What is an Educational Professional?

The above question is one that has been asked for decades and has yet to receive a uniform and adequate answer. As I travel North America and conduct professional development for educators, I oft-times ask this question to participants and I get a wide range of answers. Some of those answers include qualities like compassion, nurturing, knowledgeable, flexible, patient, and collaborative. All of these traits are noble and would be positive traits in any profession. The problem is that we lack a consensus among educators about what a quality educational professional does. Many professional organizations have come up with their own versions or belief statements, but there has yet to be a consensus on what a consummate educational professional does and how he/she performs and behaves.

Why is this debate so important? The overwhelming consensus among the experts in the field of education is that the most important variable in improving student achievement is a high-quality teacher. This fact brings cause for leaders to ask three questions:

  1. Who are these high-quality teachers and what do they do?
  2. How can school districts find these professionals or can each teacher be taught to be high-quality, model teachers?
  3. Are there parts of the traditional school structure and culture that are detrimental to the concept of guaranteeing every student a high-quality teacher?

These questions have plagued school districts and school district leaders for years and there seems to be no end in sight to desperate attempts to close the gap in performance from teacher-to-teacher.

Recently, the New York City Public Schools created an experiment called the Equity Project. This program is a part of an experimental charter school that seeks to fill every classroom with a “superstar” teacher selected from a nation-wide search that the director styles as an educational version of “American Idol.” Each teacher will be paid a base salary of $125,000 (nearly twice the average for a NYC teacher) and each teacher is eligible for an additional bonus of $25,000, starting in the second year, based upon improvement in student achievement. The school will start with a class of 120 fifth graders and it will expand each year to accommodate an additional grade level up to 8th grade. The students will be selected on a lottery format. The district will monitor the experiment to determine if head-hunting for top-talent and paying a premium wage is the way to guarantee high-quality instruction and improved student performance.

This experiment, like many others, sheds an unfavorable light on the current state of our profession. What these experiments show is the low level of confidence that the public has in the average educational professional to improve, grow, and provide adequate service for all children. It also sends a message that investment in the development of currently employed teachers is a waste of time and money, according to top leaders.

The improvement in teacher quality and performance has to come from a fundamental shift in focus, values, and practices that have to be championed by educators within our culture, not from the outside. I do not fault the New York City Public Schools for their attempts to improve student learning. They owe it to the children and citizens of their city. I am insulted by these types of experiments, not because people have the audacity to try them, but because they have not created any alarm within our field. I am not talking about the traditional alarm around rhetoric in the areas of “stealing money away from local schools” or “protecting jobs.” I am angry about the lack of self-reflection and internal accountability in our field that approves of varying levels of professional performance. I am angry about a lack of internal outcry for professional development and capacity building that would allow us to create high-performing professionals in each classroom instead of going on nation-wide “American Idol” auditions. If we do not develop the internal capacity to look in the mirror and create learning communities of professional educators, we cannot be mad at others who try to fill this need, no matter how goofy their experiment.