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The Making of a 21st-Century Educator
How Do We Get There from Here?

Harvard Graduate School of Education
December 1, 2003
A story from Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

What are your ideas about professionalizing education?

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About Ed. magazine

illustration: Benjamin Messinger ©2003

In the 21st century, as standard-based reform is blazing the path in education, students are not the only ones being judged on their ability to pass or fail a battery of tests. In fact, with the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act, school systems across the nation are under constant scrutiny. All children are expected to achieve, and teachers are the logical stewards of this new goal.

But what are the standards for teachers themselves? What will it take to prepare teachers, principals, and superintendents to respond to the complexities of the 21st-century classroom?

The answer, many believe, must be forged through higher expectations and accountability for absolutely everyone involved in the venture of teaching and learning.

For 20 years now—since the federal government's release of A Nation at Risk#151;an alphabet soup of national, state, and local committees and councils have all been charging at the same target: the educational enterprise. Their suggestions run the gamut, from calls for useful research findings that make a difference in classroom practice, to ensuring that all teachers recognize the variety of ways that children learn, to enforcing best practices for bilingual children, to upping the ante on teacher certification standards. The list goes on, as long as the number of organizations earnestly crafting solutions.

While a top-down approach has its merits, some believe that only educators can fully comprehend the complexity that exists in the classroom. Only educators can truly piece together answers about what is needed to excite the global village of minds in American schools today.

When all is said and done, schools of education—the trainers of teachers and the producers of educational research—will always be held responsible for their alumni. In the words of Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University, "higher education institutions…must accept much of the responsibility for…public-school teaching today."

As no two schools of education in this country share the same curriculum or approach to education, the debate on what will best serve educators continues to rage. And much progress is being made. Earlier this year, the National Research Council, under the direction of the National Academy of Sciences, called for universities, researchers, and school districts to partner in designing and producing studies that will serve both to enhance and increase the knowledge base on education as well as to bolster and support school districts. The initiative, the Strategic Education Research Partnership (see "Initiating a Global Research Bank," p. 25), promises to take a formative step towards unifying the field. The next couple of years are likely to show solid ideas turning to action.

Graced with an accomplished and deeply knowledgeable readership, Ed. asked a handful of educators to offer their best ideas about what it will take to create meet the challenges of the 21st-century classroom. These are their responses.

Jon Saphier
President of Research for Better Teaching in Acton, MA, and Chairman of Teachers 21 in Newton, MA

Jon Saphier  

Should there be a common core of knowledge that all people getting degrees in education are required to know and be able to do?


Medicine answered yes to the question of developing a common core knowledge in medical education in 1910. The result was a profession that today earns public trust and whose performance is the envy of the world.

“Just as highly skilled practitioners do not emerge up and running from medical school, we cannot expect beginning teachers to graduate as high-functioning professionals.”

We have a substantial body of core knowledge for teaching available to us right now, and we have sufficient research behind it. What we have not had is the dialogue and political pressure to get it adopted by our universities and colleges, whose curriculums are controlled by the parochial interests of their own faculties rather than by professional consensus.

We know about the skillful application of the hundreds of teaching strategies derived from cognitive science, applied knowledge of motivation, relationship building, confidence building, and the capacity to explicitly teach students, especially disadvantaged students.

We know about the wide array of classroom management skills for setting up clear expectations. These include establishing routines and procedures for efficient use of classroom materials as well as skillfully building a climate of psychological safety, risk taking, community building, and ownership—all of which are known correlates to good student learning.

We know about content specific pedagogical knowledge in each academic discipline at every grade level, and the skills of collaborating with colleagues on analysis of student data, student work, and joint work on the improvement of teaching practice.

Just as highly skilled practitioners do not emerge up and running from medical school, we cannot expect beginning teachers to graduate as high functioning professionals. But we can expect, and demand, that their preparation be based on a common core of professional knowledge that practitioners cannot do without. Then we can structure their entrance into the profession and give them continued opportunities for development so that they can experience constant growth and an increasing assumption of responsibility over time as in other professions.

Laurie Gardner, Ed.M.'94
Co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center at California State University, Sacramento

Laurie Gardner  

Every time I fly on an airplane, I dread the predictable question from the person sitting next to me: "So, what do you do?" As soon as I reveal I'm an educator, I'm immediately bombarded with suggestions on how to fix our education system. My father is a brain surgeon. His airplane neighbors never tell him how to remove a tumor.

Why aren't educators recognized as having unique professional expertise? One reason is that virtually everyone has gone to school or has taught somebody something. Another reason is that Americans have a history of undervaluing educators.

“Will standardizing the field of education truly help educators do their jobs more effectively?”

Some argue that education lacks the characteristics of a fully professional field, such as uniformly recognized standards or a common core of knowledge that is taught in every school of education. While the field may lack these elements, there are other aspects of professionalism that are often overlooked, such as educators' abilities to address diverse learning styles and complex societal issues in multiple contexts. Given this diversity, will standardizing the field of education truly help educators do their jobs more effectively?

For those considering the standardization route, I offer the following recommendations: standardization must be done in a minimal, "bare-bones" fashion, so that we don't limit learning opportunities and choice, or prevent educators from being prepared to face the field's complexity. Furthermore, many viewpoints must be represented at the standardization table. Everyone has a different opinion about the purpose of education, "good" research, and what constitutes a "professional" educator. Moreover, when developing standards or core knowledge, research and practice must be equally represented. Unfortunately, many education schools overemphasize research, to the great detriment of their graduates who become practitioners and face various empirical, non-research-related scenarios without the needed skills or guidance.

Effective neurosurgeons must stay abreast of both current research and the latest practice techniques. We should expect no less from those who educate people's brains than we do from those who operate on them.

Michael Grady, Ed.M.'83, Ed.D.'88
Deputy Director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University

Michael Grady  

The professionalization of education, typically associated with advancing the professional role of the teacher, is an obligation that extends to educational research as well. Education research must be sturdy, reliable, and open to professional scrutiny. In large part because randomized trials are considered the gold standard of research design and are used in medical research, many contend that the only way to truly professionalize education research is to demand the use of randomized trials or "true experiments."

“As long as study results are open to replication and professional scrutiny, we will have a professional body of research on which to base reform efforts.”

However, many questions that are vital to the aim of understanding large-scale reform are not easily testable under these experimental conditions. For example, achieving and sustaining progress toward the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) will require more and better-quality research on the policy and community contexts of reform.

What has drawn the most fire is the National Research Council's call for expanded federal funding for randomized trials in its report Scientific Research in Education. The fear in some quarters is that funding for education research will be channeled to support costly, large-scale experiments.

But there are other, equally legitimate forms of research. As long as research data is obtained through hypotheses posed in testable terms and nested in a body of established theory; as long as the data collection and analytical methods permit direct investigation of the question; and as long as the study results are open to replication and professional scrutiny, we will have a professional body of research on which to base reform efforts.

The stakes for new knowledge are high. Restricting funding and support to experimental designs will leave large gaps in our understanding of important aspects of reform in the NCLB context. This would be a disservice to the practitioners with whom we work and the children and families they serve.

Joel Zarrow, Ed.M.'93
Director of School Services for Partners in School Innovation, San Francisco

Joel Zarrow  

Constructive peer review is not the norm for teachers, though it is a hallmark of any fully developed profession. Firefighters debrief after they put out a fire, doctors have grand rounds—even football players watch tapes of their plays after a game. For teachers to develop the kinds of professional learning communities that have gained currency with education researchers, they need to interact with each other in new and often uncomfortable ways.

There are a number of important impediments inhibiting teachers from learning from each other—like packed teaching schedules, a lack of collaboration time, and ambiguity about what constitutes best practice. But the single most common significant factor that I experience has to do with teachers' own beliefs about their role and their identity as teachers. To a certain extent, teachers see themselves as teachers of children, which of course they are. However, they are much less inclined to see themselves as teachers of each other.

“It is time for schools of education to see how they can support their students and alumni in K-12 schools in their surrounding communities.”

Strong education schools are changing this. New teachers from good education programs recognize the value of teaching and learning from each other. Whether it is working on collaborative projects or giving each other constructive feedback on model lessons, students in innovative schools of education learn in ways indicative of professional learning communities.

A challenge then emerges when this new esprit de corps gets placed in an education system that is not readily amenable to supporting this way of working. Schools of higher education can help. Rather than graduation being equated with moving on to a new and separate phase of a teacher's professional pathway, education schools can play an ongoing role in supporting new and burgeoning professional learning communities embedded within the K-12 system. The best schools of education are building these kinds of learning communities within their schools; perhaps it is time for schools of education to see how they can support their students and alumni in K-12 schools in their surrounding communities.

Jon Schnur
Co-founder and CEO of New Leaders for New Schools, New York City

Jon Schnur  

Strengthening education schools, particularly programs for producing principals, depends on developing accurate, meaningful yardsticks to measure school success. These yardsticks can elucidate what makes effective principals—including the characteristics and training they bring to the profession and the organization of their schools.

In founding New Leaders for New Schools—a nonprofit organization that recruits and develops outstanding new principals for urban schools—our team discovered a vacuum of research on meaningful assessment for schools and principals. This vacuum stems not only from the difficulty of the endeavor but also from a persistent national clash between an obsession to train students solely for high scores on multiple-choice tests and an angry disenchantment with measuring progress of public schools, educators, or education schools.

“Education research could...shed more light on what policies and practices best foster high achievement levels for every child.”

Educators and researchers can help defuse this debate by creating meaningful targets and performance indicators for all public schools, including but not limited to student proficiency on academic standards as measured by quality standardized tests. These school indicators should also incorporate other measures of key ingredients to long-term success, such as student performance in writing and oral presentations, teaching and curriculum quality, student attitudes and culture, attendance, and school leadership and management.

Doing this rigorously will be neither easy nor cheap. For example, one strategy could require every fourth-grader to write an essay to be scored by trained reviewers against rigorous state standards for writing performance. Every eighth-grader could deliver an oral presentation to be reviewed by "juries" of educators and other citizens.

Education schools could use these indicators—and the performance of students led and taught by their graduates—to restructure programs selecting and training future principals and teachers. Education research could use this information to shed more light on what policies and practices best foster high achievement levels for every child.

About the Article
A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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