By some rhetorical alchemy, many reformers seem to equate “accountability” with “professional development.” The thinking appears to be, if teachers are held accountable enough they will magically improve their craft and students will achieve.
Clouds will part and angels will sing.
Only, it isn’t that simple. Finding new and creative ways to measure teachers’ effectiveness isn’t going to improve student learning any more than finding new and creative ways to count apple blossoms will improve fruit production. If we want to change the product (student growth) we need to change the process of envisioning, initiating and sustaining transformative growth in our school systems.
Step 1: Engage the teachers.
A few years ago I had the chance to hear Bob Fogel, former Dean of Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education, give a presentation on effectively managing strategic change in educational organizations. He said that leaders often focus on the “critical tasks” and the “formal organization” components (meaning the key tasks that must be done and the structure, rewards, controls, and careers that make up the institution itself) when trying to implement improvements.
However, he goes on to say that “long term, REAL, behavior and performance is controlled by the ‘people’ and the ‘culture’.” (Emphasis his.) Neglect these and one quickly finds oneself in a leadership pitfall. “Culture is a social control system that already operates within your work units and in the larger organization,” he says. “If you don’t manage it, this control system can undermine innovation and creativity and hinder your ability to execute your strategy.”
One of his key strategies for managing this social control system is through stakeholder participation — getting people involved and feeling responsible. It is in this regard that the current education reform discourse and policy development is falling far short. Teachers not only don’t feel heard, involved, or valued. They feel ignored, left out, and vilified.
Yet, when it comes to transforming schools to the benefit of students, teachers must be treated as allies, not antagonized as enemies.
The question is, how do we engage teachers in such a way that their input is both meaningful to larger questions about policy and relevant to influencing individual student learning? (Hint: It isn’t by threatening to fire them if student scores don’t improve.)
Step 2: Cultivate Teachers as Researchers
I often tell my students, “Those who do the work do the learning.” The same holds true for teachers.
However, just as with students, the work (professional development) must be meaningful, purposeful and well constructed if it is to contribute to learning. Enter “lesson study,” which Columbia University Teachers College defines as, “a professional development process that Japanese teachers engage in to systematically examine their practice, with the goal of becoming more effective.”
When teacher teams finish a lesson study cycle having tackled tough questions about pedagogy, learning and student engagement it then shapes how they design and implement other lessons in any content area. Through the process of designing a lesson, observing it being taught, and analysing the data from it, teachers deepen their knowledge base about what works in classrooms to positively affect student learning.
This is what my colleagues and I learned this year as we implemented lesson study school-wide. Not only did we increasing our applicable knowledge about teaching and learning, we were also better able to articulate the merits of one methodology, assessment system, or lesson cycle over another.
Step 3: Reap What We Sow
When teachers become researchers, they become experts. By embracing one of the key lessons in successfully catalyzing institutional transformation (engaging the participants), we stand to gain ground on three fronts:
1. We generate a depth of understanding about effective pedagogy on the ground floor, among teachers, where the impact on students is most profound.
2. We create research teams that build on the strengths of each other, share knowledge, and learn from one another and increase their capability to advise local, state, and national policymakers.
3. We cultivate a new culture of teaching and learning that treats educators as professionals, and as allies.
If we really want to put students first, we will equip our teachers with the time and expertise to build their knowledge about what works best for students. Then, if we’re smart, we’ll insist leaders listen to and hear what they have to say.
And maybe in the process we will all find we have one less thing to lose sleep over.