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Strengthening the Teaching Profession in NYC: Advice to the Next Mayor

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As education professors who previously taught in the New York City public schools, and who now prepare education students to teach in them, we find working in the current education climate more and more difficult. The last decade in New York City and elsewhere has seen continuing public attacks on teachers and the profession. Teaching -- inherently intellectual, complex, and challenging work -- is progressively determined by scripted curricula and teach-to-the-test mandates, which have served to deprofessionalize it.

It is not surprising then that recent studies show that teachers are increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs and the profession. According to the 2011 annual MetLife Foundation Survey of the American Teacher, only 44% of those surveyed, down from 59%, say they are satisfied with their jobs and a rising number of teachers (from 17% to 29%) say they are thinking of leaving the classroom.

Rarely mentioned are prospective teachers, such as our own education students, who are now having second thoughts about becoming teachers. In our work with them we face a conundrum. How do we help prospective teachers remain excited and hopeful about teaching, while at the same time they are realizing that teaching is being deprofessionalized?

Unlike some candidates in fast-track programs like Teach for America, who generally spend only two years in classrooms before moving on to careers as lawyers, public policy experts or education technology entrepreneurs, most of our education students view themselves as preparing for a career in teaching and see it as a profession. However, increasingly our students have raised questions about whether or not they should enter a field where their hard work is not valued, where many administrators are required to evaluate them based on checklists and some do little to support them, where they would have little autonomy and are required to implement scripted curriculum and assessments which they played no role in creating. Our students' disenchantment with their chosen field corresponds with the 50% of teachers who leave teaching within five years on the job.

Historically, men and women, but mostly women, entered teaching because of the opportunities it provided them, including its status as a profession. While during the second half of the 19th century prospective teachers attended normal schools, which offered a level of education similar to a secondary school, by the beginning of the 20th century, university-based teachers' colleges were established to professionalize teaching. Their founders believed that an in-depth scientific approach to education would lead to professionalization for both school administration and teachers.

But can teaching be considered to be a profession today? A profession iinvolves intellectual work that requires a specialized knowledge base developed through both academic study and applied practice. It assumes autonomy in decision-making and the opportunity to work with other professionals on complex cases, and encourages an ethic of service. It is a pursuit where one develops skills over time, and with it the respect of the larger community.

Recent school policy and practices -- referred to as "corporate reform" by some critics -- with mandates from above dictating everything from curriculum, teaching and assessment with little teacher input -- have meant eliminating teacher capacity in the very domains that define teachers as professionals. There is little interest in developing in teachers what scholars Michael Fullen and Andy Hargreaves call "professional capital," a combination of individual expertise, the ability to work closely with colleagues to develop skills, and opportunities "to make decisions on the ground." While we have deep concerns about how teachers and teaching have been undermined in New York City because of policies implemented by Mayor Bloomberg and the New York State Board of Regents, we maintain hope for the school system to which we have devoted our professional lives. Whoever becomes mayor in 2013 will be in control of the schools, as Bloomberg has been. The new mayor will have the opportunity to reshape both educational policies and practices in New York City. Most importantly, he or she will have the opportunity to place educators at the center of school reform, which can, among other things, remedy the disenchantment that many prospective teachers experience. As teachers and observers of the New York City schools for together nearly 50 years, we respectfully present the following six-point program to those running to become mayor of New York City:
  • Hire a chancellor who has a broad plan for education that extends beyond raising test scores and graduation rates. His/her plan must include redirecting funds away from expensive testing and technology contracts toward developing professional capital in schools -- in the teachers, principals and other school professionals who teach and support our children every day. He/she must stop the fixation on "weeding out" the small percentage of teachers who should leave teaching and refocus attention on supporting and building professional capacity of the large majority of educators across the city.
  • Appoint principals and assistant principals who are experienced educators -- those with at least ten years experience working in schools. They should be "instructional leaders," who know a great deal about instruction, curriculum, student learning and engagement, as well as the community in which their school is located.
  • In order to support teacher retention, make sure that new teachers are integrated slowly into schools. Yes, they need mentors, but they also require a reduced program in order to observe more experienced teachers, and time for discussion and analysis of their practice, like they do in countries like Finland and Japan.
  • The mayor needs to recognize that teachers cannot do it alone. As the chief executive of the city, the mayor should foster collaborations between the Department of Education and other city agencies, in order to respond to a wide range of student needs and raise student achievement. The new mayor should help to create collaborative support networks like the Harlem Children's Zone and the Community Schools model, which link schools with other community and city resources.
  • Make it clear to the majority of the 75,000 professionals teaching in New York City know that you know they work tirelessly and oftentimes under very difficult circumstances. Prospective teachers will begin to realize that becoming a New York City teacher means being a part of a valued profession that serves the city and its students.

Sonia E. Murrow is Assistant Professor of Education at Brooklyn College. Jessica Siegel is Assistant Professor of Journalism, English and Education at Brooklyn College.