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March 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 6

Perspectives / What Teachers Want

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      An article I wrote early in my career as an education writer was titled, “What Do Teachers Want, Anyway?” (1979). Four respected teachers from a large suburban district discussed their professional concerns. Hand-picked by their superintendent to talk with me, these teachers voiced concerns that resonate today: low salaries; high teacher turnover; growing class size; a transfer policy that limited the credit for teaching experience to five years; the public's misconception that classroom teachers enjoyed short work days and long summers; and the need for more effective ways to support beginning teachers. The main problem, voiced by one teacher, was that “teaching is not a lifetime pursuit.” Experienced teachers interested in career growth left the profession, as did beginners who never received the help that they needed to become successful.
      Still a fresh memory to me about the story is that the superintendent, evidently having second thoughts about freedom of speech, asked my editor to withdraw the article before publication. He didn't want his teachers to appear dissatisfied. Oh, the good old days.
      Fast-forward to 2006 and this issue on “Improving Professional Practice.” The national policy focus today is on the quality of teachers and not on teaching conditions. In fact, in some circles, even mentioning teaching conditions is seen as whining. (That superintendent had that view, I'm sure.) One current debate is about the definition of a “highly qualified teacher.” Policymakers argue about what matters more—content knowledge, knowledge of instructional techniques, or knowledge about how students learn—but they rarely note that all three kinds of knowledge are necessary for a highly qualified teacher to possess. Rarely considered, also, are the opinions of highly qualified teachers on what helps them improve their instruction.
      Illustrating this failure to consult professionals is a new fight brewing about the so-called 65 percent solution—a proposal that recommends that 65 percent of a school's operating budget be spent on classroom instruction for students. This classification includes sports uniforms, reproducible worksheets, and teachers' salaries, but not salaries for librarians or professional development for teachers. The argument for the new rule suggests that “classroom education is the only activity that can possibly increase test scores and benefit our students” (Byrne, 2006).
      As the National PTA has clarified, however, there are problems with the 65 percent proposal: First, the initiative gives the appearance of increasing funding for instruction, but in fact merely allocates current funding differently. Second, no independent research shows that student performance increases when 65 percent—not 50 or 70—is spent on classroom instruction. What is lacking in many school reform proposals today is an acknowledgment that highly qualified teachers must continue to learn and improve their own practice, not simply use teacher-proof materials or follow prescribed rules. To improve, educators must study their practice, plan and conduct their daily teaching performances, and set standards that will move the profession forward.
      This issue is dedicated to exploring what practitioners think will promote such continual growth. Roland S. Barth (p. 8) recommends that discussing the “elephant in the room” would be a worthy start. He is talking about the behavior that stops educators from sharing craft knowledge and working together as colleagues. Too often, educators compete with one another, isolate themselves behind closed doors, or silence colleagues who want to talk about professional matters, he notes.
      Mary M. Kennedy (p. 14) calls for changes in the everyday teaching realities that affect the quality of teaching performance. In addition to hiring prospective teachers more carefully, she recommends that administrators curtail interruptions during class time and ensure that professional development be relevant.
      Other authors in this issue address ways to improve practice: better teacher preparation, peer evaluation, study groups, observation of students, and use of research applications. Deborah Waldron (p. 63) even describes the personal staff development she undertook by enrolling in a 9th grade biology class.
      Of course, the authors do not all speak with one voice, and the careful reader will note some contradictory recommendations. Should professional development be inspirational or survival-oriented? Should teachers learn how to manage the classroom, or should they deliberate about what matters most in good teaching?
      Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (p. 26), who recommend that every faculty sit down together to develop a set of learning principles by which they can examine practice, remind us thatLeadership in a learning organization means leading by being a model learner and by demanding learning—not just because continual learning is desirable, but because it is essential.
      References

      Byrne, P. (2006). Keep 65 cents in the classroom for teachers. First Class Education. Available: www.firstclasseducation.org

      National Parent Teacher Association. (2006).65 percent solution—education funding. Available: www.pta.org/ia_pta_positions_1138312705671.html

      Scherer, M. (1979). What do teachers want, anyway? School and Community, 66(2), 17–19.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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