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Professionalized, Highly Effective Teachers Are Fundamental to Student Success

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Rounding us out this week is Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association. 

We have a teacher problem—there aren't enough of them.

According to the American Institutes of Research, "Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has been declining since 2010—by nearly 20 percent in 2012-13 alone. Meanwhile, the teacher workforce is aging. Some 85,000 teachers retired in 2008-09, compared to 35,000 over 25 years ago."

Education is the bedrock of our democracy and a primary path to employability and economic success. Research has proven that the most important in-school factor affecting student learning is the teacher. Education drives economic success and teachers are the engine.

We need teachers; not just "good enough" teachers, but highly effective teachers who have an abundance of pedagogical knowledge, the appropriate dispositions to work with developing learners, and an ever-expanding tool chest of skills to draw upon.

But a broken system, a draught of educators, and numerous other factors have perched our profession at a precipice of change—the question is whether we are going to build the airplane to take us to new heights, or build airbags to cushion our fall.

Sadly, too many places are building airbags. They are "de-professionalizing" teaching. It's that mentality that says "anybody can teach." They argue to just make it easier to be a teacher.

But we can't lower the bar and expect to achieve excellence. We need to make teaching into a true profession that provides both accountability and autonomy. And we have a few guideposts that can help us "build the plane" to professionalism.

Let's learn from other fields that have transformed into acknowledged professions. In 1832, a young man came home and told his father that he wanted to enter a field of study his father declared to be "a profession for which I have the utmost contempt. There is no science in it. There is no honor to be achieved in it; no reputation to be made" (Starr, 1984, p. 82). What was that field of study? Medicine!

It's difficult to believe now, but at one time, medicine was not considered a profession. The Social Transformation of American Medicine does a nice job of outlining the historical transformation of the entire medical enterprise. It didn't happen by lowering standards. It happened by closing ineffective preparation programs and raising the standards of what it took to become a doctor.

The US Department of Education's Blueprint for R.E.S.P.E.C.T acknowledges that "other respected professions—accounting, medicine, engineering, and law, to name a few—share attributes that are conspicuously absent from education. They set high standards for entry into the field and insist on strong preparation before licensure or certification."

Finland is acknowledged as a leader in student success. So let's learn from them! As reported by Linda Darling Hammond, "Unlike the United States, where teachers either go into debt to prepare for a profession that will pay them poorly or enter with little or no training, Finland made the decision to invest in a uniformly well-prepared teaching force by recruiting top candidates and paying them to go to school. Slots in teacher training programs are highly coveted and shortages are virtually unheard of." (That's raising the bar!)

In Transforming Teaching, Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, a report issued by the NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (which I chaired), we envisioned a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning, balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students. Teachers are willing to be held accountable when they are allowed to make professional judgements and provide leadership—not just for their classroom, but for their school.

In his recent study, Teachers' Roles in School Leadership, Richard Ingersoll uses data from the Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Survey to note "...teacher leadership and the amount of teacher influence into school decision-making are independently and significantly related to student achievement, after controlling for the background characteristics of schools, and this is so for both mathematics and ELA." Schools that provide for teacher leadership raise student achievement!

I understand why some policy makers want to make entry into the education profession easier; they want more bodies in classrooms, in front of kids, quickly. But that short-term political mindset increases our long-term problems when we lose a profession of highly skilled educators who are committed to growing their expertise over time.

As I said in my previous blog, our education system is an interwoven web and you can't just pull on one string. Even the most accomplished among us cannot act in the best interest of students in a dysfunctional system over which we have little control or authority.

Teaching is like rocket science: complicated, collaborative, and capable of taking our students to places yet to be explored. Like scientists, professional educators need to meet high standards throughout their career and they must also be allowed to exercise their leadership skills in the classroom and beyond. Our students deserve no less.

—Maddie Fennell

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