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The Chief State School Officers Weigh In on Teacher Quality

On December 17, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) released what their incoming Executive Director, Chris Minnich, called a "call to action" on teacher quality: Our Responsibility, Our Promise: Transforming Educator Preparation and Entry into the Profession.  So it was, to my relief, not another jeremiad bout measuring the quality of serving teachers; it was about what states need to do to raise the quality of new teachers.

The CCSSO's outgoing Executive Director, Gene Wilhoit, made it clear that the report was focused on those things related to teacher quality that the states are directly responsible for: licensure, 'program quality' in their schools of education, and the data collected by the state that can be used to improve both.  And Wilhoit expressed a strong determination on the part of the chiefs to do whatever is necessary to make sure that teacher education programs reflect the spirit of the Common Core State Standards and raise the quality of incoming teachers even if that means closing down significant numbers of education schools or alternative programs that train our new teachers.  

Twenty-five states have signed up to implement this agenda, and Minnich said others are about to do so.  And they are not alone.  In a very canny move, the chiefs invited others to join their task force, organizations representing institutions whose collaboration would be necessary to get the job done, including state boards, schools of education, accreditation agencies, and so on, and their representatives were on hand to make their support for the recommendations explicit.

I walked out of the meeting announcing this effort very encouraged but a little ambivalent.  On the one hand, I firmly believe that this agenda is on the right track, a welcome antidote to what has been the dominant teacher quality agenda focusing on measuring the quality of individual teachers with a view to firing those who don't measure up, a failed agenda with a rationale representing the antithesis of everything the modern movement for quality in business stands for.  The record established by the nations with highest teacher quality shows unequivocally that the way to raise teacher quality is not to fire your worst teachers but to increase the supply of great teachers, and that is what this initiative is all about.  That record also shows that the prize goes to those countries whose teacher education programs demonstrate a strong commitment to the agreed student achievement standards, which is to say that they expect their schools of education to prepare their teachers to teach what the state expects the students to learn.

The commitment of the CCSSO task force to learning from other countries was reflected in the examples the authors picked to illustrate what they think the states' goals should be. The report features the teacher quality reforms of Singapore and Finland.  They are in fact the examples I would have chosen, each quite different from the other in important respects, yet very much alike in the principles that underlie the strategies they embody.  This is the first time in my memory that a body of important actors in the American education system has issued a report featuring examples from outside the United States of the kind of policies they think the United States should be pursuing.  Until recently, Americans have largely ignored the experience of other countries in the realm of education.  This recognition of the achievements of our competitors is a welcome turn in the search for solutions to the problems faced by our education system.

So why was I ambivalent about the report?  Precisely because it focused entirely on what the chief state school officers are responsible for.  Jason Glass, the chief state school officer in Iowa, hinted at the problem in his remarks at the event.  Glass pointed out that the measures recommended in this report are only part of a larger framework for action on this problem.  He implied, though did not say, that these actions are likely to fail if not accompanied by others not mentioned.  He was pointing to a point I made in this space a couple of weeks ago.  If a state dramatically raises the entrance requirements for its teacher colleges, one of the recommendations made in this report, and fails to make teaching a more attractive career choice for the people who could meet those higher standards, then it will choke off the supply of teachers and be forced to lower its admissions' standards simply to fill its available teacher positions in its schools.

But school superintendents and local boards were not among the groups invited to participate in this effort.  And the terms of employment for teachers are in their hands unless the states choose to make teachers compensation and career structure matters of state policy.

The most delicate point in this dance the nation is about to undertake is how to balance raising the standards of entrance into our schools of education with the improvements we need to make in teachers' compensation and working conditions.  It is a waste of money to improve compensation without getting improved quality in exchange and it is just as fruitless to raise standards for admission without improving compensation, career structure and working conditions, because few candidates will sign up at the schools of education.  There was no recognition in this report of this balancing act.

Here's another example along the same lines.  One of the most important measures taken by many top-performing nations to improve teacher quality in their elementary (they call them "primary") schools has to do with job and structure, the requirement that these teachers specialize in either their native language and social studies or mathematics and science.  That requirement makes it possible for those countries to require that their teachers-in-training minor in either mathematics and science or their native language and social studies.  I firmly believe that the superior student performance of many of these countries in mathematics and science is a function of this system.  But, here again, the schools would have to agree to such changes in structure in coordination with agreements on the part of the schools of education and universities to institute the appropriate changes in the structure of their preparation programs.  Unless, of course, the states choose to legislate this aspect of job structure in our elementary schools, in which case state education leaders would have to lay the political groundwork for such a change as an integral part of their teacher quality program.

A third example has to do with career structure at all school levels.  The report cites the career ladder system in Singapore, arguably the best such system in the world.  It provides three separate career structures for teachers, one into school and district administration, one into research and policy, and another into teaching roles of increasing responsibility and authority.  All involve higher compensation as one ascends the ladder.  This is a form of merit pay to which our teachers unions do not object, because the basis for ascending these ladders is objective and fair and the idea of such ladders contributes to teacher professionalism rather than detracting from it.  Here again, the creation of such career ladders ought to be viewed as an integral part of a state policy for making teaching more attractive as a career to highly capable and ambitious youngsters choosing their careers, as a key part of a system that balances higher standards for becoming a teacher with greater rewards for choosing teaching as a career.  Right now, as things stand, it is the districts that are responsible for structuring teachers' careers.  But, if the new licensing standards are going to include provisions for licenses at different points along a career ladder, then the state is going to have to play the lead role here and, once the state structures the form of the career ladders, stipulates the standards that teachers will have to meet to get a license to assume these new roles in the schools and tells the schools of education what kinds of programs designed to what standards will be required to educate and train teachers to assume these new roles, then the state role in matters formerly reserved for school districts will be transformed.

I use these examples to make a simple point, which is that the chief state school officers need to see their role not just as making changes in the things for which they are currently responsible, but in envisioning how a whole new system might work, and as providing the leadership in their state for bringing all the parties to the table who are needed to make that new system work.  

The Chief's report nicely captures the reality that our state departments of education have not, until now, been seen as responsible for the whole education system, but only for certain limited functions within that system.  That leaves no one in charge.  I've tried to make the point that making major strides in teacher quality will require a new system, and someone has to take the lead in building that system.  The only possible candidate is the state department of education and the state board, working under the direction and with the leadership of the chief state school officer.

My purpose here is not to fault this report—it is a good beginning—but to call for the chiefs to see their role in larger terms, because that is the only way they can succeed in this most important of all the tasks they face.  I might say that I worried, too, about the lack of specificity in the report about what the standards should be for teachers' mastery of subject matter and for mastery of craft.  But, speaking as a veteran of commission management, I can well imagine that the managers of this commission felt that the agreements they were able to get were impressive enough for the first round on this topic, and decided to leave issues like this for another day.  To which I would say—fair enough.
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