Over the past two years, the shortage of qualified teachers in the United States has reached what some commentators have termed crisis proportions. Per the Wall Street Journal, almost 3% of teachers and related educational professionals have left the field since February of 2020. While a large portion of this crisis in school staffing is related to pressures from the ongoing pandemic, the shortage of qualified professionals is also an intensification of long-term trends and conditions in the American educational workforce.
One of the most consistent difficulties faced by teachers are the major time pressures of the job. The requirements for planning, meetings, accountability paperwork, and other duties often result in teachers working significant unpaid overtime, often leading to 10-11 hour days. This work is especially time-pressured because American teachers teach more instructional hours than teachers in the vast majority of the rest of the developed world. The result is that American teachers tend to spend a lot of time working for free, which is unusual for developed economies, and especially for countries that outperform the United States on international student achievement exams, like Japan, South Korea, or Finland. In short: the American teaching workforce is overworked and burnt out.
This crisis calls for rethinking how schools, districts, and states can best support teachers in developing high-quality instruction. Unfortunately, the current state of professional development for teachers in the United States is badly broken.
Professional development and continuing-education programs for teachers are riddled with low-quality and questionably efficacious programs, and which are often not backed by scientific research; in the words of researcher Heather Hill, most professional development for teachers in the United States is “brief, superficial, and of marginal use in improving teaching.” These programs frequently lack a strong or replicable basis in educational research and international best practices and are rated by teachers themselves as ineffective at improving classroom instruction and student outcomes.
These ineffective methods are then passed on to teachers through state, district, and campus-level professional development sessions. This process of dissemination is highly decentralized, and this very decentralization leads to a proliferation of low-quality programs that function without any real oversight. This model doesn’t serve teachers, and it doesn’t serve students.
Professional development for teachers, over the past several decades, has come almost totally unmoored from international best practices; instead of keeping up with a half-century of cognitive and educational research, thousands of school districts still use outmoded methods like using pictures to guess at word meanings, instead of teaching phonics.
What would a more useful model of teachers’ professional development look like? It would probably look a lot like Singapore. There are three prongs to the Singapore approach, and all of them work together to build an expert teaching workforce, which results in some of the highest student achievement scores in the world.
The first prong is ensuring that teacher preparation programs actually teach state-of-the-art research. Singapore, as an example, features close cooperation between the Ministry of Education and one of the top universities in the city-state, Nanyang Technical University. This creates a pool of young, knowledgeable, eager educators willing to embrace the latest methods from around the world. Some states, like Texas, are actually trying to implement similar teacher preparation standards around the science of reading, but more work will be needed to ensure that each state’s flagship universities are producing top-quality teaching graduates. Many teachers’ colleges in the United States don’t prepare their graduates for actual teaching, and fail to impart significant content knowledge. The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality reports that “too many beginning teachers report that they do not feel well prepared when they enter the classroom, and their supervisors often agree.” The report places a significant degree of the blame on state education bureaus’ lax level of oversight of and cooperation with teacher preparation programs. A closer, more centralized, cooperation model, like that of the Singaporean Ministry of Education’s work with Nanyang Technical University, would be a positive step towards ensuring that all teacher preparation programs in the state offer substantively similar, high-quality preparation for teachers across Texas.
The second prong is bottom-up development of teaching expertise. Teachers in Singapore are recognized at the campus level as expert instructors, and are given both class leave (that is, they teach fewer classes) and additional stipends to work with new teachers to develop the best possible lessons and practices quickly and efficiently. While in the U.S., many districts offer mentoring programs for new teachers, those mentor teachers are often not relieved of other time-sensitive responsibilities, and so a ‘sink-or-swim’ attitude can often develop in teacher mentoring programs. This means that young teachers are often unsupported, which might explain why so many leave the job in their first few years.
The third prong is systematic institutionalization of teaching expertise. In Singapore, the Ministry of Education sponsors the development of master teachers, drawing from the ranks of campus-recognized expert instructors, to create groups of master teachers, who are able to lead staff development in a variety of ways. Master teachers build lessons and units based on a rigorous national curriculum, but they also lead monthslong working groups with campus teams to build specific interventions for specific weaknesses or problem areas. This creates a collaborative environment where teachers feel respected as professionals and lifelong learners. This, in turn, builds professional esteem among teachers, which is an important factor in deciding whether to leave or to stay in the profession. It also creates a real career path for teachers, outside of simply moving into administrative jobs which require a fundamentally different skill set, and which takes effective teachers away from the classroom. The creation of similar ‘Master Teacher’ positions, which could be funded through a combination of district- and state-derived funding, offers one model for implementing the Singaporean practice; transitioning away from centrally-located, district-wide strategists and towards a more campus-based model can help create this pathway.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the failures of the American educational system. To repair these failures, it is necessary to build a teaching force that is expertly-equipped to handle the challenges of preparing students for the modern world. Adopting a more comprehensive and rigorous model of professional development can help build this teaching force, and it is a task that state education agencies should begin to implement as soon as possible.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by educator Tristan Reynolds. Reynolds is a 2021 Teach For America Corps Member who teaches 8th grade English Language Arts/Reading (ELAR) at the Academy for Academic Enhancement Middle School in Rio Grande City, Texas.
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