Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education hosted education writers Dana Goldstein and Elizabeth Green last week for a lecture and discussion event titled “Reimagining the Teaching Profession.” In this post I’ve summarized and reacted to their prepared remarks, and in a subsequent post I’ll share some of their ensuing discussion with Linda Darling-Hammond.
The event actually began with Darling-Hammond introducing the two writers, both of whom had books on teaching published last year. Goldstein’s book, The Teacher Wars, goes back over 150 years in its examination of the politics and tensions surrounding teaching. Green’s book is titled Building a Better Teacher, and while it too offers some historical background, it focuses more on the current debates around how to make teaching and schools more effective through intentional, systematic efforts.
Darling-Hammond framed the evening’s conversation broadly, noting that while American education history has a certain degree of cyclical futility, that is not a universal phenomenon. Other countries have learned from their pasts and made improvements that the U.S. is still reluctant to adopt – or perhaps, pay for: providing an income to teachers in training rather than forcing many into debt, offering more thorough and more clinical training, longer and more careful career induction, and offering more diversified career ladders.
Goldstein began her remarks by highlighting some of the more jaw-dropping information from her book’s early chapters, noting that the feminization of teaching in the 19th century was an overt cost-cutting strategy. It also turns out that the underlying theories behind value-added measurement and performance pay have a century of failed experiments behind them as well. As a conclusion to her individual remarks, Goldstein argued that we haven’t done enough to foster community, stability, and professionalism in schools. Her take on the problem was refreshing in that she seems to understand teachers well, and shared what a teacher recently told her: education reform must be done in ways that make the job stimulating to adults as well as children. We need to use our expertise, and a simplified job that almost anyone can do will guarantee the loss of more talented, passionate, creative teachers. Finally, she noted that the “fire the worst teachers” theory of improvement seems particularly problematic as the issue of teaching quality is too big, and the need for new teachers already too great.
Green opened her remarks with an example illustrating that teaching is a profession with specialized knowledge and skills, citing the work of Deborah Lowenberg Ball and Hyman Bass. The central premise of that work is that expertise in mathematics is not sufficient for working with children, as an effective teacher must anticipate or later correct student misconceptions, which requires an understanding of children and the development of their mathematical thinking. With that premise established, Green presented some of the obstacles to better teaching: these include the longstanding professional isolation of teachers in their daily practice, and lack of time for collaboration and ongoing learning.
The potential solutions to improvement of teaching come from two opposed viewpoints, according to Green: accountability, or autonomy. Either we need to tell teachers what to do, how to do it, and hold them accountable for getting results, or get out of their way entirely and allow teachers to develop and use their professional expertise without interference. Perhaps I misunderstood, and perhaps there’s more explanation in her book, but I seemed to me that these two approaches were offered as ends of a continuum, when I would think it’s possible to make the two compatible.
Moving on, Green cited the work of Magdelene Lampert, whose experiences as a student at an Italian language school influenced her research into the infrastructure that supports good teaching within a system. The idea of infrastructure is one that I find appealing for addressing quality teaching, suggesting that our work depends on more than our individual skills and dedication, and that the responsibility for improving education belongs to everyone whose decisions and actions create the context for the work of teachers.
Watch for the follow-up post for highlights of the ensuing conversation involving Dana Goldstein, Elizabeth Green, and Linda Darling-Hammond.