Time to move away from the Factory model of schooling, says Professor Mehta
Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the author of the book “The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling.”
He makes the familiar claims in his book that the way schools are organized, and what happens in classrooms, hasn’t changed much in the century since the ‘Progressive Era’. His proposition is that the US still has the same teachers, in the same roles, with the same level of knowledge, in the same schools, with the same materials, and much the same level of parental support.(Professor Ken Robinson has said much the same thing, as has Anthony Seldon here)
He writes in the New York Times ‘Call it the industrial-factory model: power resides at the top, with state and district officials setting goals, providing money and holding teachers accountable for realizing predetermined ends. While rational on its face, in practice this system does not work well because teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and improve from afar. The factory model is appropriate to simple work that is easy to standardize; it is ill suited to disciplines like teaching that require considerable skill and discretion.’
This echos concerns, shared by other educators, that the teaching profession, rather than improving its status, is being de-professionalised. Unions have little influence in shaping policy and have failed to raise the status of the profession.
Mehta continues ‘Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.’ Some of these arguments are being used by those in the UK who advocate a new professional body for teachers (Royal College of Teaching etc).
By these criteria, his conclusion is that American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or non-existent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance (and development). It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.
The top systems recruit the top graduates (Investing in Human capital -see Professor Hargreaves and Fullan on this)). Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than elsewhere.
In America, both major teachers’ unions and the organization representing state education officials have, in the past year, called for raising the bar for entering teachers; one of the unions, the American Federation of Teachers, advocates a “bar exam.” Ideally the exam should not be a one-time paper-and-pencil test, like legal bar exams, but a phased set of milestones to be attained over the first few years of teaching. Akin to medical boards, they would require prospective teachers to demonstrate subject and pedagogical knowledge — as well as actual teaching skill.
He continues ‘Tenure would require demonstrated knowledge and skill, as at a university or a law firm. A rigorous board exam for teachers could significantly elevate the quality of candidates, raise and make more consistent teacher skill level, improve student outcomes, and strengthen the public’s regard for teachers and teaching.
We let doctors operate, pilots fly, and engineers build because their fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do these things. Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from experience and from their colleagues.’
The ‘Allure of Order’, explores the power of ideas in shaping politics. When a new paradigm arises “Newspapers, legislative debates, and other forums where issues are debated and decided take up issues different from those they did before. Existing actors’ identities are reshaped as the new problem definition changes the way people think about an issue. … New actors and groups are also created.”
But, unlike a number of current narratives on the problems of education, Mehta goes further by offering guidance for the route to universal good schools. He discusses four elements needed for a successful school system:
strong human capital, (Hargreaves and Fullan etc )
school-level processes of improvement, and
external support and accountability.
He ends by looking for new institutions to try new approaches and old institutions to reform themselves: “We can only hope that they have learned from the lessons of the past and seek not to control but to empower, creating the infrastructure upon which talented practitioner can create the good schools of the future.”
The changes needed to professionalize American education won’t be easy, he admits. They will require money, political will and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with fields like law and medicine. But failure to change will be more costly — we could look up in another 30 years and find ourselves, once again, no better off than we are today. Several of today’s top performers, like South Korea, Finland and Singapore, moved to the top of the charts in one generation. Real change in America is possible, but only, he says, if they stop tinkering at the margins.
Its interesting how many of the perceptions about what needs to change in the United States are shared by educators here in the UK when championing the need for reform. There is a consensus building here that a new professional body is required to elevate the status of the profession, independent of both unions and government.