Sean Slade

Education: A System for Sorting or for Learning?

Caught up in the middle of the debates and discussions about education reform over the past few years lies a fundamental difference in how people view education. Is it a system designed for sorting or is it a system designed for learning?

Many of the reforms and innovations that are proposed appear to slot education into the sorting category rather than the learning category. Whether it is an emphasis on high-stakes testing or the expansion of fast-track teacher training programs, both of these education trends appear to be designed to test and label rather than to help them learn and grow.

Both take the presumption that the individual has it (skill, knowledge, and talent) or they don't and both tend to put more emphasis upon ascertaining if the person has the ability or knowledge and less emphasis on how to develop or grow that ability and knowledge. You either have it or you don't and it is the system that will weed out, sort, divide, and determine whether you are up to it or not. Maybe that's not what is intended but it appears to be what is happening.

Take fast-track teacher preparation as an example. The number of fast-track teacher preparation programs has increased dramatically over the past decade. This has predominantly been a reaction to the increasing number of teacher retirements and the increasing immediate demand for teachers—especially in hard-to-fill postings. Some of the most popular programs available include the New Teacher Project, Career Changers, and Teach of America, and by some reports these programs are supplying approximately 20 percent of new teachers in the U.S.

These fast-track programs move potential teachers through very short—by comparison—teacher preparation courses. The system gets teachers into classrooms quickly, and placements are frequently supported by grant or foundation funding.

Teach for America (TFA), probably the most well-known program, takes mostly college graduates and trains them through a five-week course before allocating them to low-income and frequently urban, under resourced schools for a minimum of two years. As many have pointed out, the TFA model is a recipe of little preparation, little classroom experience, and underserved schools in high-poverty locations. It sets the scene for a truly sink or swim philosophy. Although the majority of TFA graduates see out their two-year commitments, only 28 percent remain in the teaching profession after five years. This compares poorly to the general new teacher population in which 50 percent remain after the same time frame.

These statistics are particularly concerning given the pedagogical skills and knowledge developed in the first five years of teaching.

Although teacher recruitment is important, retention is of even greater concern. Given how much there is to learn to become a skillful practitioner, it should come as no surprise that second-year teachers are generally more effective than first-year teachers and third-year teachers are more successful than second-year teachers. On average, teachers improve steadily for up to five (or more) years, after which time their rate of improvement typically levels off.

—National Academy of Education, Teacher Quality: Education Policy White Paper (PDF)

Should we be surprised? Have we prepared these new recruits, these "many accomplished recent college graduates" (PDF) and professionals to enter the classroom and continue to develop their teaching skills? Can a five-week course, even with the most eager and undoubtedly dedicated recruits, prepare people to teach and grow effectively? Or are we establishing a system that self-sorts those who currently have the skills by happenstance to survive while discarding the rest?

Research shows that one reason so many new U.S. teachers leave the profession within the first few years is the "sink or swim" approach to new teacher induction that is common to many U.S. schools. In contrast, beginning teachers in some other countries receive resources and guidance directed at helping them successfully make the move from teacher education to the classroom.

ASCD Infobrief, "Understanding and Responding to the Teacher Shortage"

And it's a philosophy that sits opposite what many education researchers and leaders espouse. "Finns have taken teachers and teaching seriously by requiring that all teachers be trained in academic universities," writes Pasi Sahlberg, director general of Finland's Center for International Mobility and Cooperation and member of ASCD's Board of Directors, in The Washington Post's The Answer Sheet blog. He continues,

Today the Finnish government invests 30 times more in professional development of its teachers and administrators than testing its students' performance in schools.

Addressing pandemic disinterest in the teaching profession with Teach for America and Teach First programs may be a solution to local shortcomings but will not cure the systemic infections that cause current educational underperformance in many countries. We should instead restore the fundamental meaning and values of school education. Without public schools, our nations and communities are poorly equipped to value humanity, equality and democracy.

Fast-track teacher preparation, by its very nature, places less emphasis on preparation and more emphasis on learning on the job. You either have it or you don't. You either survive or you quit. But are we comfortable with this notion?

ASCD's whole child approach ensures that each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We believe that each child deserves the right to learn, grow, and develop to their full potential in a safe and supportive environment. But what about the teachers? Do we not expect teachers to be provided the same considerations we demand for our students? If we want our children to learn and be educated, do we not expect the same for those who teach them? Do we not want each teacher to be fully prepared for the classroom, as opposed to only challenged?

What we want for our students, we should also demand for our teachers. And if we view education as a system for learning, we should require all our teachers, as well as our students, to be prepared for success.

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