies that if students are not succeeding, or learning, then teachers should be held accountable.  Yet research has shown that teachers are less effective when they have poor working conditions.
The onus is on teachers to advocate for effective working conditions, among other things.  Teachers should be involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction, assessment AND policy -- all aspects of our working conditions. This emphasis on teacher leadership ties in very well with the US Department of Education's Blueprint for Reform that emphasizes teacher professionalism.
Within the article, it is not clear if Kopp and Van Roekel are referring to worthwhile assessments of "student learning" -- or simple measurements of "student success."  Poorly-designed standardized tests CANNOT be used to correlate the quality of teacher training programs. 
Why use bad data to create wishy-washy (or worse) policy?

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