Book Review: Creating a New Teaching Profession

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By Rob Rickenbrode, NCTQ

Dan Goldhaber's and Jane Hannaway's new compilation of essays, Creating a New Teaching Profession, crackles early with potential. The essays are divided into three sections:(1) those that make the case for a strong focus on human capital issues in K-12 by examining historical trends and projections, international practices, and private sector lessons; (2) those that suggest reform ideas; and, (3) those that comment on and react to the first two groups.

We found much to learn in the first two sections of the book, not so much in the wrap up.

In "Human Capital Policy and the Quality of the Teacher Workforce," New York University's Sean Corcoran raises important concerns about barriers to entry in teaching programs, pointing to studies demonstrating that states with more rigorous teacher testing do not, on average, have higher-aptitude teachers and yet another where stronger licensing requirements apparently reduced overall teacher supply and the average quality of teachers. Perhaps, Corcoran theorizes, highly-skilled graduates may be disproportionately dissuaded by higher preparation costs and the need to invest in skills that may not be transferrable to other careers.

In "Lessons from Abroad: Exploring Cross-Country Differences in Teacher Development Systems and What They Mean for U.S. Policy," Dan Goldhaber uses international comparisons to demonstrate, among other things, that there is little relationship between student achievement and teacher salaries or between the length of field experiences (a prominent reform initiative in the U.S) and country average levels of student achievement.

Rick Hess systematically identifies current assumptions around teacher preparation and imagines a reality where many are reversed or abandoned entirely, such as: that most new teachers should be recent college graduates intent on making a career of full-time classroom instruction or career changers with some professional work experience; that most teachers should be generalists, expected to juggling a broad array of tasks, responsibilities, and duties or increasingly specialized practitioners; or that new compensation models should be based on finer-gradations of hierarchies of educators and crude value-added metrics or based on the skills and training required to specialize.

Eric Hanushek, using a title and phrase guaranteed to prevent constructive conversation, "Teacher Deselection," (in fairness we have no alternative to proffer) describes and quantifies a process of systematically and permanently removing a small percentage of very low-performing teachers that could improve U.S. student achievement relatively quickly, pay for itself, and, except for the will, can be done soon.

There are a few early misses, such as Alan Blinder's suggestion to focus more on teaching creativity, spontaneity, communications, and interpersonal relations to prepare our children for a future job market with (relatively) more service jobs that cannot be sent offshore--we are not certain that learning standards should include spontaneity.

The book fizzles at the end, where notables--a dean of an education school, an urban superintendent, a teacher's union leader, and a policy wonk--comment on the political and operational feasibility of the ideas in the earlier essays. Here, this reader was left with an uncomfortable feeling that relatively little is possible, not as a result of the analyses in this section, but because of the sense that the commentators have not grown or changed significantly in considering the earlier ideas-that the reactions could have been written without consideration of the earlier works.

It could be said that Creating a New Teaching Profession serves as a microcosm of the current education reform movement, where there is no lack of compelling ideas put forward by earnest reformers talking past each other.