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Continuums of Professional Practice for Teaching


Last week, I shared some thoughts on a structure that our profession lacks, Guiding Principles.  In the work that I’ve done with wonderful collaborators over the past few years, I’ve identified five such structures that teaching lacks and most other professions have.  Today, I’d like to talk about another of these, continuums of professional practice (career pathways).

Taking a look at other professions reveals, in almost every case, the existence of structured career stages involving professional development and levels of professional expertise. Continuums allow a practitioner to grow and develop, plan career trajectories, and advance in their careers.  Such continuums are useful in:

  • Assessing progress in the development of skills.
  • Helping to define a desired level of competence within a profession.
  • Supporting progress in the development of skills, by understanding the learning needs and styles of learning at different levels of skill acquisition.
  • Helping to determine when a learner is ready to teach others.

The research base around expertise includes information on:

  • Acquisition of expertise:  The role of intelligence in building expertise (Source: Schmidt, F.L., & Hunter, J.E. (1998)
  • The role of deliberate practice (Ericsson et al. [1993] Psych Review, p. 363) and the ‘ten year rule’ (music (Sosniak, 1985), mathematics (Gustin, 1985), tennis (Monsaas, 1985), swimming (Kalinowski, 1985), long-distance running (Wallingford, 1975), evaluation of livestock (Phelps & Shanteau, 1978), diagnosis of X-rays (Lesgold, 1984), medical diagnosis (Patel & Groen, 1991), scientific publications (Lehman, 1953), etc.

In 2006, Dreyfus and Dreyfus defined the acquisition of skill with this diagram:

Using this work, researchers went on to define characteristics of practice at each of these stages, using expertise as a basis for these definitions.  This model has been played out against the teaching profession with the following assumptions:


  • Student teachers; many first year teachers
  • Rational
  • Inflexible – do everything by the book
  • Conform to whatever rules they were told to follow

Advanced beginners

  • Many 2nd and 3rd year teachers
  • Experience begins to guide behavior
  • Start to learn when to ignore rules and use their own experience to make decisions
  • Have difficulty prioritizing responsibilities

Competent practice

  • Many 3rd, 4th, and 5th year teachers
  • More in control of events, relying more on own experience than on what they were taught will work
  • Learn how to prioritize responsibilities
  • Become emotionally attached and responsible for what happens in the classroom

Proficient practice

  • Small number of teachers after 5th year
  • Develop teaching intuition
  • Think about classroom events holistically
  • Read patterns in classroom behavior

Expert practice

  • Very small number of teachers beyond 6th year
  • Develop tacit knowledge about teaching

–      Unspoken rules about the teaching process that come from experience

  • Teach “fluidly”; don’t have to think about teaching

–      Like a race car driver being “one” with the car

  • Can be analytical when problems occur
  • Innovative

Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg proposes a 6th stage, innovative practice.

Why are acquisition of expertise and career ladders important for teaching?  A review of some studies on retention shows us that there are some common characteristics as to the reasons why teachers leave our profession, regardless of where they are in terms of experience and years of service.  In looking at Susan Moore Johnson’s research of beginning teachers, they tell us that one of the things they need is support and professional opportunities that include leadership, as well as differentiated pay structures that allow for acquisition of expertise.  Richard Ingersoll’s studies of why experienced teachers leave the profession note that reasons given include a lack of support and lack of teacher input into decision making.  Finally, Ellen Behrstock’s research on Generation Y teachers tells us that these millennial teachers are looking for leadership opportunities from day one; if they don’t have these, many will leave.

In addition, we find that the research around expertise tells us that it takes ten years to acquire expertise in any profession; coupled with the data that tells us that our retention rate for new teachers is hovering somewhere around 40%, and it is clear that we have a problem.  If we cannot retain almost half of our teachers for five years, let alone ten, how will we develop cadres of expert teachers?

We are currently ‘advancing’ teachers in many districts by the number of years in which they have served and the level of degree that they have attained.  Yet, Marguerite Roza’s research tells us that attaining a Master’s degree – except in Mathematics – may not result in more effective teaching.  And, number of years served does not guarantee better teaching; there is no guarantee that a teacher with ten years’ experience will have acquired expertise.

NNSTOY’s hypothesis is that by establishing continuums of professional practice in teaching, we will positively impact:

  • Teacher retention:  Generation Y teachers in particular tell us that without such career advancement opportunities, their likelihood of staying in the profession is lessened. (Behrstock).
  • Teacher satisfaction:  exit interviews with both beginning and more mature teachers tells us that a lack of support, and lack of opportunities to advance, contribute to them leaving the profession (Moore Johnson).
  • Principal stress:  by providing advanced career roles for teachers, including distributed leadership models, some of the load on principals – a job that Danielson calls ‘impossible’ – will be lessened by incorporation of teacher leaders into areas like evaluation, observation, creation of professional growth plans, curriculum planning, and others.

We are in the process of working with the Center for Educator Effectiveness at Pearson to conduct a literature review of continuum models in other professions as well as those that exist in teaching; and, undertaking case studies to examine some of the models that exist in teaching.  Our intention is to define recommendations for what teaching continuums might look like, and to pilot and field test such continuums in schools.

NNSTOY is not alone in its interest in continuums.  The Accomplished California Teachers group has just published a paper on this topic:  http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/act-promoting-quality-teaching-compensation-career-pathways-fullreport.pdf.  Art Wise, former NCATE President, long an advocate for teacher continuums, continues his work and published this update in Ed Week recently, urging us to break free of the four-walled classroom with one teacher for 25 student model:  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/01/25/18wise_ep.h31.html?tkn=XMTFG9nfQSdAjCvjOBRee8X0Jv5O2AxEd6sq&cmp=clp-edweek.  And, Molly Lasagna, Jane Coggshall, and Sabrina Laine, AIR researchers published a paper on differentiated staffing models based on career pathways for teachers and are working to update that study:  http://www.air.org/files/InnovationsInStaffing.pdf.

We are in conversation with a number of other organizations also interested in this topic and will keep you updated as work progresses.  The bottom line is that, in order to develop a solid pipeline of excellent prospective teachers, and to keep our effective teachers in our classrooms, we need to establish 21st century systems offering teachers leadership opportunities while maintaining their teacher roles, differentiated staffing structures based on teacher role, and recognition that teachers, like other professionals, grow, develop, and advance in our careers.

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