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Professional development of American teachers costs up to $18 billion a year with at least half of that spent on workshops for teachers. But no matter how much we spend, it doesn’t seem to result in much improvement in student achievement.
Several other countries are doing a better job than the U.S. in developing teachers.
The Center on International Education Benchmarking of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) recently released two reports which look at the four educational systems that perform best on international student achievement tests: British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore.
The Hechinger Report’s Emmanuel Felton wrote last week about a panel of education experts who gathered in Washington to discuss the reports — one by Ben Jensen and another by Minxuan Zhang and colleagues — which focused mainly on how these four systems improve their teachers’ craft.
In all of all these places, teacher professional development is a key element, perhaps the key element, in their overall strategy for improving student performance. The systems in Shanghai and Singapore are the most fully developed.
Both are organized around career ladders, systems in which teachers have the opportunity to acquire progressively more authority, responsibility, status and compensation as they move up.
At the first step on the ladder, new teachers essentially apprentice to the best teachers in the whole system, an opportunity only a handful of American teachers ever get. This is how they learn their craft. Their experience in the university while getting a degree in teaching is mainly devoted to mastering the content of the subjects they will teach.
In the United States, many teachers learn their content in myriad third- or fourth-tier institutions that starve their teacher education programs of resources in order to subsidize other parts of the institution.
That is not true in the high-performing countries. While a state with population of, say, five million people in the United States might have 30 teacher preparation institutions, many of very low quality, Singapore has only one teacher preparation institution for a country of 5.5 million, Shanghai has only two for a population of 23 million and Finland has only seven for a population of 5 million.
In all of these cases, all of the teacher education programs have been located in top-flight research universities.
So, in the top-performing countries, new teachers have already been prepared for teaching at a much higher level than is typically the case in the United States. But as they begin their careers, they have a lot to look forward to.
Teachers at the top of the career ladder can make as much as school principals. Moving up the ladder requires demonstrating ever-higher levels of expertise.
At the lower levels of the ladder, that mainly means expertise as a teacher. But as the teachers move higher up the ladder, they assume more and more responsibility for mentoring teachers, providing professional development to their colleagues, leading teams of teachers responsible for school improvement, conducting research that is used to drive school improvement, and so on. As they move up the ladder, they have to demonstrate higher and higher skills in teaching, leadership, mentoring and research.
In America, research shows that the typical American teacher has a fairly steep learning curve in the first three years or so of service, but that curve flattens out around years four or five. Research on expertise shows that it takes about ten years to become expert in anything. So most American teachers stop getting better long before they become as expert as they could be.
The reason is obvious. A teachers’ job is the same on her very last day of service as it was the first day. Teachers’ compensation increases with time in service, but they are not rewarded for demonstrating an increase in their expertise. Most of us faced with that situation would learn what we had to learn to do well enough, but would not put in the kind of effort required to become a real expert. Why bother?
In the Shanghai and Singapore schools, teachers spend much less time teaching than in the U.S. and much more time working in teams with other teachers on a wide variety of projects designed to improve student performance. Teams are organized by grade level, content area and research topic.
Team meetings are not aimless talkathons. That’s because they have specific assignments with deadlines and are expected to use carefully developed routines to achieve their goals.
Teachers are constantly developing new lessons, new teaching methods and better ways of evaluating student progress, demonstrating them to their colleagues, and critiquing each other’s work. Performance evaluations of school administrators feature an assessment of their ability to support teacher professional development.
What I am describing is an environment in which teachers have a strong incentive to learn all the time, in myriad ways, from each other, from the research literature, from their own work and from student and parent feedback.
These teachers don’t stop learning because they have a never-ending incentive to keep learning. They have the time and resources to learn.
Learning is woven into the warp and woof of the work.
Is it any wonder these countries are so far ahead of us in student achievement?
Marc Tucker is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C.