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October 27, 2011 standard

What is happening in among some school districts in Idaho offers a glimpse into one of the many changes that will (and have to) come to the teaching profession in general — and American public education overall. Thanks to a state law passed earlier this year, teachers will receive merit bonuses based on meeting a series of metrics related to improving student achievement. For the Wendell district in Twin Falls, which is looking to better-engage the families of the children they teach, the bonus plan has become a blessing in disguise. At Wendell High School, as much as 70 percent of the bonuses that will be handed out is based on whether teachers bring 40 percent or more of parents into classrooms for parent-teacher conferences; similar incentives are in place for teachers in other schools throughout the district. And so far, the move (along with others) have had a good result: Seventy-seven percent of families showed up for the district’s parent-teachers conferences this year, an 18 percentage point increase over the previous school year.

The current generation of teachers — and those who will follow them into the profession over the next two decades — should expect more of this in the future. Engaging families and accepting their lead position as decision-makers in education will be one of the three factors in teacher performance evaluations, will factor into merit bonuses and pay increases, may play a part in grants that they can receive for high-quality work, and could even make a difference between whether a teacher moves up from one performance-based salary band to another or, perhaps, even becoming a principal. This means going beyond far-too-late report cards and oft-inconvenient parent-teacher conferences to really active communication that starts weeks before kids enter their classrooms for the first time.

And this will also be true for principals: As the weakening of collective bargaining agreements lead to districts handing principals more power over hiring and firing staff, those school leaders will have to be accountable for the efforts of all teachers in improving student achievement. Not only does this mean improving student test score performance — the most-objective and reliable way of measuring student and teacher success — but working more-productively with families who demand better and want to help. So principals must spot teachers who not only do a great job in improving student performance, but who also know how to well with families, especially those from poor and first-time middle class backgrounds who are just learning how to navigate American public education.

These will be jarring changes for many teachers, principals, and schools. But they are needed. Accepting families as lead decision-makers in education is not only critical to addressing the nation’s education crisis, it also helps improve the professionalism of the teaching profession itself. Lawyers and doctors can attest that they cannot do their jobs on behalf of their clients without being responsive to their concerns; same is true for nearly every aspect of the private sector. It is time that education embraces a family- and child-centered focus in helping all students succeed in school and in life.

As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III noted in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education that families have never been really welcomed in schools, and have been treated as afterthoughts, nuisances, and political pawns. Principals and teachers have relegated families to helping out on field trips and homework. Superintendents and school boards co-opted parents and parent-teacher outfits for the purposes of winning tax increases, additional federal and state subsidies, and fundraising from the private sector. Education traditionalists conveniently blame families whenever there are revelations of the failings of the system they have long perpetuated.

Education traditionalists always (rightfully) tout the importance of it in student success. Yet their attitudes toward parents hardly makes such engagement likely. From the parent-teacher open houses that are often scheduled during the work day, to report cards that are sent out far too late in the school year for families to do anything to help their kids get back on track (or stay on it), schools don’t do a good job of making it easy for parents to be engaged in the first place. As Dr. Steve Perry makes clear in his new book, Push Has Come to Shove, American public education has done a great job of alienating parents (and making them feel bad about not being as involved as they want to be without making) and a terrible job of including them in school decision-making.

This state of affairs is true for nearly all families stuck with traditional district schools regardless of where they live and how much they earn. As Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews noted in a piece he wrote this month about the fracas between parents at Leesburg Elementary School in Virginia’s Loudoun County and the school’s principal, the very idea of families asking questions is something of an anathema. The condescension displayed in one teacher’s piece on “Burger King parents” and “Grass-is-greener parents” ends up being more typical than rare — especially for  middle-class black and Latino families, who find themselves fighting to keep their kids from being steered off the college route by ability tracking regimes. For big-city families, including those from poor and minority backgrounds, the state of affairs is often even worse. Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of at the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement that urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.”

Why have we made it so easy for many teachers and principals to neglect their obligations to families? Start with the structure of American public education, which makes real family engagement and communication less than valuable for schools. Just one-fifth of all American families in position to exercise any meaningful form of school choice — including vouchers, charter schools and intra-district choice. This means that for most traditional districts, families are a captive market, and thus, can be ignored by teachers and administrators, who don’t have to worry about loss of jobs or revenue.  Former New York City chancellor Joel Klein’s tale about how a secretary noted that he could just simply ignore a ringing telephone because it was probably just some parents on the other line is, in most districts, the reality. The fact that family engagement are not categories for evaluation in teacher and principal performance reviews also means that the only time these groups worry about parents is when they have to deal with those with either enough influence to cause pain to their bosses in central offices, or are children of teachers and administrators who work there. And even if a principal wants to be attentive to families, he has limited ability to address  the biggest issues  on their minds: Their relationships with the teachers who instruct their children. Since collective bargaining agreements dictate that hiring is a central office affair, principals can’t just toss out a teacher because they don’t deal well with parents.

Contrast this with private schools, which continuously communicate with families because those institutions depend on paying customers (and, thus, have power), or good-to-great charter schools, which understand that family engagement is critical to building cultures of genius in which the potential of kids are nurtured (and, also depend on paying customers). Both spend a lot of time developing more-welcoming school cultures, creating special days (at convenient times) when grandparents and others family members can visit and check up on school performance. Since principals and headmasters in those schools often have authority to hire, evaluate, reward, and fire teachers, they can easily take the steps needed to foster more-robust family engagement.

Another culprit lies with university schools of education, which train nearly all of the nation’s teachers and principals. Besides failing to recruit aspiring teachers for subject-matter competency and empathy to children, ed schools don’t even select teacher candidates based on their capacity to be as conversant with parents and other adults — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — as they are with kids. Once aspiring teachers are in training, they are rarely taught such matters as cultural competence (which would allow them to communicate with families from different backgrounds) or how to integrate such simple communications activities as calling families into their classroom work. Add in the system of degree-based pay scales, which reward teachers for acquiring degrees (and, in the process, helps foster a class divide in which some look down on less-credentialed families), and the fact that traditional public education structures teaching as a solo activity instead of a collaborative effort, and it is no wonder why many teachers regard parents as problems.

This inability to converse and work with families extends to principals. As The New Teacher Project noted in a study of teacher evaluation it conducted for the Houston school district, most principals would rather spend less time dealing with parents and caregivers. Because most school leadership training programs — including those developed by school reformers — don’t bother dealing with family engagement, principals (and their bosses at the central office) This, by the way, is part of a larger problem of communication within American public education. As Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha noted in his series on school leadership, the fact that most principals come from the teaching ranks means that they are better-equipped to talk to children than to lead teachers and converse with parents and other adults.

But now, the expansion of charter schools in big cities, along with the growth of school vouchers and voucher-like tax credit programs in 13 states, have given families more opportunities to choose schools for their kids and not put up with mistreatment. The passage of Parent Trigger laws in three states — which allow families to demand the overhaul of failing schools — along with the emergence of Parent Power groups also means that more districts will have to accept families as lead decision-makers in education. And the efforts of National PTA to demand districts to engage in real family engagement — including its National Standards for Family-School Partnerships and the rewards the organization hands out to schools that make the grade — and actually require it as part of school turnaround efforts has also brought new pressures on teachers and principals used to having it their way.

Meanwhile the systemic reform of American public education is also slowly forcing a change in the relationship between teachers, principals, and the families whose children they serve.

As more states move to weighted student funding formulas under which funding follows students no matter the school they attend — essentially voucherizing school funding — decisions will move from central offices down to schools. This, along with expanded school choice and the slow disintegration of the traditional district model along the lines of New Orleans’ Recovery School District, will force schools and principals to compete for families (and dollars). More-robust school data systems will lead to additional information on how teachers and schools affect student progress, giving families more information they can use the same way they shop for cars with Carfax.com, Consumer Reports and other guides. The move away from degree- and seniority-based pay scales and into new structures for compensating teachers (including performance-based salary bands, performance bonuses, and even grants that can be used to start new programs) means that teachers will have to be more entrepreneurial in their work, figuring out new ways to work with families. And with more-rigorous evaluations (and the use of Value-Added analysis of student test data in those performance reviews), teachers and principals will have to work more-productively with families in order to help kids succeed.

All these changes, fostered by revelations of mediocrity and abject failure in traditional public education fostered by the accountability and data disaggregation requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, are helping many parents to finally that the old notion that any school or teacher will do is a myth. They will have to be active players in shaping education. Which means teaching and school leadership must change. Many teachers will have to realize that parents will no longer accept arguments that they need autonomy, that they are the sole experts in education, and that they must simply trust that the kids are learning. Principals will have to accept that working with families is as important for their success as evaluating teachers; so they must set the example in their own activities and demand everyone in the building to follow accordingly.

And many teachers and principals will need to stop looking at families as nuisances and enemies. After all, they are the adults who run the schools at the center of the lives of the children these families love. They deserve respect

Our systems of recruiting, training, and rewarding teachers and principals must adapt to this reality. And school reformers must make this happen. The revamp of evaluations offers opportunities to make family engagement and Parent Power key elements in measuring teacher and principal performance. So does the further expansion of school choice; as a report . These immediate solutions can help pave the way for stronger, more-robust relations between families and schools.

So can simply adapting to the times. In an age in which Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail are communications tools for every family no matter their economic status, there is no reason why a teacher cannot inform families immediately once their kids starts veering off track academically. The KIPP chain of charter schools, for example, expects teachers to be available by phone; this should be the case in every school. Principals should make it clear that they expect teachers to start communicating early and often with families — in fact, meeting before the start of the school year. And in an age in which every adult in two-parent household works — and households led by single parents, along with aging grandparents, teachers and principals should make it easier for families to meet them face-to-face.

Over the long haul, the recruiting and training of aspiring teachers must also change. Ed schools, along with alternative teacher training programs, should add ability to communicate (and empathize) with families as a critical element of selecting their candidates. Early clinical training in actual school settings is also important to helping aspiring teachers learn how to work with families. Ed schools must also ditch outdated pedagogies — including the Poverty Myth of Education — that hold little regard for the role of families as leaders in schools. Outfits geared toward developing principals and superintendents such as New Leaders for New Schools and the Broad Foundation should also develop training programs that emphasize Parent Power and family engagement in their curricula.

Parent Power is part of the future of teaching in American public education. It should have always been a part of it. And everyone who works in schools must adapt to these changes — or be left behind in the ashbin of education history.

September 22, 2011 standard

To get a sense of what is likely going to happen to many of the 3.2 million teachers employed in America’s classrooms who don’t teach core subjects such as reading, math, science, history and foreign language, consider the experience of a corporate lawyer who just spent a few days teaching business law at a high school in the D.C. suburb of Loudoun County.

Volunteering as part of a nonprofit that instructs teens on the ins and outs of the nation’s legal system, this lawyer spent time teaching a class of students about that lovely thing called torts and lawsuits. During those sessions, she finds herself getting into a lively Socratic discussion with her students, many of whom may not know about such terms as liable but definitely know about the spate of suits over statements made on Facebook and Twitter.  The kids are engaged, interested, and want to learn more. Theoretically, she is supposed to jointly teach with a full-time instructor who also handles high school electives in computer science and the golf team. But, in all honesty, the teacher can barely tell the difference between a summary judgment and a jury verdict, and barely considers his students — most of them Latino and black — capable of learning about any aspect of civics. In fact, instead of using the engaging course options offered by the nonprofit that would further immerse kids in learning — the teacher hands out worksheets on vocabulary terms.

At the end of her work, the young corporate lawyer figures out a few things — and that’s beyond realizing that the high school’s principal brought in the program in order to essentially keep this tenured and expensive laggard from doing any further damage to her students. The first? She enjoys every aspect of teaching, but she doesn’t want to give up her six-figure job to go full-time into a profession in which the lucrative benefits package doesn’t come into place for at least 20 years. The second? That she would do it on a contract basis, focusing on just business law electives, once she reaches her fifties and the kids are out of college. In fact, she would do it for just a small annual sum and without any need for either retirement benefits or healthcare coverage. Third: That her parents, both in their sixties, comfortably retired and still looking for new challenges, would love to teach kids and would do so on a contract basis themselves. Her father, a former school principal who plays in his own band, could definitely teach music as he did when he first came into education five decades ago; while her mother, a former chief nurse practitioner, could definitely take on such electives as health and sex education the same way she has been teaching young girls (including at the local church) for years.

Then she wonders: Why don’t districts just contract with these aspiring teachers? The kids could get high-quality learning in these electives from subject-matter experts who care about kids. Even better, school districts can get this expertise and save millions annually spent on salaries and benefits for teachers working on electives that contribute to student learning, but whose value can’t really be measured (because there are no tests for these areas), and, to be honest, the teachers are not exactly experts with up-to-date knowledge. Why not hire professional musicians as contract music instructors working for several local schools in a district? Or contracting with an auto body shop to teach students about the ins and outs of modern automobiles?

This young corporate lawyer has stumbled onto one of the realities that school reformers and education traditionalists will eventually have to confront: That current- and long-term fiscal realities, along with the need to provide our children with high-quality teachers in core subjects, makes it untenable to keep many of the majority of teachers dedicated solely to elective courses and subjects that may not be at the heart of improving student learning. The fact that many of these teachers aren’t exactly subject-matter experts or have knowledge that is out of date also means that students aren’t getting what the learning they deserve while taxpayers are bearing fiscal burdens that may not make sense. So it is time to develop new solutions that will help our kids get enriched learning experiences while also saving money. In many cases, this may mean replacing full-time teachers in elective courses with contractors and part-timers from the millions of aspiring teachers of middle age who already have the subject-matter competency and experience with children to do the job.

President Barack Obama played up the prospect of teacher layoffs earlier this month as part of his efforts to pass his $450 billion American Jobs Act stimulus plan, 30 percent of which is slated toward supposedly keeping teachers in classrooms. The fact that districts do as much as they can to avoid teacher layoffs, along with the ineffectiveness of Obama’s previous teachers’ union bailout plans, and the estimated 24,000 teachers that will be added to payrolls (according to U.S. Department of Education estimates) means that few teachers will lose their jobs in the next year.

But fewer teachers will be kept in classrooms over the next decade. Why? Start with the $137 billion in state budget shortfalls over the next two fiscal years. After years of increasing education spending, states are now reducing their subsidies, forcing districts to pare their own budgets. Districts have been able to find cuts in other areas (including trimming custodial staffs) and even hold off on raises. But eventually there will be teacher layoffs.

Then there are the long-term issues. With $1.4 trillion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded retiree healthcare costs, states can no longer afford to simply increase the number of teachers. The fact that fringe benefits have increased from 28 cents for every dollar of teacher salary to 32 cents is proving costly to districts. Moving away from defined-benefit pensions is one key step toward reducing these burdens, as will require teachers to contribute more to their benefits. But it won’t be enough. Headcounts will have to be cut.

If 1.6 million Baby Boomer teachers actually retire, as Denise Forte of the U.S. Department of Education predicts, then that will make some of those headcount decisions easy. Districts will simply have to whittle down by attrition, hiring fewer teachers to replace those heading into retirement. But given the personal financial difficulties — from mortgages under water to college bills for their kids — that some teachers in that age range could be facing, don’t count on it. And given that previous claims of mass retirements have not come to fruition, no one can count on attrition alone.

Then there is the most-important reason why we need fewer teachers: There are far too many laggards in our classrooms who are poorly-serving our kids. While middle-class families and teachers’ unions have been fans of class size reduction efforts that have led to more teachers working in classrooms with fewer kids, the initiatives have proven to be ineffective in improving student achievement. If anything, the addition of more teachers may actually dilute quality because ed schools — which were doing a poor job of training teachers before the advent of class size reductions — are sacrificing quality for quantity, doing an even worse job of weeding out the chaff from the wheat. Kids may be better off with larger classes taught by high-quality teachers.

There will be layoffs. The question is what this will look like. Elementary school teachers, who make up 1.7 million of our teachers, will likely be safe. As I discussed earlier this month, there could likely be more specialization, which means there will be just as many elementary school teachers working in the next decade as there are now. More importantly, a high-quality elementary education will ensure that kids will make it through the middle school years and high school toward graduation. Cutting elementary school teachers doesn’t make sense.

As for those working in the middle and high school ranks? A different story. If laws requiring reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoffs are reversed in the coming years, then districts can eliminate costly laggard teachers in reading, math, science and history regardless of their experience. Thanks to more-rigorous teacher evaluations coming into place such as the IMPACT system in D.C., this work becomes easier for districts to do. But given that the core courses (along with foreign languages and special education) account for only 33 percent of the 1.1 million teachers working in our nation’s high schools (and likely, a similar percentage of middle-school teachers), the teachers working in subjects that are either considered electives or non-core subjects such as music will also face the axe.

One could just make subject every school course to testing. But that won’t fly with many parents or even some school reformers. Why? Some believe that subjecting these courses to tests would ruin the enriching experiences that students may gain from them; while they are willing to subject students and teachers in core subjects to testing, they think the music teacher, the shop class instructor, and the art teacher should not have to deal with that stuff. Then there is the cost of testing those subjects themselves, which may be prohibitive financially and politically compared to the gains that can be reaped. Certainly there should be testing for foreign language proficiency; this makes sense in an age in which learning Mandarin or Spanish can be critical to lifelong success in an increasingly global economy. But one can imagine the cultural and political debates over what should be covered in a music appreciation exam.

What cannot be measured will not matter, or at least, not matter enough to employ a full-time teacher to hold that job. Since tests won’t be administered for these electives, those teachers cannot be evaluated in any meaningful way. Certainly, principals can evaluate for observable aspects of teaching, but not for the most-important and unobservable matter of student achievement. More importantly, since outcomes can be measured, American public education will be required to rely on outputs such as teacher credentials that do not correlate with student achievement. If depending solely on credentialing doesn’t make sense for measuring the performance of teachers in core subjects, it won’t make sense for those in electives either.

This leads to a predictable result: Fewer teachers in health, music, art, and other subjects. And it should. The salary and benefits are too costly. But this doesn’t have to mean the end of electives. After all, music and art are critical in building the background knowledge children need to be fully literate. One can also justify the existence of health and sex education courses. Then there are the vocational courses, which have, for most of the past 80 years, been way stations for students that American public education deemed incapable of college preparatory learning. The reality that blue-collar workers need the same high-level reading, math and science skills that white-collar counterparts must have makes vocational ed less necessary. But it is a good thing for kids to learn about woodworking; it can offer an outlet for kids for self-expression as well as learn a skill they can use at any point in life (think about having to put together a cabinet or fix shelving). Vocational courses can also offer new, relevant ways for kids to learn the college preparatory math and science lessons that they are being taught in traditional classrooms.

But this doesn’t mean continuing to keep hundreds of thousands of teachers in electives on full-time payrolls. One possibility starts with the millions of middle-aged professionals — including lawyers, nurses, blue-collar welders, auto shop owners and professional musicians — who are ready, willing and able to take on teaching those subjects at least on a part-time or contractual basis. One can imagine a district putting together a team of professional musicians who can teach at several schools throughout the school year, or even working with a technical university to provide weekly shop electives to interested students. I can easily imagine my mother-in-law, a social worker who now sits on Arkansas’ minority health commission, teaching health classes at a local high school — or my own mother teaching information technology classes to high schoolers in the Atlanta suburb in which she lives.

Best of all, these mid-career and Baby Boomer professionals, many of whom already demonstrated experience and have their retirement benefits already squared away, won’t need pensions, 401-K plans, or even much in the way of salary. And as Martin Haberman has noted, teachers coming into the profession late in life also have the practical skills needed to manage classrooms, command the respect of students, and get their job done with little supervision.

This not only creates an opportunity for schools (in terms of high-quality instruction at a cost savings) and students (who get relevant, up-to-date instruction with real professionals in those fields), but even for ed schools and alternative certification groups who can offer short courses on teaching method, cultural competency and other aspects of teaching. And it doesn’t need to take four years to get the needed certification. One can imagine a year-long clinical-based teacher training that gets aspiring teachers into the field within three months of passing tests that show subject competency, entrepreneurial drive and caring for children.

Education traditionalists, of course, don’t want to have this conversation because it means rethinking what a teaching career should look like. For the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, in particular, it also means fewer members upon which they can count for dues that they use to maintain their declining influence. As for school reformers? Far too many have been happy with talk about stretching spending and wringing out needed efficiencies in aspects of education such as transportation and building maintenance. They have also pressed admirably to end the array of practices — from reverse-seniority layoffs to abysmal performance management — that has been one of the causes of the nation’s education crisis. But with teacher salaries and benefits account for 60 percent of current spending, questions about teacher staffing can no longer be bypassed. We owe it to our children and to teachers to honestly think through what staffing can and should look like in the coming decades.

The reality is that there will be fewer teachers in America’s classrooms. Now is the time to discuss what that will look like and how we can ease the transitions that are going to come.

September 1, 2011 standard

Would you expect a cardiologist to do the work of a gastroenterologist? No. So why do we expect a strong reading teacher to also be equally as talented in math? The fact that we expect the latter and not the former gets to the heart of one of the biggest challenges we face in improving the teaching profession and American public education as a whole.

When it comes to teachers, school reformers and education traditionalists talk plenty about overhauling how teachers are recruited, changing the way they are trained, revamping the array of costly, ineffective degree- and seniority-based compensation packages, and subjecting them to more-rigorous success-based performance management. All of these discussions are critical. But one of the most-important conversations is the one that is also the one least-considered: Re-imagining the very ways teachers work in classrooms and how principals oversee what they do.

As Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond has astutely noted, teacher training is in the same state that medical training was a century ago, before the work of Abraham Flexner and the Carnegie Corp., led to improvements in how doctors are selected into med schools and taught how to conduct exams and surgeries. The same is true for the actual work of teaching. As doctors were expected back in the 19th and early 20th centuries to be jacks of all trades instead of being allowed to become dedicated specialists working efficiently in hospitals and practices, teachers are expected to be general practitioners when it makes more sense for them (and for schools) to become master specialists in aspects of student learning.

In elementary schools, teachers are generalists expected to provide high-quality reading, math and science instruction to students, regardless of their own aptitude in those subjects. This, in spite of the growing evidence that this isn’t even close to possible. As the Los Angeles Times revealed last year in its value-added analysis of elementary teachers working in the L.A. Unified School District, some teachers have strong competency in reading while lagging behind in math teaching, while others are stronger in math teaching than in reading and writing. At Shirley Avenue Elementary in suburban Reseda, for example, only a couple of the teachers analyzed by the Times, Paul Wainess and Mark G. Gendernalik, were strong in both reading and mathematics; the rest were either strong in one of the two subjects, or in many cases, barely treading water in either one.

Even within a particular subject, some teachers are going to have real expertise in one aspect than another. Some teachers, for example, are really going to be skilled in providing intensive reading remediation to struggling readers. Others may have strong expertise in addressing aspects of writing and composition, which is also important for students in their future success. And still others may be good in dealing with areas such as phonics. One can even go further, with teachers becoming reading and math specialists for students in particular grades; after all, kindergartners who need to learn quantities don’t have the same needs as fifth graders who must be able to understand that equal signs are the first steps in understanding the algebraic equations they must master three grades onward.

This specialization extends even into middle schools and high schools, where kids begin going from class to class to teachers who are already specialists of a sort. But given that our kids who have had abysmal instruction in the early grades may need help in other areas, there is a need for even more specialization. For students who struggle with memorizing geometry, they may need a math teacher who has also become a specialist in helping kids acquire and retain knowledge; that teacher can also help those students learn new memorization skills they can apply to other classroom activities. Other teachers can become masters as helping kids left back a grade quickly get up to speed on the subjects they must master and assist them in dealing with the psychological issues that can sometimes come with being held back.

Breaking up teaching into specialties could do wonders for students, providing more-specialized instruction that will address their needs. As Arthur McKee of the National Council of Teacher Quality points out, it can also help schools. After all, specialization has helped the medical profession improve patient care, develop innovative treatments, and improve quality of life for society as a whole by allowing doctors in different fields to address our wide array of ailments and needs. For schools and districts, specialization can allow principals and superintendents to divide up work efficiently, thoughtfully, allowing for the most-meaningful forms of customizing instruction to the needs of children in classrooms.For example, a district can put together a group of teachers with success in improving the achievement of English as Second Language students, and have them go from school to school addressing particular issues. Or a principal can do something similar within his own school.

It can even improve the teaching profession itself. The lack of meaningful career paths and opportunities to grow as professionals is as much a reason why teaching remains unattractive to talented collegians as the seniority-based privileges that fail to reward good and great teachers for their success in improving student performance. Specialization can allow teachers to build expertise in particular subjects and sub-areas within them, gain recognition (and even financial reward) for their work as masters in those particular learning areas. It can also nurture the entrepreneurial talents that teachers must have to be able to do the work of improving student achievement no matter the challenge.

Given that the high-quality teachers we want in our classrooms are likely to also be the kinds of talents who will eventually be bored with just working in one classroom, expanding the range of opportunities for them to stretch and do great work is critical to improving the talent pipeline into American public education. It can also spur the very collaboration that so many teachers and education players consider to be a key to improving student achievement. Teachers could follow the path of doctors and start their own instructional practices that serve particular learning needs.

The tools for allowing this specialization are already here. Thanks to Value-Added Analysis of student performance data, we can pinpoint the areas in which elementary school teachers (and even those at the secondary level) are strongest; the development of formative assessments also allows for the analysis of teacher strengths. While the science of reading and mathematics is still developing, there are plenty of areas in which teachers can be come master instructors. All that is needed is for that data to be used, for strong, performance-based assessments than can help teachers hone their strengths, and for ed schools and alternative teacher training programs to improve their offerings (as well as become more-selective in their recruiting). Given that medical schools and the entire healthcare sector has paved the way for specialization, ed schools and the rest of American public education can build upon that work and take it further.

At this moment, however, instructional specialization doesn’t come up in the thinking of ed school professors, policy wonks, NEA and AFT presidents, or elementary school principals. This is a shame. The challenges of overhauling American public education require abandoning a 19th century model of how teachers work that doesn’t serve children, families, taxpayers or even teachers themselves. It is high time that specialization becomes a part of education.