Category Archives: Teacher Content Knowledge

Building a New Teaching Profession in the USA

I recently returned home after
spending nearly two weeks in Finland. After meeting with dozens of Finnish
education officials, administrators, and teachers, one of several recurrent
themes was trust. Finnish educators said repeatedly that trust is a hallmark of
their educational system and their relatively recent success on the Programme for
International Student Assessment (PISA). They talked about trusting a lot of
people; education officials trusting school principals, principals trusting teachers,
teachers trusting students and parents, etc. But most often the conversations
centered on how much trust the Finnish people have in teachers. As a former
teacher and a teacher advocate, I think that is awesome!

But we Americans would be foolish to look at the Finns
success, hear that it comes from trusting their teachers, and then therefore reason that trusting American teachers in that manner would lead us to success similar to that of the Finns. I
have likely upset some of you by saying that but it is true. We do not have
reason to have a blanket trust in American teachers. I wish things were that simple, but they are not. I argue that instead of advocating for
blanket trust for American teachers today our course of
action should be to begin building a teaching profession in the United States worthy
of such trust.

What it means to be a teacher in Finland is a bit
different than what it means to be a teacher in America. In Finland, throughout the nation’s history and even today
teachers are regarded as the candles of society, spreading light into the
darkness. Teaching is regarded as one of the most honorable and respected
professions in the country. Very many of the best and brightest students
graduating high school apply to teacher education programs in Finnish universities. Because
the profession is regarded in that manner, university teacher education
programs are able to choose from among the best and brightest of the best and
brightest students entering Finnish universities. That is not quite the case in the United States.

Over the last 10 years I have often had the opportunity to speak
to middle and high school students, and I often talk with them about
considering careers in teaching. Unfortunately, it is the very rare motivated
and highly academically capable student that tells me that they are interested
in a career in teaching. It is the current reality in the USA that our teachers
are a mixed bag. Some of our teachers were the brightest, most capable, and
highly motivated students in their high school and university classes. As students these
teachers could have chosen to major in anything. In current role as faculty
member in a college of education, I have the opportunity to work with some of Kentucky’s most
phenomenal educators. Some of these educators are outstanding in every conceivable way. They
are smart, talented, unbelievably hardworking, and passionately committed to
their students and to the teaching profession. These professionals make me so proud
to be a teacher.

Unfortunately, however, many teachers in our classrooms are
not as talented, committed, or passionate about children or about teaching as
the teachers I just described. Some teachers in American classrooms have landed
there because they couldn’t cut it in other majors or professions and teaching
was relatively easy to get into and keep a job. Some are in the classroom
because teaching has been considered a stable
profession. Some teachers are in classrooms because the hours and calendar
schedule of the profession are convenient for raising a family. And believe
it or not, some teachers are in the profession for the money. You won’t get
rich teaching, but in the right school district with the right credentials and a
few years of experience you can make a pretty decent living as a teacher.

What Do I Propose?

I propose building a teaching profession in the USA that we
can be proud of; not just a portion of the teaching profession that are
superstars, but a profession of superstars. I propose building a teaching
profession of individuals that could have chosen any career path but chose to teach. I propose building a teaching profession in America that we can trust to lead us into the future.

Building that kind of teaching profession in the USA would
not be easy. In fact, the stack is currently staked against our being able to
pull it off, but we could do it. We would have to be intentional about it and
it would take the buy-in and collaboration of some key stakeholders. First, we
would need to acknowledge that the teaching profession in the USA is not what we
want it to be, and that our current teaching force is not what we would like it
to be. The teaching profession, including salary structure, career ladders, and
accountability, would have to be drastically reformed to attract a new breed of
candidates into the profession. Colleges of teacher education would have to get
on board by actively recruiting a new, diverse breed of teacher candidates into
the profession, selecting only the highest quality candidates for entry into
programs, and holding candidates to extremely high standards; functioning as true
gate-keepers to the teaching profession. Teacher training programs would have to
embrace radical reform enabling them to better equip teacher candidates with
the necessary content knowledge, pedagogical expertise, and dispositions for
meeting the needs of the diverse group of learners in 21st century
American classrooms. Policy makers and colleges of teacher education would have
to work together to create high-quality pathways for talented professionals to
enter the teaching profession as a 2nd career, but with the necessary training and preparation for
long-term success once they get there. Teachers would have to start tapping
talented students as early as middle school to get them to consider careers in
teaching. And teachers unions would have to radically transform themselves into
high-quality professional associations that play a major role in both building
and refereeing the teaching profession. Professional associations must play a
major role in holding their members to the highest standards for professional
practice.

By the end of my career I would love nothing more than to
entertain visitors from across the world and tell them that a key to the
success of schools in the USA is the trust that we have placed in our teachers.
I would love nothing more than to say that the American people have every
confidence in American teachers and that the teaching profession is highly respected because
we know that our teachers are well-equipped for and passionately committed to preparing
our students for successful careers and lives as citizens of the greatest
country in the world. It is my hope and my prayer that we will have the courage
to own up to our shortcomings and the
will to transform teaching into the profession that it should be and can be.

Proposed Mandatory Teacher Selection Training for Principals in Kentucky (Senate Bill 124)

In an effort increase practicing principals’ capacities to select high quality teachers, Senate Bill 124 would require that the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) in collaboration with the Education Professional Standards Board develop a teacher selection training module that would assist principals with identifying “quality indicators” of effective teachers, including teachers’ verbal ability, content knowledge, quality of education coursework, ability to relate to students, and ability to monitor student learning through formal and informal assessments.

Although I question whether the state legislature should play such a micromanaging role in the training provided by KDE, I believe such training is useful. However, I am not sure that most practicing principals do not already possess the skills that this statutorily mandated training would provide, so I question the amount of money that would be spent at that state and local district levels by mandating this state training for all principals. Additionally, such a mandate presupposes that neither principal preparation programs nor local districts are already providing such training to principals and aspiring principals.

Finally, I would caution the legislature to consider that even having principals who possess these capacities, and I believe many principals already do, would not necessary result in higher quality teaching candidates being selected for vacancies. In many cases principals make decision to hire teaching candidates not because they are high quality teachers, but because they are the best candidate that has applied for the job. I am sure we can all appreciate the fact the best candidate for a teaching position, especially in hard-to-staff areas of the state, is not always a high quality candidate. I provide this word of caution simply so that legislators do not make the mistaken assumption that having all principals trained to “identify quality indicators of effective teachers” will result in a “high quality, effective teacher in every classroom.” It will not. Efforts to increase the capacities of the pool of teaching applicants across the state will go much further toward that end.

Devaluing the Importance of Pedagogical Expertise– A Dangersous Policy Trend

Since writing my November 3rd post about proposed changes to Indiana’s educator preparation programs,I haven’t stopped thinking about what I see as the beginning of a policy trend in devaluing the importance of classroom teachers’ pedagogical expertise. Perhaps beginning with the No Child Left Behind Act and its surrounding rhetoric, increased emphasis has been placed on teachers’ content knowledge or lack of it. I contend that this renewed emphasis is extremely important. I have worked with and observed far too many teachers over my career whose grasp of their courses’ academic content was severely lacking. This is extremely problematic. If a geometry teacher doesn’t have a solid grasp of geometry, the odds of her student coming away from that course understanding geometry are slim to ridiculous. So again, I whole-heartedly support policy initiatives to make sure teachers have the required content knowledge to teach.

However, I do not support policies that place emphasis on teacher content knowledge but deemphasize the importance of pedagogical skill. Both areas are extremely important and must be jointly emphasized. Most of us, even if we have not worked as educators, realize that teachers’ content knowledge alone is not sufficient for providing the type of learning experiences that we want for our children. I have had the opportunity to observe quite a few classrooms just over the last year where the teacher standing in front of the room was unquestionably an expert in his or her subject area, but hadn’t the slightest clue how to convey their knowledge and understanding to the young people they were charged with teaching. 
Effective teachers are those that have a firm grasp of both their content and pedagogical skill. Policies that sacrifice teacher training in one of these critical areas at the expense of the other not only put the learning of our children in jeopardy, but they are a slap in the face to good teachers who have worked extremely hard to master both.