Plight or Promise: The Future of Teaching in America

I recently listened to a fascinating radio conversation on WBUR’s On Point program with a group of teachers who had left the profession. For an hour, they engaged with each other and with callers about how teaching today is fraught with so much regulation, pressure and lack of support that they felt they had no other choice but to leave.  And, as is often the case with teachers, these individuals were not just leaving a job, they were walking away with a heavy heart from a career that was their life’s passion.

Among the reasons these educators cited for their departure was their perception that academic standards limited their ability to teach their students to be creative and the slew of paperwork that they were expected to complete.  Also, not surprisingly, the discussion led at least one teacher to raise the constraints of time as a severe problem. She noted that the expectations for learning outcomes do not comport with the learning time available in the classroom. For these educators, more generally, teaching had become a job that no longer allowed them serve their own aspirations for how to nurture young minds.

A fairly dispiriting conversation, to be sure, but the response to the host’s penultimate question left me feeling downright sad at first, and, then, upon reflection, a bit confused. Replying to the query “Do you think the quality of teaching will decline in the years to come?” each panelist explained her sense that the profession and, thus, the state of education were in decline. To paraphrase the veteran teacher of the group, “I’ve encountered many great teachers in my years in the profession, but it’s getting harder and harder for these folks to hold on. At the same time, it’s getting more difficult to attract new people into teaching.” Listening to that assessment about a core element —the core element?— of our public education system, how can you not become despondent?

Yet, I have to say that my own experience studying schools does not align with this gloomy appraisal. Indeed, in the schools that I’ve had the privilege to visit over the last year, I have actually come to exactly the opposite conclusion: teaching and our education system are improving, slowly but surely. Why do I think so? For the simple reason that not only have I met a lot of great teachers, but, more important, I’ve witnessed many, many teachers who were working really hard to get even better.

Believe me, I’m not blind to the reality that instruction in classrooms can often be subpar. The level of rigor, the push to have students apply higher-order thinking skills, even the expectations for what is possible are much lower than I’d like to see. And, yet, in almost every school I’ve been to, teachers are making a concerted effort to reflect on how they can strengthen their teaching.  Then, they are collaborating in various ways to turn those reflections into concrete actions for change. As Robert Frost might say, “They have miles to go before they sleep,” but they are most definitely on the move.

And, by the way, teachers are headed on this path of continuous improvement not in spite of the new Common Core standards, but because of them. They are well aware of the effort needed to reconfigure their teaching—to stretch themselves and their students—to adjust to the demands of the Common Core, but it was this very effort that excited them. One Arizona teacher described her work and that of her colleagues to me as a “beautiful challenge.”

At the end of the day, then, the question of who is right on whether instructional quality is improving or waning may be a matter of perception and personal experience. No one is really able to predict the long-range prospects for our nation’s teaching profession because it depends on where you look.

But what we do know is fairly clear: for teachers to be successful, they must have the support and the opportunity to grow as professionals. As we detail in our new report, Time for Teachers, one vital way that public education system can achieve this objective is to greatly expand the scope and depth of professional development in schools. In other words, if my rosier assessment of the future of teaching is to hold sway, we need to make more schools in the country look like the schools we feature. On the flip side, we know what to do to avoid a situation where teaching gets weaker. So, let’s get to work.