Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Teaching Policy to Improve Student Learning": A Solution Desperate for a Problem

A recent publication, Teaching Policy to Improve Student Learning: Lessons from Abroad, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, reflects on the global state of human capital in the education workforce. An excerpt follows:

"Traditionally, teaching in the United States has reflected a factory model. Novices have been expected to fill the same roles as 20-year veterans; teachers have been viewed as largely interchangeable; and salary has been based on years of education and experience rather than on differentiated roles and responsibilities or superior performance."

From this statement, the report's (advertisement's) author (reflector), Lynn Olson, makes a sweeping and egregiously unsubstantiated conclusion about how teachers careers must change. Fallacy follows:

"That model no longer fits a rapidly changing, knowledge-based society. When all students must be prepared to think for a living, teachers also must become lifelong learners."

I think what Olson would have preferred to have said would have been more complex, uglier, and taken up too much copy. Besides we all know what Olson means right? Right? No. We don't. Olson's statement, a better statement, might have gone something like this:

"Teachers are responsible for much of the learning in which young people participate. Since young people will continuously rely more on how they think than on a learned body of knowledge for their livelihoods we must change the way young people are taught. In order to change the way young people are taught we must focus on the young people's teachers. Changes in how young people are taught will come when teachers begin to model lifelong learning behavior to the point of embodiment. That is, the teaching career must be a mirror of the world of work teachers send our young people, their students, out into. Teachers must be lifelong learners."

In order to reach the conclusion I believe Olson meant to say--that in order to make lifelong thinkers we need lifelong learners--I had to propose a major leap of faith. Since when did the preparation of a lifelong thinker require a lifelong learner? Show me a study. Any study. It's kind of ridiculous that smart people everyday make wild assumptions based upon little evidence beyond a gut feeling. Yet here it is.

Make a claim that lifelong learning increases engagement and helps retain teachers and maintains the efficacy of their teaching. Make a claim that we should design more robust curricula designed to enhance and promote thinking above rote knowledge. But don't imply that we live in a knowledge-based global economy so the education workforce must be out of touch.

I actually like most of the recommendations outlined in Teaching Policy to Improve Student Learning: Lessons from Abroad. Ideas like strengthening induction, salary differentials and incentives, career advancement beyond traditional salary steps, Lesson Study in Japan, pay-for-productivity, and a careful balance between cooperation and competition all deserve consideration. Most of the publication highlights ideas that often get overlooked. Too bad I had to struggle past a policy solution in need of an ill-conceived policy problem to get there.

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