According to the 2012 PDK/Gallup survey, the American public believes the teaching profession should impose entrance requirements that are just as selective, if not more so, than those required in fields such as business, pre-law, and engineering. In other words, treat teachers like true professionals – as they are in nations that have much higher rates of student achievement.
And yet, as Richard Milner of Vanderbilt University points out, certain so-called education “reforms” that enjoy a good deal of public support, not to mention sycophantic media coverage, are doing exactly the opposite – de-professionalizing the teaching profession.
In a policy brief published with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, Milner identifies and analyzes the three predominant policy culprits that have moved teaching away from professionalization. These fashionable reforms have had the most direct impact not only on the daily work of educators, but also on how the public and the media view the profession as a whole.
1. Value-Added Assessment. The first on Milner’s list probably ranks number one with most teachers as well. Students’ scores on high-stakes standardized tests produce at best murky data and yet are held up “The push for high test scores undermines the very essence of teachers’ creativity and their ability to be responsive to the particular needs of their students, varying as they do from student to student, year to year, and classroom to classroom,” Milner writes. “Their ability to draw from and put into practice their professional judgment is compromised.”
What’s especially damaging about the focus on standardized test results is the media’s tendency to cite them as proof of diminishing U.S. student achievement and teacher effectiveness.
“In this way, the media seem to feed public ambivalence and opinions that teachers are weak and that teaching is not a profession because it has insurmountable problems.”
Milner recommends a moratorium be placed on the use of test-based teacher evaluation system until a satisfactory level of accuracy has been achieved.
Blowback against standardized testing in recent months has at least forced some districts to revisit evaluations. In some states, policymakers have consulted affiliates of the National Education Association and worked with them to develop comprehensive evaluation systems based on multiple measures of student achievement and traditional classroom observations.
“If we really want systems that help all students reach their full potential, we must allow educators, parents, students and communities to be a part of the process and have a stronger voice in the conversations around high-quality assessments that really do support student learning,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
2. Fast-Track Teacher Preparation. Alternative teacher certification programs that push candidates into classrooms without any real intensive training contributes to the already pervasive sentiment that teaching is something anyone can do. Milner singles out Teach for America for recruiting teachers from top schools who, while they may have impressive knowledge of a specific content area, often lack proper training in learning theory, child development, or pedagogical skills. Attracting the best and brightest candidates to the classroom is a worthy and valuable goal, writes Milner, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of extensive classroom preparation. Nor should teaching be seen as a pit stop between college graduation and another career.
In response, Milner suggest policymakers take a time-out from expanding these fast-track programs until their long-range effectiveness in meeting students needs can be determined.
NEA believes it is critical to raise teacher standards both at the postsecondary-admissions and preservice stages. Learning how to teach, however, does not stop when the teaching career begins. NEA believes the profession must focus on supporting teachers, providing them with career options and helping teachers improve throughout their careers.
“In order to prepare the coming generations of students, all teachers must be effective—period,” says Van Roekel.
3. Narrowing of the Curriculum. A highly-scripted curriculum, while it may provide a useful roadmap for educators on what to teach and when to teach it, nonetheless does not allow teachers to rely on their professional judgment to make the best decisions for student learning. Saddled with pre-determined curriculum, “teachers are to act as automatons rather than as professionals. …Teaching is seen as technical and mindless, as work that does not require the cognitive ability to be responsive to learners because curriculum decisions have been predetermined Consequently, professionalism is further undermined because a narrowly-focused, mandated curricula sends the unmistakable signal to the general public that these important decisions shouldn’t be left to teachers – they are merely in the classroom to carry out cookie cutter policies.
A broadening of the curriculum is needed, Milner says, but as long as “high stakes consequences” are decoupled from the test scores that are usually the engine behind a highly-scripted curriculum.