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The Future of the Teaching Profession

Answers by Dr. Barnett Berry

What are the biggest challenges that teachers and the teaching profession face?

I see two great challenges, and they are issues that affect not just the teaching profession but the efficacy of public education in general. First, we have a gross misdistribution of qualified teachers which, in effect, denies a portion of our public school students access to a high-quality education. Second, accomplished teachers continue to have little voice in creating the policies and programs needed to ensure that every student has a good teacher.

Why do you think teachers have so little voice in policy matters where we might assume they have a lot of expertise?

America’s teachers have a stormy and convoluted history—often framed by the struggle to determine who teaches what and how, and under what conditions. Over 200 years ago, America’s teachers were hired to transmit values and, to some extent, the basic skills of the day. When women began to dominate the teaching workforce some 150 years ago, the occupation’s status began to decline. Not much has changed since then. It's true that teachers have seen their salaries and working conditions improve. And we have experienced periods of time when national opinion-makers have called for a more highly educated, better prepared, and professionally paid teacher workforce. Recall the Sputnik panic in the late 1950s and, more recently, the “flat world” concerns growing out of global economic competition.

But relative to other professions, teachers still have to wrestle for status and respect, and while they often are expected to be smart and entrepreneurial, they also are expected to be compliant and conforming. At the dawn of the 21st Century, good teaching and good schools are concepts defined not by successful teachers but by school boards, administrators, textbook companies, for-profit curriculum developers, and the testing industry.

While the anti-teacher rhetoric is tamer today, teachers are still viewed as having inferior academic skills, attending teacher education courses defined as being “Mickey Mouse,” and teaching only because they could not do anything else. These words and images are regularly brandished in the mass media, even though there is growing evidence that this is not a fair representation of the teaching profession today.

Are you saying that teachers, by and large, are adequately prepared for today's teaching challenges?

Not “by and large,” but the fault for that lies not with teachers but with those who make teaching policies. It is true that individuals who feel drawn to teaching find themselves confronted by insufficient teacher preparation programs, especially for teaching in high-need schools. To keep up with high teacher turnover, schools continue to hire under-prepared teachers who are able to “teach” due to inconsistent entry standards. In many, many schools, new-teacher support is pitifully lacking and poor working conditions accelerate teacher turnover. We know that understaffed and under-funded schools have little time for quality professional development, which prevents the spread of teaching expertise.

These conditions continue to prevail even though researchers like Ron Ferguson and William Sanders have provided convincing evidence that teaching quality is the most important factor in student achievement. What matters most, we are learning, is not a teachers' paper qualifications or their time on the job, but how they learn to teach.

And we know now that certain working conditions, especially school leadership, quality professional development (including time for it), and teacher empowerment have a huge impact on both teacher retention and student achievement.

I think there is now strong consensus among political and education leaders that teachers are major players in the drive to close America’s daunting and enduring student achievement gap.

So why is there so little consensus about how to recruit, prepare, and pay good teachers and ensure they are equitably distributed across America’s diverse school communities?

Dissent over the future of teaching falls into two main camps. In one camp are those who seek to professionalize teaching; the other camp is populated by those who seek to deregulate teaching.

Professionalism advocates point to the growing knowledge base in teaching (not fully mature like in others), and call for resources and the authority of the state to promote the more rigorous recruitment and extended preparation needed to teach increasingly diverse students—and to pay for the complex professional development and compensation models commonly found in fields like medicine, architecture, and engineering. Professionalism advocates believe teaching is not just about academic achievement (as measured in a variety of ways) but also about social justice and empowering students to participate fully in America’s democratic and economic life.

Deregulation advocates point to the still flimsy knowledge base of effective teaching, to out-of-sync education professors and cumbersome certification policies, and call for using short-cuts to teacher preparation and certification. They emphasize subject matter knowledge over teaching skills, want to give principals more authority to hire and fire at will, and favor compensating teachers primarily on the basis of their students’ standardized test scores. The Fordham Foundation (a strong deregulationist advocate) has defined a qualified teacher is someone with “a solid general education, who possesses deep subject area knowledge, and who has no record of misbehavior.”

So which side has the better argument?

Teacher education scholar Marilyn Cochran-Smith has noted that each side has “differing notions of evidence, fairness, results, progress, public benefit, the American way, and other key ideas,” and their respective positions are “driven by ideas, ideals, values, and assumptions about the purposes of schooling, the social and economic future of the nation, and the role of public education in a democratic society.” Each side seeks to trump the other with their version of truth and righteousness.

In my opinion, the deregulation advocates want less-prepared teachers to enter and then leave teaching quickly, which helps them to achieve what I believe are their largely unstated goals—keeping teacher salaries low and limiting the potential impact that highly professionalized teachers can have on what is taught—and how it is taught—in our nation’s public schools. For example, deregulationist advocates have launched and are selling the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence, with its “on the cheap” method of testing teachers on subject matter. The idea is to simply bypass teacher education—as if there are no special skills involved in educating children effectively. In large part, this is a move to stem the momentum of National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, with its complex and expensive measurement tools that seek to codify and spread professional teaching knowledge. With their well-funded and well-organized communications infrastructure, the deregulationists are quite effective in delivering their messages to both policymakers and the public.

Does the public support the deregulation of teaching?

Polling data reveal clearly that the American people, on both sides of the political aisle, want a true teaching profession. In 2005, a poll by the bi-partisan Teaching Commission found that more than 81 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans favor increased teacher salaries even if that means higher taxes. This same poll showed that while Americans definitely want schools to be more accountable, only 35 percent trusted current standardized tests to be fair measures of effective teachers and teaching. And a 2002 poll by the Educational Testing Service revealed that 75 percent of Americans oppose allowing people with bachelor’s degrees to become teachers without preparation in the field of education.

These polling data suggest that the American public wants to improve teaching quality by investing in the education profession. But the public’s sentiments are not being expressed, as states lower teaching standards through alternative certification programs, turn a blind eye to whether teachers have the expert teaching skills and cultural competencies necessary to teach all students effectively, and choose to assess the complexity of teaching effectiveness using only standardized tests. Despite all the accumulating evidence that teachers matter most in raising school achievement, our nation has few comprehensive policies to transform the way teachers are recruited, prepared, supported and paid.

In your opinion, how should this issue be addressed?

A big part of the problem is that the public, and the elected policymakers who serve them, have too few opportunities to hear from accomplished teachers who have a unique perspective on the core issues of school reform. If decision makers set a place at the policy table for expert teachers who are working every day in our nation's most challenging schools, then I suspect many of the issues facing the teaching profession could be overcome, and more of America’s teachers would have the skills, resources, and supports needed to serve all students effectively.

This is why my organization has supported the development of the Teacher Leaders Network, a widespread Internet-based professional community with a focus on enhancing and celebrating teacher leadership, spreading teaching expertise, and elevating the voices of highly accomplished teachers in matters related to their profession and the students they teach. In pursuit of the latter goal, we have recently launched TeacherSolutionsSM, a strategy that we believe will become a powerful vehicle to demonstrate the unique policy insights that accomplished teachers can offer. We'll have more information about this new foundation-supported initiative soon at www.teacherleaders.org.

If Americans fail to listen to our most accomplished teachers on how to professionalize their own profession, I'm afraid we'll continue to look for solutions to the achievement gap and other problems that plague our public schools “in all the wrong places”—and history will continue to repeat itself.

About Dr. Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is the founder and President of the Center for Teaching Quality, Inc., based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Center seeks, both regionally and nationally to improve student learning by shaping policies through developing teacher leadership, building coalitions, and conducting practical research, both in the Southeast and across the nation.

Dr. Barnett Berry's career, which began as an under-prepared, inner-city high school teacher in 1978, has focused on a wide range of efforts to close America’s student achievement gap by closing the teaching quality gap. He has worked as a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, served as a senior executive with the South Carolina State Department of Education and directed an education policy center while he was a professor at the University of South Carolina. In the 1990s, Dr. Berry played a major role in developing the blue ribbon report of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future and later leading its state policy and partnership efforts. Dr. Berry earned his Ph.D. in educational policy from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is author of over 100 journal articles, book chapters and commissioned reports on school reform, accountability and the teaching profession, and serves on boards and in an advisory capacity to numerous organizations committed to teaching quality, equity and social justice in America’s schools. He and Meredith, his wife of almost 30 years, have two children, Joseph, 23 and Evanne, 18.

Anyone who would like to respond to this edition of TeachersTopic can email Dr. Berry at bberry@teachingquality.org or visit his blog at www.teachingquality.org.