Thursday, November 13, 2014

TNTP Actually Has an Interesting Idea

Hold onto your hats, because I am about to mostly agree with something on the TNTP website. And not even in my usual snotty sophomoric sarcastic "agree" way. It's not that I love them any more than I ever did-- TNTP is one of my least loved reformster group because of their relentless devotion to tearing down job protections, pay and professionalism for teachers. No group has more relentlessly argued for all the different ways in which teaching can be turned into something less than a profession.

But I'm a big believer that you have to judge ideas on merit and not on the source. So I'm now going to tell you all about something I think Dan Weisberg at TNTP got right. I'll put my caveat at the end.

In his recent blog post "Not a One-Size-Fits-All Profession" Weisberg argues for a new model of how teaching could work. And he's not wrong.

Teaching has remained a profession in which people are expected to hit the ground running on Day One. As Weisberg correctly argues, doctors and lawyers don't do anything remotely like this. Both start at the bottom of a career ladder and work their way up to full responsibility for the whole job.

I have often imagined a school that works essentially like a teaching hospital (a real one, not one like the hospital in Grey's Anatomy) where practitioners gradually take on increased responsibility under the tutelage and guidance of masters in the craft. It would help teachers grow and develop into great teachers.

Great teachers do much more than engage students during class time. They are great lesson planners; they are experts at identifying challenging content for their students; they analyze data to understand student progress; they know how to design assessments that reveal whether students have mastered material; they are adept at keeping families informed and invested in their children’s education; they use lessons from developmental psychology to establish personal connections with even the most challenging students; and on and on.

Right now we expect teachers to do from the beginning with nothing under their belt but student teaching (Weisberg implies that only some teachers have that experience. I've heard this hint from so many reformsters that I'm starting to wonder-- are there programs other than TFA that don't include student teaching??). Weisberg proposes another way.

Imagine a school where the teacher’s responsibility is exactly what we think it should be: ensuring that all students get what they need to succeed. And instead of having to do everything themselves to make that happen, like other professionals, they manage a team: a lesson planner, a curator of content, a parent engagement specialist, a data analyst, an assessment designer, a special ed compliance specialist, maybe even a homework grader. Such a structure would serve multiple purposes. First, it would allow teachers to focus on their core responsibility. Teachers could spend the bulk of their time formulating and executing instructional strategies designed to meet individual student needs, while delegating tasks like completing paperwork or planning individual lessons that may not be as critical.

There are several things I like about this. The chance to develop teachers in the field. The support for classroom teachers (do you know what I could do with an extra fifteen-twenty minutes of not fetching copies every day). The enhanced team environment. And Weisberg is probably correct about enhanced status-- what do other respected professionals have that teachers do not? Answer: people who work for them.

Now, I do have some problems with Weisberg's model. He likes the idea that this would open up the career path to folks from all sorts of backgrounds; I worry that this would be another way to de-professionalize the profession. In fact, I worry that the entire model could be used not as a career ladder with the equivalent of physician interns and residents, but rather a single professional working through a staff of cheaper, more-easily-replaced para-professionals. Without a proper investment in money and support, that can easily degenerate into that doctor's office where you used to see four physicians, but now it's one physician who rarely sees you, supported by two physicians assistants (who are different people each time you go because they keep getting overworked and burned out).

Weisberg's response to the cost issue is also off the mark.

The threshold questions are about cost. Won’t hiring all these specialists break the bank? Not necessarily. These are entry-level positions with entry-level pay, not designed as long-term positions.

That assumes that entry-level pay would be lower than beginning teacher pay, but that pay is pretty entry-levelly already. In fact, one of the huge problems of the intern-resident-etc career ladders for doctors is that by the time they've climbed it, they're hugely in debt. The lower rungs of the ladder don't pay enough to live on. That's a huge problem.

And here comes the teacher-busting TNTP that I know and loathe:

And with such a support team and smart use of technology, individual teachers should be able to work with many more students than they can right now without any help.

Do I think Weisberg's basic model could be a good way to redesign the profession? I actually do-- if, and only if, the money was put into it to do it right. Using it to cut costs, or setting it up and subjecting it to Death by a Thousand Budget Cuts, would get us a system worse than the one we have. So I doubt that it could ever really happen. Put another way, if we right now had the dedication of money, resources and support that would be needed to make Weisberg's ladder system actually work, we could work wonders with the system currently in place.

Neither Weisberg nor I are the first to think of this model, and yet it has never been implemented in a big way in any school system, and that tells us something. But it's still an interesting idea.


  1. Everything you say makes sense. I also have often thought student teaching should be more like the clinicals my daughter did to become a physical therapist. I once had a student observer who was going to be an elementary teacher with an emphasis in math and here she was, observing me, a high school foreign language teacher, because they couldn't find anywhere to put her. Pretty much an ineffective use of time for both of us. Another student I had for some kind of short practicum for 2 or 3 weeks, the next assignment she had was to teach classes one day a week and it was driving her crazy because she wasn't there every day to see what they were doing and where they were so there was some continuity,she was just supposed to jump in. And I think traditional student teaching of one semester is too short and too intense and stressful for everybody involved. It would make more sense instead of all this piecemeal stuff to just do a whole year, start like a para and get to know the students and more gradually work up to doing lessons. It would be good for the students taught because the teacher would have an aide and collaborator. It would be good for everybody involved.

  2. I also like the idea mentioned above about clinical rotations to allow pre-service teachers to work with more mentors in more diverse locations. I'm currently taking a course on reimagining teacher preparation with an emphasis on the relationship between policy and teacher preparation. One of the models we have discussed is a three year residency during induction. This would be something local school systems would have to embrace. When hired teachers would teach 50 % of the time and observe and work on lesson planning/community building/student support the rest of their time, the next year they could add a co-teaching period with a master teacher, and the final year they would teach full time but continue working with a master teacher as mentor. There are many ways to imagine it, but it does not need to be seen as lost productivity because it could lead to teachers being better prepared as professionals and staying in the field longer, and studies suggest that districts spend massive amounts due to lack of teacher retention. The possibilities really excite me.

    On the another end of the profession, I kind of like the idea of Teacherpreneurs (but hate the word). I haven't read the book but I like what I have heard about the idea of keeping great, experienced teachers in the classroom but freeing them to use 50% of their time to contribute to their profession through facilitating professional development, creating teacher-made curriculum and resources, or informing policy-makers.