When education task forces are formed to address the question of improving the teaching profession it seems that they are required to take a superficiality pill. They then focus almost exclusively on human capital in order to improve (or remove) each and every teacher, one by one. The Alberta Task Force, with its 25 recommendations, is no exception. It is not that the recommendations have no merit; they just entirely miss the point.
You don’t develop a profession or an organization by focusing on sticks and carrots aimed at individuals. All high-performing entities develop the group to focus collectively and relentlessly on quality work linked to high expectations and standards. If you don’t base policies and strategies on purposeful group impact you inevitably end up with low yield results along with gross distractions.
Take the recommendation that has drawn the most press, implementing a process that would require teachers to be assessed to maintain their certification. Of course the intent is to get rid of incompetent teachers, but the action is akin to scorching the lawn to get rid of weeds. Try doing the math. There are not enough hours in the day to do all this work that has little chance of being effective anyway, and diverts principals from doing things that have much higher impact. What starts out as a reasonable goal (identify weak teachers and reward good ones) ends up becoming an overbearing, odious task. This micromanagement madness creates a massive bureaucracy that has zero chance of working, which is precisely the track record of its impact in other political systems that have tried it.
Similar developments currently underway in the U.S. are ruining the principalship, as I write in my book The Principal. There is an alternative. Focus, deliberatively and specifically, on the Professional Capital of Teachers – not just the individual human capital of bright and skilled people (that too), but especially social capital (the quality of the group, or how people effectively work together), and decisional capital (the capacity, over time, to develop and make expert decisions individually and collectively that benefit all your students).
We can take some of the ideas in the task force but we need to re-constitute them with an entirely different philosophy. The elements include:
1. High standards for teachers and school leaders which top-performing countries like Singapore, Finland and, yes, Canada, already have.
2. Transparent practice and monitoring of progress.
3. A growth oriented culture geared to the integration of professional standards and school goals.
4. Strategies for teachers to work together and for schools, and districts to learn from each other.
5. New opportunities for the more effective teachers to play leadership roles.
6. Learning partnerships between and among students and teachers aimed at deeper goals (such as the three Es in Alberta’s Inspiring Education – Engaged thinker, Ethical Citizen, Entrepreneurial spirit)
7. Alliances between the teaching profession and the community including parents, families and businesses.
8. Merging internal (within the group), and external accountability aimed at the very small number of teachers who don’t develop under the above conditions.
These elements reflect what high performing organizations embody in any sector. Do the first seven right and you’ll just be cleaning up the margins with Number 8, internal accountability. Put accountability first and you’ll undermine the other seven.
When employed, these strategies work – within short periods of time and deeply. The power of professional capital is identified in the findings of my work with colleague Andy Hargreaves:
- Talented schools improve even weak teachers. Talented teachers leave weak schools. Good collaboration reduces bad (ineffective) variation in the quality of teaching. Principals who help develop the group have the greatest impact on student learning.
- Superintendents who develop partnerships with their schools, and who foster schools in networks get the best district-wide results.
- Well-supported collaborative and transparent work (not just talk) among teachers is what gets the best results.
In short, if you know that growth and development of teachers is critical what strategy would you lead with: teacher evaluation, professional development or collaborative cultures? I know where I would put my money, and so does every other successful leader in organizations faced with challenging goals. Develop the culture and encompass evaluation and professional learning within it.
Michael Fullan is Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.