by David Safier
Linda Darling-Hammond could have been our Secretary of Education. She was Obama's education advisor during his 2008 presidential campaign. Instead, Obama chose his Chicago basketball buddy Arne Duncan, who was the CEO or Chicago Public Schools, overseeing one of those "groundbreaking" education reform programs which pretty much tanked. Obama made a terrible choice, and our schools are paying the price.
Darling-Hammond has a piece in Huffington Post, To Close the Achievement Gap, We Need to Close the Teaching Gap. The title makes it sound like it's going to be more of the kind of teacher bashing the education privatization crowd traffics in, but it's far from that. Instead, Darling-Hammond compares our teachers' working conditions with teachers in other countries in the industrialized world. Her basic conclusion: our teachers are expected to spend more time with students and less time working with colleagues, while they teach in classrooms with more students, often in schools with higher concentrations of students living in poverty, than other countries.
The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.
In short, the survey shows that American teachers today work harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world. They also receive less useful feedback, less helpful professional development, and have less time to collaborate to improve their work. Not surprisingly, two-thirds feel their profession is not valued by society — an indicator that OECD finds is ultimately related to student achievement.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This is by far the highest rate in the world, and more than triple the average TALIS rate. The next countries in line after the United States are Malaysia and Chile. Ignored by our current education policies are the facts that one in four American children lives below the poverty line and a growing number are homeless, without regular access to food or health care, and stressed by violence and drug abuse around them. Educators now spend a great deal of their time trying to help children and families in their care manage these issues, while they also seek to close skill gaps and promote learning.
Along with these challenges, U.S. teachers must cope with larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24). They also spend many more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children each week (27 versus the TALIS average of 19). And they work more hours in total each week than their global counterparts (45 versus the TALIS average of 38), with much less time in their schedules for planning, collaboration, and professional development. This schedule — a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s — makes it harder for our teachers to find time to work with their colleagues on creating great curriculum and learning new methods, to mark papers, to work individually with students, and to reach out to parents.
Partly because of the lack of time to observe and work with one another, U.S. teachers receive much less feedback from peers, which research shows is the most useful for improving practice. They also receive less useful professional development than their global counterparts. One reason for this, according to our own Schools and Staffing Surveys, is that, during the NCLB era, more sustained learning opportunities reverted back to the one-shot, top-down, "drive-by" workshops that are least useful for improving practice.
Every international indicator shows that the U.S. supports its children less well than do other developed countries, who offer universal health care and early childhood education, as well as income supports for families. Evidence is plentiful that when children are healthy and well-supported in learning in the early years and beyond, they achieve and graduate at higher rates. The latest PISA report also found that the most successful nations allocate proportionately more resources to the education of disadvantaged students, while the United States allocates less. It is time for the U.S. finally to equalize school funding, address childhood poverty as it successfully did during the 1970s, institute universal early care and learning programs, and provide the wraparound services — health care, before- and after-school care, and social services — that ensure children are supported to learn.