The Teaching 'Profession' Goes National

By Lewis, Anne C. | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1993 | Go to article overview

The Teaching 'Profession' Goes National


Lewis, Anne C., Phi Delta Kappan


IN THE LONG run, no matter how education reform efforts are sliced or spiced, the successful ones share one basic ingredient: smart teachers. In the past, American education has tried "teacher-proof" strategies to upgrade schooling, and some now view the use of technology as the most recent attempt to allow students to leap over mediocre instruction and gain access to highlevel knowledge. But those behind this latest effort to avoid the complex and costly task of having smart people teach in smart ways are learning that technology can be as boring as some teachers.

Today, foundations are pouring money into a variety of innovative projects designed to improve schooling. The ambitious and well-designed New Standards Project is developing more challenging instruction through performance assessments. Grants have gone out to a multitude of subject-area groups to support the development of higher content standards in the disciplines. A few states, notably California and Kentucky, have produced radically different curriculum standards through new state frameworks. And, if student assessment data become part of site-based decision making, then inevitably school staffs (mostly teachers) will have to confront the matter of improving instructional programs.

None of these efforts can go very far, however, without considering the education and ability of teachers. And in the department of standards for practitioners, education lags behind the other professions by a century or so.

Arthur Wise, one of the few truly committed change agents at the national level, left his research post at the RAND Corporation and has focused his expertise on understanding roadblocks to change - such as "legislated learning" or financial inequities - and on what is perhaps the most formidable barrier of all: the selection and training of teachers. As head of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), he is turning a lemon into lemonade, pushing for major reforms where they had been resisted before.

In Wise's opinion, education has not equaled medicine or architecture in terms of accreditation of practitioners because education never developed a common set of expectations for teachers. In addition, the difficulties and challenges of teaching were minimized, and, with the value of the work set low, "the price of the labor was kept low," he argues.

Over many years a maze of accreditation and licensing procedures developed in the states. Advanced professional certification was not even a topic for discussion except in uninspiring graduate programs.

As the mismatch between new designs for learning and teachers'knowledge and skills becomes more obvious, so does the need to make sense of the mess in teacher preparation and certification. As with so many other issues in education, the move is toward more centralized, national efforts, with lots of grassroots involvement.

Having been awarded its third grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has become a regular feature of the new landscape of the teaching profession. It is setting standards for certification of advanced professionals, an activity never undertaken before. While the NBPTS was once considered somewhat idealistic and too political ever to be successful, it has stayed the course, primarily by playing good politics. Its supporters fought for federal funding, at least in part to legitimize the process of advanced certification for teachers. To date, the federal investment of some $15 million in the enterprise has helped to attract an even larger sum from foundations and corporations.

The first set of examinations offered by the NBPTS will be given in the 1993-94 school year to 1,000 teachers in each of two areas - "early adolescent language arts" and "early adolescent general.

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