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What is Ailing American Schools? An Interview with Andrew Hargreaves

It is not a big secret that we have many issues in American public education. Whether it is high stakes testing, increased teacher and administrator accountability or publishing companies that are lobbying for more control over public schools; we all have something that we think needs to change about our schools. Although those are enormous issues, I always wonder what the true underlying issue is that brought us here.

How did we get to a time when the public is not always invested in public education and choose to send their children to private schools, charter schools or decide to home school? There are parents who do it because they want some sort of control over what their children learn. However, there are also parents who are tired of seeing their children attend failing schools or receive a lackluster education. This is a complicated issue and more testing and accountability will not change that.

We continue to have huge discrepancies between those students who receive a substandard education and those who receive an outstanding one. All of this is being played out in a very public forum. We see it in the media and through political sound bites. Some of what is being said about the American public school system may be true but there are also many untruths being told as well.

Try as they might, educators cannot control outside influences. They must continue to fight against the negative campaign on education but they need to also work on the profession. Educators need to prove that education is a profession that is important to America. One person who can help educators do that is Dr. Andy Hargreaves.

Andy Hargreaves
Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College (website). His experience in education is massive. Before he began teaching at Boston College, he was the co-founder and director of the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.

His new book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School (Teachers College Press) was co-authored with Dr. Michael Fullan. Andy answered questions about the state of public education and what we can do to move forward in a proper way.

PD: In your new book that you co-authored with Michael Fullan, you mentioned that old stereotypes are being used to attack teachers. What are those stereotypes you are referring to?

AH: Stereotypes have some truth to them and a lot of distortion. Stereotypes have always been used to both support particular views of teaching and also to attack particular ideas of what teaching is and we see this on both sides of the current model of American education. They are:

  1. Teachers need basic subject knowledge but beyond that people are either born to be teachers or they're not. They either have it or they don't. If you find the right teachers they do not need a great deal of training or professional development.
  2. Teaching is fairly easy and anyone can do it. Educators have a number of teaching methods that can be picked up rather quickly. This is the Teach Like a Champion (Lemov) view of teaching. There are thirty or forty different methods of teaching and if educators practice those they will master the job pretty quickly.
  3. Teaching is all about high yield strategies. Teaching is not about intuition but it is really about research evidence undertaken by other people in universities that will tell teachers the high yield strategies that will bring about the biggest effects that they should use in their classroom.
  4. These are all based on ideas about medicine. Medicine does clinical trials and tells you what the best methods are to use and educators shouldn't just teach what they're good at or passionate about. Educators should teach what the evidence tells them. This justifies a fairly strict division in teaching between those who teach and those who are outside of the profession and have never been teachers.
  5. If educators are going to follow the evidence then teaching is like clinical surgery and it can be applied with precision and in my view teaching is not. I believe that teaching is less like surgery and more like being a family physician where you have to know many things about the person and the complexity of their condition.

I always think of Oliver Sacks who says, "Think not what the disease does to the person, but what the person does for the disease." That is good advice for family doctors and for teachers as well.

PD: What do you believe ails America's schools?

AH: Many, many things ail American schools right now. In comparison to the scales of international student achievement on PISA, depending on the measure, America currently ranks about 17th. Although its white middle class students perform as well as students in high performing nations, it's really the poor minority students who are underperforming which means that there are huge inequities in American education between students of relative privilege and race or wealth and students of great disadvantage.

One of the greatest issues in American education is the huge achievement gaps, big divisions in where people live, the fact that many more American parents send their children to private schools than parents do in high performing countries. Those countries have very small or almost non-existent private sectors.

The fundamental problem is that not all Americans are invested in public education, either for their own children or for other people's children or for the future that these children will create together. This is a much more complicated issue because it has to do with race, housing and what it means to be an American and that plays out in other areas.

We know that one of the biggest impact factors on student learning achievement in the schools is the quality of teachers. However, at the moment we have too many demoralized teachers. The recent MetLife survey showed that there are clear levels of teacher dissatisfaction and that satisfaction is declining. We know that an inordinate amount of teachers are leaving teaching very, very early. The modal (most commonly occurring) number of years' experience in teaching, according to the National Staffing Survey is one. We have more teachers with one year of experience than with any number of years of experience, which is a new thing for American education.

If we went into hospitals and the most commonly occurring number of years of experience for doctors and nurses was one there would be public outrage. Too many schools are looking for young, inexpensive and flexible teachers with little experience and keeping them for a few years and moving them on long before they have reached the peak of their performance. That's a wasted investment.

We need to look at why teachers are not staying in the profession and one of the major reasons is too much testing. America is really the only country that tests all the children on almost everything, every year. It is the only country in the world that does this and it's not associated with high standards but it is associated with driving teachers out of the profession because their work is excessively prescribed, excessively standardized, constantly interfered with and lacking the judgment and discretion that all professions need.

PD: What is your vision of the future of teaching?

AH: My vision of the future of teaching is based on evidence, internationally in high performing countries, and within America in high performing schools and systems. If we look around the world where teachers are doing well and really having an impact on all the students, teaching is seen as something that is intellectually and not just managerially difficult, and a challenging and socially valuable profession. The future applicants to teaching, like the public, need to see it as important as medicine, engineering or law as a future career. That state of affairs already exists in countries like Finland and Singapore but we are so far away from that in America.

In addition, it is a profession where teachers should have rewarding, challenging and fulfilling relationships with the adults in their schools as well as with their children. But, one of the indicators of why people don't go into teaching is that people do not think they will have interesting colleagues or interesting conversations. We know that American teachers spend more of their time in the classroom rather than also spending time with their colleagues than pretty much any other developed country. Teaching has to be a place where you get stimulating relationships with the adults as well as with the children (End of Interview).


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