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The Future of Teaching

Bill Ferriter has a great piece up this morning, musing--as we all do, endlessly--about how our national love affair with standardized test data has bent and twisted the creative, purpose-driven art and science of teaching. Not to mention genuine student learning, school creation, rich curriculum, professional collaboration and a lot of careers and lives.

In what I hope is the phenomenon of great minds thinking alike, I had my own epiphany on this topic last weekend, in a homegrown think-tank retreat with some trusted educator friends. We've all worn various hats and worked for an array of edu-orgs, but at heart and core, we're teachers. Ten years ago, if you'd asked us what the future of teaching and teacher leadership looked like, we would have conjured up a rosy vision of an inexorable march toward true professionalism: a higher bar for admission, standards-based practice and evaluation, relentless pursuit of equity.

"None of the above" would not have been an option. All of us were National Board Certified Teachers (as is Ferriter); we were convinced we were looking toward a decade where teachers were--finally--going to rise to authentic leadership, controlling the heart of their work: curriculum, instruction, assessment. That was then, of course.

Ferriter now suggests that one of three models of teaching will eventually triumph (and I'm paraphrasing):

#1) The Brilliant Temp model, where public school 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. Teacher training will be truncated and limited to "tools;"education will no longer be a scholarly, philosophical discipline. Simply a service, subject to efficiency testing.

#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 (see paragraph two)--which can only come about through serious investment and recreation of "teaching." A national paradigm shift.

Last weekend, fueled by a lot of wine, my edu-posse saw only two prospective models--a combination of #1 & #2, the Young, Smart, Enthusiastic & Compliant Technician model, and the increasingly unlikely Professional Teacher. Two roads, diverging.

So what happened, on the way to the promised land?

The Tempered Radical blames this reductionism on testing--and he's right. But he doesn't go far enough. Mandated Extreme Testing is just one super-tool--it isn't the only force pushing teaching into a corner. It's a complex mix of political power, fear of a rising public sector, and a desire to make money by converting a massive public service into a wide-open market place.

[Full disclosure: I am of the opinion that some things should not be for sale, but are human rights. This is why we have government, and public services. Justice, general welfare, domestic tranquility--you remember, the blessings of liberty?]

How could we turn the bus around and start taking the Professional Teacher path? And would it be worth doing so?

First--we can't buy and sell our way into a future of teacher professionalism. Genuine leadership isn't entrepreneurial, as much as we'd like to reward the dynamic and creative reform and practice ideas coming out of the teaching profession. Leadership comes from a desire to serve and a vision for productive change, not offering ideas, skills and tools on the educational market.

As it happens, Linda Darling-Hammond wrote a detailed record of how other nations have found their way to the teacher-professional path: "The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future." In this wonderful book, Darling-Hammond shares a wealth of information on how the paradigm shift toward professional teaching has yielded demonstrable results in student learning, around the globe. It's a great companion piece to Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System"--providing a road map for positively addressing some of the messes and causes Ravitch outlines.

Have you noticed that the scorn once heaped on Darling-Hammond is now aimed at Ravitch?

Have you noticed the mere mention of Finland as desirable educational model--a place where teachers are truly seen as nation-builders--now draws immediate negative commentary, ranging from "I'm so tired of hearing about Finland" to "What worked for Finland would never work here?"

Have you noticed the increasingly bitter and vitriolic debate over what research is clearly telling us?

What's the way out? Maybe it's time to take to the streets.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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