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Yes, Teachers Can Learn


In the Sunday edition of the New York Times, a commentary was published, written by Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling." In his commentary, Mr. Mehta debunks several reform planks, including THE NOTIONS that charter schools out-perform traditional public schools AND that teachers who are prepared by alternative programs perform better than those who come through traditional programs.  HE ALSO notes that despite extensive reform efforts, little has changed.  Mr. Mehta cites evidence for these assumptions, and I encourage you to read his well-written and thoughtful piece: http://www.opednews.com/Quicklink/Teachers--Will-We-Ever-Le-in-Best_Web_OpEds-130413-498.html

Mr. Mehta notes what we at NNSTOY have been saying for years, that until we change the very system of education, moving us from an antiquated system based on an agrarian calendar, to a professional structure that models the best of other professions, we have little chance of making meaningful change.  Like NNSTOY, Mr. Mehta focuses on continuums of professional practice (though he uses other terms to describe these), through which teachers can continually build their skills, work in supportive collaborative structures that are not regimented by bus schedules, explore, career pathways and opportunities for teacher leadership, and continually grow and develop.

He talks about the model of less instructional time and more time spent in action research, collaborative planning, data analyses, and ongoing assessment of professional practice in other countries.  Finally, Mr. Mehta notes that without meaningful systems change, we are relegated to making the same mistakes and moving the needle marginally, if at all, in terms of progress.

At the same time, we have recently seen a plethora of articles on the cheating scandals plaguing some of our nation’s largest school systems. This has called into question whether teacher evaluation using student test data is truly the answer some envisioned for transforming the sector.  As a counter-example to the recent cheating scandals, in his article, Helping Teachers Learn, Brent Staples cites the success of the Aspire charter school network in emphasizing extensive, constructive, and actionable feedback to teachers, creating a system of support for ongoing strengthening of professional practice.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/opinion/sunday/helping-teachers-learn.html?_r=0

At NNSTOY, we have called for a true professionalizing of teaching.  We have cited five professional structures that exist in other professions and are missing in our own.  These are:  career continuums, distributed leadership models, collaborative practice structures, actionable feedback to inform practice, and guiding principles for the profession.  In a series of blog pieces, I have provided extensive evidence for how each of these structures contributes to professional practice in other career fields. http://www.nnstoy.org/professionalizing-teaching/

Within the next few weeks, NNSTOY will be releasing its first white paper, outlining these five paradigms and the work we are undertaking, with partners, to make them a reality.

Mr. Mehta asks, “Teachers – Will We Ever Learn?”  My response is, “Yes, Mr. Mehta, we will.  By listening to the voices of our teacher leaders, we can best learn what the profession most needs.  By providing the funding and the political will to enact these recommended changes, we stand the best chance of experiencing genuine reform – reform from within.  By following the example of our teacher leaders, we can best learn how to make meaningful change.  One of the five paradigms that NNSTOY would like to see the profession put in place is Guiding Principles, developed by practitioners for the profession, and to which we would hold ourselves accountable.  If we had such a structure in place, perhaps we would not have so many other groups dictating to us to what we should be held accountable.

Mr. Staples entitles his piece, “Helping Teachers Learn.”  If we, as a country, truly want to transform the teaching profession, it will take courage, fortitude, and money.  It may be a complex journey, but need not be a lengthy one; as Mr. Mehta notes, countries like Singapore and Finland turned things around in a matter of a few years.  While complex, the starting place is simple:  if policy makers want to learn how to transform teaching, let’s try something simple as a starting place. Ask teachers what needs to change and how to make those changes realities.  Not only can we learn, we can teach.  We can find solutions that others cannot, because we live the profession every day and are best positioned to know what works and what does not. And, we can lead change within the profession most effectively.  Ask us.  Just ask us.


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