What’s Blocking Our Vision?

By Jon Saphier -- September 26, 2014

Many important educational reform efforts are underway.  Productive efforts are underway to use data well, to increase the effectiveness of recruitment and retention of teachers, and to increase the autonomy of principals and their staffs in decisions.  However, there is a very large blind spot affecting these reform efforts.  It’s big enough to prevent people from seeing why earnest and well-conceived plans have such disappointing results.  What exactly does this blind spot conceal?  The fact that the knowledge and skill to teach effectively is larger and much more complex than what we prepare teachers to do or hold them accountable for doing.  That’s it!

The basic point I want to make is that we under-prepare, under-support, under-evaluate, and under-develop our teacher workforce because we don’t believe that the expertise required for successful teaching is that complicated.  This is not what other countries like Singapore, Finland, and many others that outperform us in educational attainment believe or do.  This isn’t the case for other high skill professions in medicine, architecture, engineering, or law that also affect people’s lives. We want to recruit more “quality” teachers, but there aren’t enough high expertise teachers to recruit.  We want to give performance bonuses to teachers who get big achievement gains, but we ignore the synergy of relationships necessary for high performing schools; relationships that depend on cooperation and teamwork.  We want to extend the school day, but too many children in those longer days still get inadequate teaching.  We want to publish scores and let competition force low-performing educators out of the business, but there aren’t enough high-expertise educators to fill the vacated slots.

Because we don’t accept the complexity and sophistication of teaching, we try various tactics to motivate the existing corps of teachers (merit pay, performance bonuses), purge the ranks of low-performers (teacher evaluation), and recruit highly accomplished young people into teaching (Teach for America).  These are all useful strategies, but to work, they require a solid knowledge foundation.  You can’t recruit, motivate, or punish teachers into effective practice requiring a high level of expertise if they don’t have it to begin with.  Moreover, you can’t cultivate skills that aren’t already there with structures (small schools, common planning time). What’s the solution?  The missing element in our efforts to improve American education is a systematic, knowledge-based career path for teachers based on acquisition of complex professional knowledge and skill together with the diagnostic and decision-making expertise of high functioning practitioners.  You can’t get there without a complete overhaul of the human resource pipeline that currently produces and develops our teachers.