By JAL MEHTA
IN April 1983, a federal commission warned in a famous report, “A Nation at Risk,” that American education was a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The alarm it sounded about declining competitiveness touched off a tidal wave of reforms: state standards, charter schools, alternative teacher-certification programs, more money, more test-based “accountability” and, since 2001, two big federal programs, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
But while there have been pockets of improvement, particularly among children in elementary school, America’s overall performance in K-12 education remains stubbornly mediocre.
In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment, which compares student performance across advanced industrialized countries, ranked American 15-year-olds 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math — trailing their counterparts in Belgium, Estonia and Poland. One-third of entering college students need remedial education. Huge gaps by race and class persist: the average black high school senior’s reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to be at the level of the average white eighth grader’s. Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as they did in 1971.
As the education scholar Charles M. Payne of the University of Chicago has put it: “So much reform, so little change.”
The debate over school reform has become a false polarization between figures like Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, who emphasizes testing and teacher evaluation, and the education historian Diane Ravitch, who decries the long-run effort to privatize public education and emphasizes structural impediments to student achievement, like poverty.
The labels don’t matter. Charter-school networks like the Knowledge Is Power Program and Achievement First have shown impressive results, but so have reforms in traditional school districts in Montgomery County, Md., Long Beach, Calif., and, most recently, Union City, N.J., the focus of a new book by the public policy scholar David L. Kirp.
Sorry, “Waiting for Superman”: charter schools are not a panacea and have not performed, on average, better than regular public schools. Successful schools — whether charter or traditional — have features in common: a clear mission, talented teachers, time for teachers to work together, longer school days or after-school programs, feedback cycles that lead to continuing improvements. It’s not either-or.
Another false debate: alternative-certification programs like Teach for America versus traditional certification programs. The research is mixed, but the overall differences in quality between graduates of both sets of programs have been found to be negligible, and by international standards, our teachers are underperforming, regardless of how they were trained.
HERE’S what the old debates have overlooked: How schools are organized, and what happens in classrooms, hasn’t changed much in the century since the Progressive Era. On the whole, we still have the same teachers, in the same roles, with the same level of knowledge, in the same schools, with the same materials, and much the same level of parental support.
Call it the industrial-factory model: power resides at the top, with state and district officials setting goals, providing money and holding teachers accountable for realizing predetermined ends. While rational on its face, in practice this system does not work well because teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and improve from afar. The factory model is appropriate to simple work that is easy to standardize; it is ill suited to disciplines like teaching that require considerable skill and discretion.
Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.
By these criteria, American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance. It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.
It need not be this way. In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)
Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do. High school teachers provide 1,080 hours per year of instruction in America, compared with fewer than 600 in South Korea and Japan, where the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans. These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes education an attractive profession for talented people.
In America, both major teachers’ unions and the organization representing state education officials have, in the past year, called for raising the bar for entering teachers; one of the unions, the American Federation of Teachers, advocates a “bar exam.” Ideally the exam should not be a one-time paper-and-pencil test, like legal bar exams, but a phased set of milestones to be attained over the first few years of teaching. Akin to medical boards, they would require prospective teachers to demonstrate subject and pedagogical knowledge — as well as actual teaching skill.
Tenure would require demonstrated knowledge and skill, as at a university or a law firm. A rigorous board exam for teachers could significantly elevate the quality of candidates, raise and make more consistent teacher skill level, improve student outcomes, and strengthen the public’s regard for teachers and teaching.
We let doctors operate, pilots fly, and engineers build because their fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do these things. Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from experience and from their colleagues.
Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has estimated that other fields spend 5 percent to 15 percent of their budgets on research and development, while in education, it is around 0.25 percent. Education-school researchers publish for fellow academics; teachers develop practical knowledge but do not evaluate or share it; commercial curriculum designers make what districts and states will buy, with little regard for quality. We most likely will need the creation of new institutions — an educational equivalent of the National Institutes of Health, the main funder of biomedical research in America — if we are to make serious headway.
We also need to develop a career arc for teaching and a differentiated salary structure to match it. Like medical residents in teaching hospitals, rookie teachers should be carefully overseen by experts as they move from apprenticeship to proficiency, and then mastery. Early- to mid-career teachers need time to collaborate and explore new directions — having mastered the basics, this is the stage when they can refine their skills. The system should reward master teachers with salaries commensurate with leading professionals in other fields.
In the past few years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core standards that ask much more of students; raising standards for teachers is a critical parallel step. We have an almost endless list of things that we would like the next generation of schools to do: teach critical thinking, foster collaboration, incorporate technology, become more student-centered and engaging. The more skilled our teachers, the greater our chances of achieving these goals.
Undergraduate education programs and graduate schools of education have long been faulted for being too disconnected from the realities of practice. The past 25 years have seen the creation of an array of different providers to train teachers — programs like Teach for America, urban-teacher residencies and, most recently, schools like High Tech High in San Diego and Match High School in Boston that are running their own teacher-training programs.
Again, research suggests that the labels don’t matter — there are good and bad programs of all types, including university-based ones. The best programs draw people who majored as undergraduates in the subjects they wanted to teach; focus on extensive clinical practice rather than on classroom theory; are selective in choosing their applicants rather than treating students as a revenue stream; and use data about how their students fare as teachers to assess and revise their practice.
THE changes needed to professionalize American education won’t be easy. They will require money, political will and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with fields like law and medicine. But failure to change will be more costly — we could look up in another 30 years and find ourselves, once again, no better off than we are today. Several of today’s top performers, like South Korea, Finland and Singapore, moved to the top of the charts in one generation. Real change in America is possible, but only if we stop tinkering at the margins.