Tom Friedman has some of it right – but he needs to do a little more homework

Barnett Berry thoughtfully disagrees with Tom Friedman’s rant on education reform. He suggests Friedman is missing a few key points in his commentary on teaching, preparing and recruiting talented teachers. Barnett offers counterpoints and urges the discussion to move forward.

Tom Friedman’s op-ed piece in last Saturday’s New York Times suggests that it’s time for policymakers to get serious about teaching in America. Friedman calls for emulating the teacher development systems of Finland and Denmark that have transformed teaching from a factory-line job to a knowledge profession by investing “massively” in how teachers are recruited, prepared, and rewarded. So far, so good.

Friedman then goes on to praise Race to the Top investments by the Obama Administration, while bemoaning the perceived failure of our schools to teach “the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.” Yet many accomplished teachers who are eager to teach in ways that build just these skills are complaining that Obama’s R2T investments continue support for a narrow, test-driven curriculum that discourages time-consuming strategies like project-based instruction — the very kind of teaching that requires students to work together and apply what they are learning to solve authentic problems.

Friedman apparently does not yet know that high performing nations invest in teachers in much different ways than those prescribed by America’s current federal policies. Top-scoring nations like Finland invest in:

  1. Teacher education, so that all recruits have extensive preparation, fully paid by the federal government, in a wide array of relevant pedagogical strategies, before they begin to teach;
  2. Good professional working conditions, so that all teachers have up to 50% of their time devoted to working with each other on assessing student progress, refining their lessons, and developing new pedagogical skills; and
  3. Purposeful student assessment systems, so that teachers always know whether students are learning what we’ve agreed they need to learn, and what to do next if they are not.

It’s true that the USDOE has recently invested about $160 million in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, in an attempt to build better student assessments that will recognize and promote quality teaching. However, very little of the R2T’s $4 billion in “change dollars” actually pushes states to invest in serious teacher education, including provocative new approaches proposed by those who teach. Instead the focus is on alternative certification that truncates training.The R2T framework, which continues to promote 20th century reform strategies,  also does very little to help educators and other leaders focus on the future of learning and the need to transform teaching practice to meet the needs of students “growing up digital.”

I think that Mr. Friedman, an erudite observer of the global economy, senses the need to finally professionalize teaching in America. I hope he’ll take the time to become more fully informed about what other competitive nations are doing to build a 21st century teaching profession — and the steps we need to take to do the same.