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professional reform
a path to better policy in education
by margot carmichael lester

steve peha and i worked on this together

For all the controversy surrounding education these days, most people agree that our schools continue to need significant improvement. This isn’t to say we haven’t been working on the problem. But after years of reform, we’re still unclear about whether our current approach is producing the results we require.

This doesn’t mean current reforms should be abandoned. Testing and standards have an important role to play. But it’s time to look beyond these measures to policies and programs that more directly affect the quality of teaching, learning, and leadership in our schools.

Most current reform is structural. It seeks to change the structure of school with new curriculum, new tests, new schedules, and so on. But structural reform doesn’t do much to change how children learn, how teachers teach, and how administrators lead. We can develop new tests and new curriculum, put a laptop on every desk, send our kids to class from sun up to sun down 300 days a year, and still fail to make great gains.

That’s the bad news. The good news is there’s another type of reform we haven’t fully tapped into. Where structural reform tinkers at the margins, professional reform goes to the heart and soul of the system: the teachers, principals, and other adults who educate our kids. Shifting our focus from form to function will improve achievement for all students by improving the effectiveness of the people who squire them through their school years.

We know this is a sensitive issue. But it’s an issue we must begin to grapple with if we want to see real change.

Reforms that seek to improve educational professionalism should address three goals:

1. Offering meaningful pre-service and in-service training for teachers and administrators on methods of best-practice instruction and educational leadership.
2. Continuing and expanding programs that create new pathways for talented people to enter teaching and administration.
3. Researching and replicating the effectiveness of educators currently performing at high levels.

This isn’t going to be easy, but it’s possible if we agree that structural reform alone isn’t enough. Our kids, and the adults who serve them, deserve better. And the truth is, we know how to give them all what they deserve. Best practice in teaching and school leadership is well-documented. We have plenty of information about how to create solid, sustainable culture of learning in our schools.

Education reform is its own high-stakes test with our children’s future depending on the results. To get the right answers we have to ask the right questions. Questions like “What are our test scores?” and “Who made AYP?” have their relevance. But there are other questions that get closer to the heart of the matter, like “How can we help teachers teach more effectively?”, “What can we do to help principals lead their schools to greater levels of achievement?” and “How can we improve educational training?” These are questions only professional reform can answer.

Insofar as politics is the art of the possible, structural reform often appears to be the best we can do. At least it allows us to feel we’re doing something. But it’s time to start doing something more, something that will help us transform the culture of testing that has begun to dominate our schools into a culture of teaching, learning, and leadership that prepares our kids for life in the 21st century.


Margot’s a content strategist and freelance journalist. She consults with and/or writes for businesses large and small, and new and traditional media. She’s also the author of four books, including Be a Better Writer: Power Tools for Young Writers -- co-written with her husband, Steve Peha -- won the 2007 Independent Publishers Association gold medal for teen/young-adult nonfiction. She is currently working on two additional titles in the Better Writer Series, one for college students and another for corporate employees. A Southern belle and sex symbol for the intelligentsia, she was born, raised and still lives in Orange County, N.C.

more about margot carmichael lester


fixing education from the ground up
why literacy and logic are the keys to improving science & math competitiveness
by margot carmichael lester
topic: general
published: 5.19.06

re-jiggering reality
the value of getting bitch-slapped by the gods
by margot carmichael lester
topic: general
published: 9.13.04


russ carr
10.9.07 @ 9:42a

To my mind, structural reform is a misnomer. It treats the symptoms, not the illness...like putting the shell of a Ferrari on the drivetrain of a Yugo. Yes, it's very nice to see the improvements in quantifiable areas such as achievement test scores, but where is that when neither students nor their teachers can spell correctly, construct cogent arguments or in other crucial areas retain (and apply) knowledge?

Tucked into your list of reforms I would suggest one important addition:

1a. Establishing clear parameters of essential competency for teachers entering a school system, and requiring regular evaluation for teachers already in the school system, to ensure a consistent (and, ideally, high) level of aptitude and professional standards for educators.

Essentially, a school (or district) is only as smart as its dumbest teacher. Jack and Jill may learn proper composition in Miss Proctor's English class, but if Mr. Calendar isn't learned enough to grade on grammar or spelling when he assigns a history essay, then those kids will not get the reinforcement of practical learning.

steve peha
10.9.07 @ 10:09a

You're absolutely right, Russ. Higher standards for teachers are needed. That's where our #1 reform comes in: better teacher training. Raising standards is a good thing. But if we don't do something significant to actually change the way teachers are trained, higher standards will only have the effect of taking teachers out of a system that already has far too few of them.

But you also uncover a deeper irony: teachers are just people who were taught by other teachers. So the fact that many teachers lack basic skills is a function of how they were taught. There's a chicken-and-egg problem here that can't be solved simply by setting higher standards for everyone.

What we've found in our work is that with the right training, even our least effective teachers can become significantly more effective. Their intellectual abilities don't improve much but what they can impart to kids does. So we propose making the existing corps of teachers more effective and then raising achievement standards for the generation of better-educated folks who follow.

russ carr
10.9.07 @ 10:22a

Certainly. As nice as it would be to wave a wand and transform everyone into smart, bright, effective teachers, it just can't happen that way. But I think we can start by marking two spots on the timeline: one to mark when advanced teacher training begins, and one to mark when all current teachers should have reached some sort of benchmark. All the while, the up and coming generation of teachers should have this kind of training built into their undergraduate studies (and the requirements for getting a teaching certificate should be kicked up a notch).

I don't want to see the ranks of teachers needlessly depleted, either. But I also don't want to have an education system populated with teachers whose perception of their work is "it's just a job." If they cannot hew to the necessity of improving their skills in order to provide (or at least to pursue) the best possible education for their young charges, then perhaps they'd do better in a different career.

steve peha
10.9.07 @ 11:34a

I like your idealism, Russ. I think that what you are describing here is similar to a vision many people have of a "professional" teaching corps. A small percentage of teachers currently represent this ideal but they lack formal organization.

As the author of the book, "The $100,000 Teacher" points out, a small number of our best teachers should be treated as professionals if, of course, they act like professionals. At present, probably 1%-2% of our teachers embody the kind of standard that I imagine you have in mind. With small changes to pay scales and certification processes, that number could go to 5%. And even though this sounds like a drop in the bucket, it could have a significant effect on the system as a whole because many things move in many individual schools and districts based on the energy of just one or two people. If the average elementary school has 20 teachers and you increase by just 1 the number of top-performing teachers per building, you could start a landslide of reform that transform education in 5-10 years. But, remember, we're talking about adding 100,000 teachers here who are, by definition, the top teachers in the country. Even the existing and now quite mature Nation Board Certification Training system has nowhere near as many graduates. And this system isn't nearly as rigorous as you or I would want it to be.

This is why our work focuses on making the vast number of "average" teachers better. We make the biggest gains by making small changes to the fattest part of the bell curve.

What is often hard to fathom -- at least for me -- is just how many adults it takes school a nation. At present, we have approximately 3.5 million teachers, plus another half million administrators, specialists, and other professionals. Now think of the total adult working population in the US. Four million folks is a big chunk. Knowing that less than half of our citizens graduate college, and that many of those who do still might not pass muster, we're left with an even smaller group. Remove from that the very large number of people who would rather be doctors, lawyers, sports stars, or the next American Idol finalist, and we get a clearer picture of what we're up against: We don't have enough "able" adults to educate our children. If we look at the skill requirements for being the kind of teacher you and I would like to see, and we look at the available pool of potential adults, the numbers just aren't there relative to how many children we have in our society.

The common complaint is that teachers aren't paid enough and that's why more "good" people don't become teachers. But pay increases (which are in use all over the country) have been shown only to change the distribution of existing teachers. Pay differentials of 10% or more can cause small numbers of teachers to favor one district over another. But no one has yet shown that even more significant pay increases a

tracey kelley
10.9.07 @ 1:03p

Some might argue that while more teachers want to employ hands-on learning practices, the federal government cripples districts with the focus on funding reliant on test scores. Regardless of the adminstration, scores continue to go down, rather than up, through the decades.

This standardized measurement is necessary to a degree, but, it's not the only reason schools are failing.

The focus on making money in a non-profit sector strongly contributes to bastardizes learning potential. Not enough soda machines in the hall to fund the music program? Then cut the music program. Sports program not competitive enough compared to other districts? Railroad a bond referendum for a new school to double-up the teams available within a district.

You also have districts that refuse to operate like the businesses they are, losing millions of dollars in funding because of lackluster accounting errors, denouncing pay for performance standards that might really work, and giving superintendents macropower over an elected governing board.

Like any other government agency, there's a giant hole somewhere when it comes to financial management, and the those that suffer - students, teachers - are the ones that eventually pay the ultimate price.

Finally, you have overbreeders who send their children to school simply as free daycare, don't prepare them with the desire of learn, much less skills of common sense, and our teachers and administrators have less opportunity to teach, because they're too busy controlling the room.

Throw a dart, pick an issue.

I say it starts with the parents being engaged and responsible for what's going on in the public school system and preparing their children accordingly. There's a reason why more parents opt for magnate school and charter school programs - the focus is different in these environments. Yet the crime of it all is that these parents pay for school twice - through taxes and private tuition. Why not apply the same attention to the public sector? Make that same $10,000 donation to the public school as you would a private?

Community business leaders need to take a hard line look at the districts' financial practices. Less focus on the easy money of sporting events and better financial management.

russ carr
10.9.07 @ 1:09p

If we look at the skill requirements for being the kind of teacher you and I would like to see, and we look at the available pool of potential adults, the numbers just aren't there relative to how many children we have in our society.

And, regrettably, unless the other 98 percent of today's teachers are motivated to seek out training programs such as the one you and Margot champion, the opportunity to nurture today's curious children into tomorrow's stellar teachers is diminished.

russ carr
10.9.07 @ 1:36p

Tracey - Magnet schools and charter schools are usually free also; they're a specialized part of the public school system. Believe me, there's no way I'd let BQ into the St. Louis City School District if he wasn't in a charter school. If he hadn't made it in (and yeah, there's tests to get in, even at preschool level) he'd be in parochial school.

In principle, I have no problem with my tax dollars funding public education. In practice, I'm furious that they go to the SLPS; they've famously pissed money away for more than a decade. At long last this summer, the State of Missouri made good on its threat and took over administration of the district. But even at that, there's still no strategic plan for restoring administrative accountability or district accreditation.

margot lester
10.9.07 @ 1:48p

There often isn't any real solution put for in these takeover situations. Frequently, the same people are in charge and making the decisions. There is more money available for teacher training, etc., but very little of it goes to anything truly innovative or effective that would actually a) improvement student achievement and b) train teachers to become more effective. *sigh*

lisa r
10.9.07 @ 3:40p

Can I weigh in? I may have missed something, but I don't think you've touched on a very big problem that drives quality teachers out of teaching in droves--discipline. A friend of mine just retired after 38 years, even though she could easily have taught another 5 years. Why? Because she was having to put up with threats not just from students but from parents...and she taught 4TH GRADE!

Since when did it become acceptable for parents to teach their kids to threaten adults, and for parents to take the same approach? Just where is the adult in this situation?

Why should we ask our best and our brightest to take on the mantle of teacher when districts do nothing to protect them in the classroom from the very children they're supposed to be teaching? How are teachers supposed to be effective if rules and regulations and fears of district lawsuits render them powerless in the classroom? We have laws that keep sex offender parents from entering the school building, but nothing to stop angry, violent parents from passing through the front doors.

If we spent more time and money worrying about discipline and academics and less about fielding state championship sports teams, we might get somewhere.

Perhaps if we had fewer men running school boards.....

russ carr
10.9.07 @ 6:27p

I wouldn't go in that direction, Lisa, knowing that much of the blame for what's gone wrong in St. Louis' schools over the past few years lies clearly at the feet of two women.

And I already decided I wasn't going to bring parents into this discussion, because I could rant about that all day.

margot lester
10.9.07 @ 7:15p

Discipline and parental involvement are two important factors in improving schools. We know that and have ideas that address both. But none of those things will matter if local, state and federal reforms continue to focus on structural changes that don't begin to address the needs of the people working in the system.

russ carr
10.9.07 @ 8:06p

While I'd like to think that changing parents' attitudes isn't a completely lost cause, there is no practical leverage that can be applied to convince irresponsible parents/guardians to change.

With teachers, at least, their career is at stake. If you can start a reformation in the industry, you can establish a new status quo.

lisa r
10.9.07 @ 8:39p

Russ, the male school board comment was a sarcastic aside. Certainly women are just as capable of screwing up when running an academic institution as a man. Perhaps I should have said "fewer politicians" instead.

Margot, I have to disagree with you slightly. I see providing teachers with an environment free from fear of violence as one of the top criteria that has to be addressed. It doesn't matter how well the other needs of the teachers are met if they can't feel as if they'll go home at the end of the day in one piece. We've got a a segment of this generation's parents who grew up feeling that they are entitled to get what they want for themselves and their children and that any method employed to do so is appropriate. We simply can't keep going on the path of least resistance at the administration level in this regard and expect teaching quality and student performance to improve.

margot lester
10.9.07 @ 9:11p

Lisa -- I agree. We include discipline in the training we offer teachers, so, again, they have the tools they need for kids who won't/can't sit quietly in neat rows and do what they're told to. In fact, classroom management is at the core of our training model.

ferrell rosser
10.16.07 @ 9:35p

Hi. First, I'd like to note that all of you seem to have some valid points. However, while Margot and Steve seem to understand that the solutions to these problems will take massive efforts and years to effect change to the system, I believe that it will take longer and even more effort then even they hope for. Part of the problem is a social one; I think Russ pegged it when he mentioned the problems of discipline in the classroom. Human problems are complex, messy, and incrediblly resistant to change. The problems with the education system are not just complex; they are interconected with other social problems, thus making them that much more difficult to change. I agree with what you've said about the education system and the need for reform; however, I'm not entirely convenced that your solutions are radical and far-reaching enough. But at least you seem to be on the right track and I'm glad someone is out there trying to come up with a solution to this serious problem.

steve peha
10.16.07 @ 9:57p

You're right that our solutions aren't radical enough. After 15 years working in the system, we no longer put forth our "real" ideas because the ones you see here are deemed "far too radical" for the system we have. Radicalism is, of course, relative to orthodoxy and one of the things most people are not aware of is how incredibly orthodox our school system is. School is the only societal institution I'm aware of that still functions -- and proudly so! -- on principles and practices that pre-date the 20th century. The most radical ideas anyone has ever had about schooling are merely to infuse a little learning science circa 1980 or so. The real thought leaders in education have been people like John Taylor Gotto. But you won't find him able to work anywhere near a public school. So while Margot and I agree completely with your assessment that our ideas are not nearly radical enough, we're still committed to making a difference. And that means working within the system rather than working outside of it.

dan gonzalez
11.13.07 @ 11:20p

First, very well-wrought article. I don't see a flaw in your reasoning, although I'm known to miss more than my share.

Second, I apologize for not reading the discussion above but I'm late to the game so I can catch up later.

I will say, Margot, that you are dead on about what is lacking from education, and also astute in not blaming it all on NCLB.

One thing that is lacking that should specifically be mentioned is the primary cause for the dearth of brilliant teaching professionals: It's the NEA and the unions.

They have steadfastedly, and for their own good alone, converted teaching from a 'profession' into a 'skilled trade' befitting organized 'labor'.

That's all there really is to it. Unions are good for managing labor when labor is cookie-cutter and only requires a person to stamp out door panels on an assembly line. Unions, like the NEA and its various affiliates, are completely obstructive, hurtful, and counter-productive when it comes to supporting well-educated individuals who have to make varied, non-templatable decisions that are crucial to a particular individual they are teaching.

I'm not being political here, I'm just stating a fact. Talented, gifted people are always reduced to the lowest common denominator that their given unions represent.

margot lester
11.14.07 @ 9:00a

in my experience, the union doesn't do much related to curriculum and best-practice. it's more focused on benefits and compensation.

here's the rub. while there certainly is an element of union culture in some districts that holds back the growth and development of the profession, it is the number one force for raising teacher pay. higher pay helps get good people into teaching (though culture and obstacles -- not pay -- are the reasons they leave). so it's a double-edged sword.

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