Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems is a recent report from the Learning First Alliance and the International Center for Benchmarking in Education at the National Center for Education and the Economy. The paper describes practices and policies from four high-performing school systems – British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore – where professional learning is believed to be the primary vehicle for school improvement.
My first reaction was: This sounds great, but where is the ubiquitous discussion of “teacher quality?” Frankly, I was somewhat baffled that a report on school improvement never even mentioned the phrase.* Upon close reading, I found the report to be full of radical (and very good) ideas. It’s not that the report proposed anything that would require an overhaul of the U.S. education system; rather, they were groundbreaking because these ideas did not rely on the typical assumptions about how the youth or the adults in these systems learn and achieve mastery. Because, while things are changing a bit in the U.S. with regard to our understanding of student learning – e.g., we now talk about “deep learning” – we have still not made this transition when it comes to teachers.
In the U.S., a number of unstated but common assumptions about “teacher quality” suffuse the entire school improvement conversation. As researchers have noted (see here and here), instructional effectiveness is implicitly viewed as an attribute of individuals, a quality that exists in a sort of vacuum (or independent of the context of teachers’ work), and which, as a result, teachers can carry with them, across and between schools. Effectiveness also is often perceived as fairly stable: teachers learn their craft within the first few years in the classroom and then plateau,** but, at the end of the day, some teachers have what it takes and others just don’t. So, the general assumption is that a “good teacher” will be effective under any conditions, and the quality of a given school is determined by how many individual “good teachers” it has acquired.