From Bureaucracy to Profession: Remaking the Educational Sector for the Twenty-First Century

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Published: 
Fall, 2013

Source: Harvard Educational Review, Volume 83, No. 3 (Fall 2013): 463-488.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the author examines the challenges faced by American schooling and the reasons for persistent failure of American school reforms to achieve successful educational outcomes at scale.
He concludes that, many of the problems faced by American schools are derived from trying to solve a problem that requires professional skill and expertise by using bureaucratic levers of requirements and regulations.

The Sectoral Perspective

The author advances a sectoral perspective on education reform, exploring how this shift in thinking could help education stakeholders produce quality practice across the US.
From the sectoral perspective, the key to improvement is not individual initiatives but, rather, the features that organize the work of the sector as a whole.
These features include:
(1) who is drawn to work in the sector, how they are selected, and how they are trained;
(2) whether there is an accumulating knowledge base that guides the work;
(3) whether there are processes in place to ensure that knowledge is consistently used at the delivery site; and
(4) whether the aforementioned steps are aligned around an overarching system of accountability.

He claims that in the American educational system, we do not recruit teachers from the top tier of academic achievement; we provide them with only limited training, equip them with little usable knowledge, and send them to work in schools that, by international standards, have high levels of child poverty and weak welfare state supports.
In turn, policy makers look at these failing schools and seek to intervene, most directly by holding schools and teachers accountable for results.
This creates a climate of distrust between policy makers and practitioners, with policy makers seeking to monitor and direct practitioners they feel are failing to provide students a decent education and practitioners resenting policy makers for what they see as misplaced blame and ill-informed demands from afar.
In particular, it has contributed to an unhealthy relationship between educational practice inside schools and the outside forces that seek to shape that practice.
The result has been antagonism and mistrust between policy makers and practitioners, with little of the hoped-for improvement in practice at scale.
From the point of view of teachers, policy makers and district administrators are generally out of touch with the realities in the classroom; they lurch from one priority to another for largely political reasons and unfairly wield power despite their limited useful knowledge.

How to Reassemble the Sector and Professionalize the Field

Initial levels of professional skill and expertise in schools create a more fertile ground on which to try out new ideas.
Those ideas are then offered less in the spirit of compliance and more in the spirit of offering new knowledge that might be well suited to solving a problem of practice.
By creating a professional rather than a bureaucratic orientation, we could escape the downward spiral that we have been in and move toward the kind of upward spiral that is characteristic of higher-performing nations.
There are four interrelated aspects to the needed changes that correspond to the four core functions in any field.
We need to make changes to the human capital pipeline, changes to the knowledge base, changes to the organizational processes that ensure that the knowledge is used, and changes to the role of districts and the state, from compliance monitors to partners in the social improvement processes.

These things are all necessary if the goal is sector wide improvement.
Building an Expert Workforce
With respect to human capital, we need to take seriously the entire pipeline: attracting, selecting, training, and retaining our next generation of teachers.
The author claims that successful programs all tend to select people with content training in what they are going to teach, give them careful and extended practice and feedback on their work in schools, and teach them to use data and to reflect carefully on their practice.
Policy should continue to embrace pluralism of different types of training institutions; but as standards become clearer, some will survive and others will not on the basis of whether their graduates are consistently able to pass the bar and become teachers.
Currently, teacher training institutions are responsible for teacher preparation during student teaching or the first year of teaching, and districts are responsible for induction after that.
It would make more sense to unite these functions under single institutions that would oversee teachers' development during their first three years of teaching.
New teachers would be given increased levels of responsibility over time, beginning with team teaching with master teachers.
Then they would teach a partial load (one class for teachers in middle and high schools and part of the day for teachers in elementary schools) and use the rest of the time for feedback, reflection, and integration of what they are learning about teaching with their experiences in the classroom.

Finally, expert teachers not only possess these kinds of knowledge, but also know how to integrate them in real situations; like experts in other domains, they are able to quickly diagnose situations and draw on a wide repertoire of techniques in response.
Hence good teaching also has an affective dimension, as the ability to develop a warm but demanding rapport with students is critical for success.

Updated: Jun. 29, 2015
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