Do Better Teachers Equal Better Schools

By Sophie Sa

The instinctive answer to that question is: yes, of course! Certainly, it is impossible to have good schools without good teachers. And with so many of our schools in trouble, and no way of getting a significant number of new and more qualified teachers into classrooms, there has been a sense of urgency on the part of everyone interested in improving our schools to invest in quality professional development for those already in the teaching force.

However, a good school needs not only good teachers. Indeed, I would be prepared to argue that a school made up entirely of individual good teachers might still be no more than mediocre. The reason is that a school, like almost everything else. must be more than the sum of its separate parts. Imagine a watch whose various mechanisms are made by different craftsmen working separately without a design. Or a house built by a skilled electrician, plumber, and carpenter who have not seen the master plan. No matter how well constructed each individual component may be, the result can only be an incoherent jumble.

To be good, a school of course needs a knowledgeable staff that is informed about and able to implement the best practices in their classrooms. But, perhaps more importantly, it needs to be guided by a shared vision and sense of mission. It needs an organizing principle that places children's learning needs at the center of every activity, within a culture that values learning and insists on thoughtfulness, reflectiveness, self­assessment, and self­examination. And it needs a staff that interacts regularly and frequently, collaborates to make decisions about all aspects of the school based on sound professional judgment, and takes individual and collective responsibility for the success of its students.

Most schools have never been asked to have a vision or a guiding principle. And rather than being encouraged to reflect, use professional judgment, and be creative; what has been demanded of schools is that they adhere strictly to district and state requirements about what to teach, how to teach, how long to teach, what textbooks to use, and so on usually just like every other school of the same level in the district, and possibly in the whole state. Additionally, the way that schools are usually structured allows almost no time for teachers to interact, much less collaborate.

We know now that the cookie­cutter approach to education does not work: students are not all alike, and schools must be organized uniquely to serve the needs of their particular students. We have also learned, over the past decade or so, that top­down reform doesn't work, precisely because it encourages the kind of unthinking compliance that has gotten our schools into such trouble in the first place. At the same time, we are also finding how difficult bottom­up reform is: many, if not most, teachers do not know the new content that they are now required to teach; do not have the skills to teach the new content; and do not have the pedagogical knowledge to help their students reach the new performance standards being called for.

Because of all of this, there is a recognition that quality professional development for teachers is critical, and not as an add­on to their regular duties but as an integral part of their work. However, most professional development programs continue to be focused on individual teachers, with no thought as to the overall needs of the school as a whole, as if individual teachers and their individual classrooms, rather than the school as a whole, are the units of change.

If we attend to only what happens in individual classrooms, then at the very least, we run the risk of losing students between the classes. If good schools are what we want, then professional development must be integrated into the overall improvement plans for the school.

It is time for professional development providers to rethink how they do their business. Rather than offering workshops and courses that teachers may attend solely on the basis of their individual interests, consider requiring participation by school teams, and then only if they come with a plan from their school clearly indicating how the workshops fit into its overall improvement plan.

Better yet, consider working with a whole school to help it through the steps of first developing a vision and then designing a plan of action, including the range of professional development activities that will be needed; provide the staff development; and finally, provide ongoing technical assistance as the school moves through the arduous and complex process of change.

"Authentic assessment" and "accountability" have become the new buzzwords of education. In fact, there is still very little of either taking place anywhere in schools, in districts, in staff development providers, and in funders of staff development. Schools need to begin to evaluate themselves and hold themselves accountable for providing the vision and environment within which teachers can collaboratively design and implement the best learning programs for the students. Districts must evaluate and hold themselves accountable for whether their programs result in the improvement of whole schools.

While it is no longer politically correct to blame teachers for the slow, some would say, imperceptible, pace of reform, there is nevertheless a lingering suspicion that perhaps the people in our teaching force simply do not have the capacity to improve. It is time for us, providers and funders of staff development alike, to ask whether it isn't our programs that need improvement.


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