Public education’s future and its teaching profession

Forty years ago this fall, I began my teaching career and ensuing efforts to both better understand and advance the teaching profession. In my career of supporting and improving our nation’s system of public education, I have learned much from the many scholars with whom I have collaborated, and even more from classroom experts I interviewed in countless studies and worked with in communities of practice. Since the founding of CTQ, one of our most powerful projects was the writing of Teaching 2030 with 12 classroom experts. We opined on prospects for the profession’s future with a hopeful view of what public education can become in the United States.

In our book, published  seven+ years ago, we envisioned how new technologies and transformed school organizations could elevate the teaching profession, by examining promising ideas from different sides of the still-contentious debates over teaching, learning, and schooling. We are steadfast in our belief in the paramount importance of education as a public good in the face of growing efforts to privatize essential government services. But we also recognized that digital learning tools and social entrepreneurship could catalyze the kind of reforms students of the 21st century need and deserve.

In Teaching 2030, we imagined four emergent realities: (1) technologies help educators share more accurate evidence about student learning with policymakers and the public, boosting accountability; (2) teachers and administrators jointly lead the creation of seamless connections among learning in cyberspace and in brick-and-mortar schools and community and university partnerships; (3) differentiated professional pathways allow teachers with different skills and career trajectories to maximize their respective strengths; and (4) a large contingent of teacherpreneurs — career educators who have time, space, and recognition to incubate their own ideas — finally blur the lines of distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead them.

Can we, over the next 12 years, even get close to our vision for Teaching 2030? The needs of students attending public schools are escalating: More than one in five live in poverty, one in 10 are second language learners, and one in 30 are homeless. And while the needs of high-need school communities escalate, the public dollars to support them are dwindling. In most states public investment in K-12 schools has dropped precipitously of late. And while only 10 percent of our nation’s young people attend private schools (and 6 percent go to charters), the current USDOE is planning to spend $20 billion to expand the privatization of public education.

Teachers’ salaries are woefully underpaid in comparison to other college graduates (and in many states, the average teacher heading a family of four qualifies for government support). Teacher shortages are now rampant — like in South Carolina where dropping teacher prep enrollments are causing administrators to turn to foreign teachers to temporarily fill classrooms. Better pay is needed. But the majority of teachers also report they are not engaged in their work — due to the fact that their “opinions do not count” and the lack of an “open and trusting” environment. And research also points to teachers who are leaving due to growing dissatisfaction with “too much testing” in their schools and a “nasty political environment” in which they are teaching.

Under these conditions, it is difficult to find optimism for the vision we outlined in Teaching 2030, and a robust future of teaching, learning, and public schooling.

Emily Vickery noted, the digital divide for students seems wider, and for Meredith Mehra and our School District of Philadelphia colleagues, time for teachers to learn from one another remains a huge obstacle. And with the larger 2018 political context in mind, America, not just education reform, seems to be more divided than ever.

Yet, as my Teaching 2030 colleagues have pointed out, “a transformed learning ecology is perpetually on the horizon… (and) teachers will continue to push the boundaries of their classrooms and their profession through innovation and digital tools.” Slowly but surely both educators and the general public are rejecting the rote forms of learning that has dominated public, private, and charter schools alike. Best-selling author Dan Heath is raising public awareness of  “a different kind of learning that sticks with students and motivates them to succeed.”  Artificial intelligence will soon “open the doors” for more trial and error learning by students and creativity on the part of teachers. Education Week recently reported that more than 8,000 teachers, who have organized themselves on a Facebook group, are throwing out traditional grades and are using a variety of tools to measure a wide range of cognitive and non-cognitive (including curiosity) outcomes for the students they teach.

In addition, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Adam Pisoni, who founded Yammer, has launched ABL, a start-up that helps educators use data analytics to rethink the master schedule so teachers have more time to teach and lead. And Mark Nieker,  Gary Syman, and Vicki Phillips are using their deep knowledge of technology and  public-private partnerships in education in creating TeachingPartners — an online community being designed to support growing numbers of teachers (estimated at 1 in 3) who are finding external networks in order to assist and learn from  one another. With growing evidence on the importance of social learning for students as well as educators, major foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have turned education philanthropy away from assessing teachers toward network improvement communities, where soon a premium will be placed on teachers and administrators leading reforms together.

This is no time to be Pollyannaish. The assault on public education has escalated. But as Emily Vickery wrote, the recent successes of #NeverAgain, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, point to possibilities of grassroots organizing to raise the visibility of the ideas from public school students, minorities, and women. State legislatures, like those in Arizona which have not been friendly to public education, are beginning to relent to pressure they feel from parents to support more funding for their schools and those who teach in them. Equity-oriented public and charter schools, like those supported by UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schooling, are beginning to work together. And new philanthropy, like the Ballmer Group, is beginning to support non-profits like STRIVE and Communities-in-Schools, and their partners, to provide the kind of integrated academic, social, and health services students in high-need school communities must have. We still have 12 years, and as these opportunities and others like them emerge, we just might create what we imagined for 2030.