Vail Daily column: Rethink teaching model
“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” This was the bold proclamation issued by the internationally-renowned business consulting firm McKinsey and Co., in an influential 2007 report which looked at the world’s best education systems from an international benchmarking perspective.
As strong as this statement is, it is difficult to validate from a scientific perspective. However, we do know that the largest in-school factor affecting the quality of education systems is the classroom teacher (the largest overall factors are things such as family wealth and education).
While we may not be able to scientifically prove the McKinsey statement, I cannot imagine anyone arguing that educator quality isn’t a core focus area for any school system. And, from a benchmarking perspective, we see a great deal of attention and effort put into raising educator quality in all high-performing education systems.
While we have focused on improving educator quality in the United States and in Colorado, we’ve typically gone about it in a very different way than the international high-performers.
The best education systems follow what I’d call a professional model when it comes to teaching. That is, they consider education a high skill profession that not everyone can or should, do.
Entry into the profession is both selective and competitive, so talent and intelligence is assured in the teacher workforce from the beginning. Training consists of learning about the specific content area that will be taught, in-depth study into the art and science of teaching and an immersive and hands-on experience doing the work as a part of teacher training.
The profession in these systems is also considered with high regard and status. Teachers are respected, revered, supported and acknowledged for the specialized knowledge workers that they are. They are afforded high levels of professional empowerment in which they control many of the decisions concerning their work and instruction.
I once had the opportunity to serve on a conference panel with a high-ranking education official from Finland. After hearing about their approach to educator quality, I asked him how they dealt with bad or ineffective teachers, which has been a major source of focus in American education reform movements.
He looked confused and puzzled by my question for a moment, and then he asked me, “Do you mean they are mentally ill?” It was as if he did not understand my question at all! As I reflected on this interaction, it became clear to me that the Finnish education official struggled with my question because the professional system they have in place in that country makes the probability of a bad or ineffective teacher highly unlikely.
A professional model of teaching is in place in every high-quality system in the world — and it ain’t rocket science.
By contrast, the American approach to educator quality has been to throw the doors wide open in terms of who can become a teacher, lowering or removing completely the bar in terms of the pre-service training experience, scripting and mandating lessons and teaching and subjecting teachers to onerous and confusing performance evaluation systems designed to identify and weed out poor performers.
Which of these models would you prefer to work in? Would you choose the international high performers’ or the American approach? In the United States, the combined result of higher teacher turnover and lower numbers of people entering the profession is giving us part of our answer.
We are doing it wrong.
Across our country, this week is Teacher Appreciation Week. Taking the time to thank a teacher and acknowledge his or her contributions and sacrifice is indeed a worthy goal. We should indeed show our appreciation for those who give their professional lives in service to our children.
However, we’ve got to do more. Appreciating teachers for a week will not turn the tide and build a great teaching profession for our community, our state, or our country. What is needed is a commitment and system-wide effort, which is at the magnitude and scale required to ensure every child has a talented, trained, caring and professional educator working with him or her.
That said, I do want to publicly thank all of the teachers in Eagle County for their service and dedication to our students and community. Without them, we could not be setting our sights on what we know is possible.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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