In the report we released last week detailing our recommendations for how to reform Michigan’s education system, we dedicate an entire section to the one factor upon which just about everything else depends: the human capital working in and supporting our schools.
For many Michigan children, our education system is focused solely on a narrow set of math and reading skills, excluding the wide range of skills needed for college and career success, and the broad range of topics that can engage kids in school. What is needed instead is a system designed to develop the 6 Cs – collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creativity, and confidence – delivered through engaging, project-based instruction.
And if we’re to design an education system built around the 6 Cs, it’s critical that the individuals working in and supporting our schools are themselves masters of the 6 Cs. They must be creative, critical thinkers, eager collaborators, and good communicators, who are curious about the world and have deep content knowledge, paired with a lasting commitment to education. In other words, we need the “best and brightest” to be teaching in and supporting our schools.
This is true at every level of a student’s education, from birth through college, and is never more true than in early childhood. Understanding how young children learn, and the experiences that best promote healthy development, is endlessly complex work. We need early childhood educators who’ve received extensive training in early childhood education and development, who are passionate about the work, and are compensated as professionals. Yet our early-childhood education workforce is paid poverty wages, and many in the field lack a professional credential.
This needs to change. We need to require that our early childhood education workforce be filled with experts in child development, who are passionate about the work, and we need to offer the pay needed to attract these workers.
For all the other changes we can make to our education system, if we don’t get more high-caliber candidates, masters of the 6 Cs, into our teaching pipeline, outcomes are unlikely to improve. This is particularly true as we try to move beyond filling in bubbles on a test, and towards the development of a 21st century skill-set. To get top talent into our K-12 schools we need to examine policies pertaining to who enters the teaching profession, the training they receive, the conditions under which they teach, and the type of professional opportunities available to those that go into education.
To start, current levels of teacher compensation aren’t high enough to attract top students into the profession. In the U.S. salaries are far lower for teachers than for other work highly educated college grads can obtain, something that’s not the case in the highest-achieving nations, where top students regularly choose careers in education.
But it’s not just pay. In our test-driven system, teachers are seen as widgets – replaceable individuals performing a fairly routine task. In a system designed to build the 6 Cs, teaching would be seen for the highly intellectual work that it is, likely making the work more attractive to top talent.
And of course, we need more than just great teachers. We need masters of the 6 Cs at every level of our education system. One of our key learnings from our Michigan Future Schools initiative was that successful schools are supported by strong central offices, who are responsible for the educational design of the school and a vast infrastructure of school supports. These same strong central offices are also set up to develop new teachers, and offer them professional pathways that will enable them to make a career in education. We need policies that can help build these strong central offices – both traditional district and charter school network – that serve as institutional anchors able to recruit, develop, and retain top talent throughout a school system.
Finally, in higher education, the teaching workforce certainly doesn’t suffer from lack of talent. College professors are subject-matter experts with graduate degrees who’ve demonstrated their ability to think critically and make original contributions to their field.
The issue in higher education, however, is that while instructors have proven themselves to be high-quality researchers and scholars, there’s wide variation in actual teaching ability and faculty development opportunities on university campuses.
More attention should be paid to the development of university faculty as instructors. Efforts like the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, the oldest university-based teaching center in the country, should be widespread. In addition, our public universities need to be provided with sufficient resources such that they don’t have to rely on contingent, part-time, adjunct faculty.
Investing in teachers, birth through college
It’s often said that teaching our children is the most important job there is. If this is true, then our policies are miles away from reflecting that. In our report we raise a number of ideas that can help bring our policies more in line with our rhetoric. We’re eager for feedback and to hear more ideas, and we hope you’ll join us in that discussion.