When Harvard professor Jal Mehta and his team began researching the factors necessary to support high quality teaching, they started by identifying schools that focused on more than the reading and literacy test scores. The researchers knew there was far more to good teaching and real learning than what shows up on tests and they wanted to find schools focused on a more complex set of skills. They wanted to find out what good teaching looks like, how teachers learn to do it and what supports they need to spread those ideas.
After spending time at 30 schools talking with administrators, teachers and education leaders, Mehta’s team came up with three big areas of improvement described in a white paper called “From Quicksand to Solid Ground: Building a Foundation to Support Quality Teaching.”
The researchers found that a lack of investment in education research and development means there’s no systemized way of figuring out how to improve education for everyone, or making sure learning materials reflect best practices. They also found that inconsistent approaches to teacher training and induction into schools provides very little support for good teaching. And crucially, the policies need to change to reflect the value of teachers and should support the maintenance of a highly skilled educator workforce.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
Education is one of the few big industries that doesn’t prioritize investment in research about what works in classroom learning and applying that research to developing high quality materials. The report notes that in medicine and engineering 10-15 percent of spending goes towards research and development. In education, just one quarter of one percent is invested.
“Some teachers have a lot of knowledge about what works in particular subjects, for particular ages, but there’s no mechanism to make that knowledge visible,” said Jal Mehta, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the study. While that teacher may share practices with others in the building, if she leaves or retires, that knowledge goes with her.
The white paper puts the problem bluntly: “Plainly put, there is no one responsible for producing actionable, practical knowledge about teaching. Researchers write mainly for other researchers; teachers with knowledge have few incentives and little support to share it.” The gap between research and practice means that much of what is done in the classroom is based on how things have always been done, rather than on explicit research into how we learn.
“It seems like you should have a system where lots of people are trying out activities with kids in real settings,” Mehta said. He suggests that perhaps after school or summer programs might offer an opportunity for kids to keep learning and for educators to test out teaching practices with kids in real situations.
“Imagine during the summers there were large operations where people were trying out different pedagogies and you could send your kids for free,” Mehta said. Rather than implementing a new teaching fad across a district before it has been well tested, these research and development “camps” would give educators a way to stress test ideas without “experimenting” on kids during the school year. It might even help solve some of the summer childcare and “summer slide” issues. And this research could be paid for by the companies developing materials out of their findings.
TEACHER PREP MISALIGNMENT
Teacher preparation programs are often criticized for being irrelevant to the classrooms of today, but Mehta says the real trouble lies in the misalignment between what happens in preparation programs and at the district level. Mehta and his team interviewed both sides and found that districts were frustrated that new teachers didn’t have the practical skills they needed for the classroom. Conversely, teacher preparation programs are frustrated that districts don’t use the higher order thinking skills emphasized in their programs, effectively undoing their training.
“There needs to be much more vertically aligned teacher prep where what happens in training and what happens in the first few years of induction is much more aligned,” Mehta said. And while there is a lot of variation both in type and quality of teaching training programs, there are some common qualities in the best ones. The report lists them:
“The most effective programs share some common dimensions: they ensure that their candidates have significant content knowledge, focus on extensive clinical practice rather than classroom theory, are selective in choosing applicants rather than simply treating students as a revenue stream, and use data about how their students fare as teachers to assess and revise their practice.”
Similarly, the professional development teachers receive throughout their careers is often sorely lacking. Mehta’s report points to another study by Linda-Darling Hammond and her colleagues that summarizes the research on effective professional development as, “sustained over time, focused on important content, and embedded in the work of professional learning communities that support ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice.” Too often professional development now consists of a one-off, pre-packaged experience that feels irrelevant to a teacher’s practice.
All these problems are exacerbated by the lack of sanctioned time teachers have to seek out the most up to date research, talk and plan with colleagues and workshop difficulties going on in the classroom. These practices don’t support the growth of knowledge in schools.
Mehta suggests that education could learn from the medical field and offer “master-teaching schools” akin to teaching hospitals. Parents would know up front that if they sent their children to these schools they would be interacting with some less-experienced teachers who are being overseen by a very experienced teacher (like patients at a teaching hospital). Students at these teaching schools would also have access to the most cutting edge approaches and an environment of continued learning. While only one approach to the problem, Mehta suggests that teaching-schools could set the expectations for what good teaching looks like and ensure that all new teachers get to work with the very best veteran teachers.
The training at these imagined “master-teaching schools” could all be lost if districts don’t complement it with efforts to improve training around content, pedagogy and race.
The attitude of policymakers and the general public towards teachers is at the heart of any attempt to change the current education system. Right now there aren’t the right incentives, roles and infrastructure to carry out the type of changes laid out in the paper. To make these policy changes, some portion of the public would need to believe that teaching is an important and difficult job that requires time to learn and grow.
Mehta would like to see teaching emerge as a differentiated profession. Master teachers would earn high salaries, but would be responsible for a lot more work. In medicine, doctors who take on extra roles like serving on medical association boards, doing committee work or earning extra degrees also earn higher salaries than doctors who only keep up with the literature and treat patients. In education, many teachers just want to teach, have the summers off and use flexible afternoons to be present for their kids. But for those who want to take on more responsibility and lead pedagogical changes, there would be more pay.
Some states have already tried a laddered system like the one Mehta suggests, but have become frustrated when the expectations of master teachers weren’t clear. But Mehta says that’s fine because states need to build on those failures.
“The way I see it, change is slow, but it’s a process and you build on the best of the evidence and move forward,” Mehta said. What kind of evidence of teacher excellence would a state need to create a better ladder? Those who have tried and failed should now have a better idea about what to change in order to move forward.
SOLVING THESE PROBLEMS
Mehta and his colleagues do not lay out any policy recommendations in this white paper. “We have a large system with lots of really talented people in it,” Mehta said. “It would be hubristic to think that the four of us could come up with recommendations that would work across all of them.” Instead, he wants to bring people together to work on design challenges that might help address the three core problems identified.
Design challenges suggested in the report include:
- Develop a system for vetting curriculum materials and knowledge about teaching.
- Create vertically aligned pathways that run from teacher preparation through induction and continue into ongoing school-based learning.
- Create the recruitment pathways and policy changes needed to increase the population of teachers of color.
Mehta will be convening groups of educators at Harvard to discuss whether these are the right challenges and to attempt to design solutions. “These are core things that need to happen in the field, but people need to figure out how it looks for them,” Mehta said. He’s aware that different states and districts will approach these problems in a variety of ways based on their contexts, but he believes these broad challenges exist everywhere. Rather than suggesting a top down approach to solving these problems, he’d like to see teachers, educators, teacher preparation program leaders designing solutions they believe can work.
“My vision of change is more like a coalition or network moving forward, rather than a blueprint that everybody follows,” Mehta said. And, as with other good ideas like the Boston Teacher Residency program, if a district comes up with a good way of solving one of these crucial problems, others will happily modify and adopt it.