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John Thompson: Three Visions of Teaching in the 21st Century

Guest post by John Thompson

This is the second of two connected posts. Read the first here.

Richard Elmore and Elizabeth City have described three possible futures for public education. I see two of them as nightmares, but Elmore's and City's most hopeful scenario is one of schools that foster "controlled engagement," or the "frog gets a GPS." Under their model, "schools set the learning destinations and map out the best pathways to those destinations," and adults and students, together, create a broader learning environment.

Nancy Flanagan, a former Michigan Teacher of the Year and blogger, and Jal Mehta of the Harvard Futures of School Reform have also described likely paths for our schools. Flanagan and her teacher friends anticipated three scenarios:

1. "The Brilliant Temp model," where "teaching becomes a competitive short-term career for our best and brightest grads, who will last in the classroom as long as the job market for professional work keeps them there." In that scenario, "teacher training becomes truncated and limited to 'tools.'"
2. "The Teacher as Technician model, where the person in front of the room (or, more likely, cost-effective virtual room) is following pre-set 'protocols' to dump content into kids' heads, then testing for memorization."
3. "The Teacher as Skilled Professional model." In this age of "accountability," such an outcome might seem unlikely, but it has happened before. As Linda Darling Hammond explained, medical schools were once primitive institutions, but instead of abandoning them, we used evidence-based methods to teach doctors to become skilled professionals.

Mehta also described two models where "reformers" were victorious. Under scenario #2, "reform from the outside in,"choice continues to proliferate. New schools would be created from scratch for x number of fortunate students. Mehta speculated that these new entrants into the world of education "could end up the majority power in the top 100 systems." He could not speculate, however, how many of those experiments would work, and what percentage of students would still have access to an education under such a system.

Under Mehta's scenario # 4, "technological reinvention," there would be even more choice, "-- not just choice among schools as we know them, but choice among all the pieces that comprise an education." This brave new world would hold the same great promise for the winners of our grand educational competition, but it would be a dystopia for others. How many families of our most difficult-to-educate students, for instance, would be able to assemble and coordinate such a portfolio of options?

Mehta's hopeful scenarios, however, would mesh perfectly with Flanagan's and Darling Hammond's visions. Under Scenario #1, "the International Path," we would change in three ways:

"a) we'd move from taking teachers from the bottom 40 percent of the distribution to the top third; b) we'd move away from our world-leading emphasis on testing and external accountability in favor of support and capacity building; c) teachers unions would need to take on a professionalized role in addition to a strictly bread and butter one."

For me, Mehta's fourth possible path, #3 "Marrying School and Social Reform," is the most promising one. This has the advantage of being an old idea, based on a huge body of social science. The new element would be moving from "an aspirational ideal" to "a more concrete set of practices--inter-agency collaborations or teachers housed in schools explicitly responsible for helping students with problems that extend beyond schools."

Mehta explained we are now in "a 'schools only' moment, despite mountains of evidence of the inefficacy of schools alone" in creating educational futures for kids. By addressing that reality, we could point the way towards a synthesis of Flanagan's and Mehta's visions.

Obviously, "Brilliant Temps" and "Teachers as Technicians" would be unfit for either the "International Path," or for "Marrying School with Social Reform." On the other hand, we must wonder how long skilled professionals will continue to put up with the indignity of being the scapegoat for a broken system. It would be a great honor for educators, though, to be part of the GPS for students leaping into the 21st Century. To borrow an old metaphor, unless we expect to find a GPS laying on the beach, teachers like Flanagan, and scholars like Elmore, City, and Mehta, must work together to design one.

What do you think of the scenarios provided here? How can we guide our schools forward?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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