Linda Darling Hammond
Interview With Linda Darling Hammond
Linda Darling Hammond is Professor of Education at Stanford University and Director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.
Q: What problems do we need to address in the structure of schools today?
Well, I actually think there are two big problems in the way that we run schools today. One is that the schools we have now are constructed as though teaching doesn't matter, and secondly they're constructed as though relationships don't matter. We have this idea that if we just give them the textbooks to follow and the test to give and the procedures to, you know, pursue, that the kids will just magically get taught adequately, without realizing that teaching, when it's good teaching, is reciprocal. What the kids do determines what the teacher needs to do; the teacher needs to know a lot in order to be able to do that. She needs to know a lot about children, about learning, about subject matter, about curriculum and how to build it so that it's in some kind of a logical order, and so on. And if we don't give teachers the supports to do that well, the knowledge, the time to plan, the opportunity to work with one another to get better at it, we don't get very high quality teaching. The other problem is that we have schools structured as though relationships don't matter. If you want to teach well to very high standards, you have to know the students well, you have to have that relationship that allows you to both challenge them, and adapt what you're doing for them so that it works. So schools have to be redesigned to focus on teaching and to enable relationships.
Q: There's a lot of talk about reform that's gone nowhere. What should be the heart of any reform today?
We've had waves of reform for this entire century, in the 1900s in the 1930s, in the 1960s. Every single time we try to do reform by changing the curriculum, changing the management structure, changing the budgeting process, whatever, without paying attention to helping teachers learn how to teach kids well, the reform fails. And then we say, "Oh, we tried that and it didn't work." Because teachers were not enabled to use the curriculum materials, to use whatever the new innovation was that was coming down the pike. It's the sine qua non of learning is to enable really high quality teaching.
Q: What can we do to help teachers do their best work?
Unfortunately kids don't learn at the same rate. They don't learn in the same way. So whenever teachers are given a single way to teach, they're actually made less effective in meeting the needs of the students. And I think a lot of the folks outside of the profession don't realize that some efforts to improve teaching can actually harm it. Obviously, lack of time to work individually with students or collaboratively with colleagues is a huge hindrance in American schools. In many other countries like France, Germany, China, Japan, and so on, teachers will have 10, 15 even as much as 20 hours a week to work with one another on planning lessons, on doing demonstration lessons, on observing one another in the classroom, meeting individually with parents and students, all the stuff that enables what goes on in the classroom to be effective. In this country teachers have 3-5 hours a week for planning their lessons, period, and they do it by themselves. So all of that support for developing high quality teaching and enabling kids not to fall behind is not available to them. Things like class sizes and so on obviously can make a difference, but in fact, even more so than that, we found that not having access to the knowledge you need to do the job is probably the single biggest hindrance that American teachers have. We have very thin, uneven teacher education experiences; there are some great programs in this country; there are some that are truly awful; many of them are just cash cows on the University campus that are there to fund the education of lawyers, accountants, architects, doctors and everyone but the teachers who are paying the tuition. Very little opportunity for ongoing learning. So when a teacher comes into the classroom and is confronted with kids who have a variety of needs, learning disabilities, many who may not speak English as their first language, who learn at different rates and different ways, the likelihood that she will have encountered the knowledge that would help her address these learning needs, understand how children develop, know what to do about learning difficulties, have an adequate grounding in the content area, is relatively small in this country. And so teachers have to learn by trial and error. And it's not fair to them. And of course it's not fair to the kids.
Q: How does teaching compare to other professions?
In this country, teaching is not yet a profession. A profession really has at least three features. First of all, everyone who is admitted to entry into the profession commits themselves to practice with the welfare of clients first and foremost as their major goal. It's like the Hippocratic oath in medicine. Second, everyone who's admitted to practice in a profession has demonstrated that they've mastered a common knowledge base and that they know then how to use that knowledge on behalf of the clients that they're there to serve. And third, a profession takes responsibility for defining, transmitting, and enforcing some standards of practice to protect the people who they're there to serve. Teaching has not acquired those three traits yet.
Q: Why doesn't teacher certification ensure good teaching?
Often the standards that states have enacted are not up to date, do not incorporate current knowledge about teaching, and they're remarkably willing to waive the standards. So forty states still will allow people to practice teaching without any training for the job, and without having pledged themselves to the welfare of the students. Basically it's the feather test: after September first, when there's a vacant slot, where if you breathe on it and it moves, you've passed the test. You can get hired. And there's not a single state that will do this, for example, for the hiring of cosmetologists, plumbers, not to mention lawyers, doctors, architects. We are much more willing to take chances with the lives of our children than we are with the condition of our hair, for example, in this country. Fortunately there's a lot of change underfoot in the way that we, you know, certify teachers to come into the profession.
Q: What about the new national certification for teachers?
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards now issues a certificate like board certification for doctors, in pediatrics or oncology, and so on, for advanced teachers who are highly accomplished. And they can, over the course of a year, document their practice and have it assessed so they can receive, if they meet the standards, which are very high, a certificate of accomplished practice. Some states are now acknowledging that expert teaching with salary stipends, with the opportunity for teachers to become lead teachers or mentor teachers to help their colleagues. They're, in fact, beginning to incorporate these standards into teachers' evaluation processes, so they are using it to help bring the profession along in terms of increasing the quality of teaching widely available to kids.
Q: How does teacher compensation correlate with their responsibilities?
Teachers are paid about twenty-five percent less than other professionals with similar levels of education. Although the public may look at that short work day, they actually work ten to twelve hours a day with much of the work for planning and grading papers and calling students and meeting with parents outside, you know, what we think of as traditional school hours. And they're responsible for being sure that the children in their care often are fed as well as educated, are supported through family crisis and problems, and are raised to be moral, you know, human beings who can live in a democracy. All of that is on the teacher's plate -- increasingly with inadequate support from the society at large, I think.
Q: Are there examples of reforms that are working?
There are a few places where a new image of what a teaching career might be is being invented: Cincinnati, Ohio comes to mind, Rochester, New York comes to mind. There are others where there is a real effort to bring people into teaching in a supportive way, to enable people to become competent and not burn out and leave right away and to enable them to grow throughout their careers as they might in another profession.
Q: What are the prospects for teaching today?
Now, in the mid-1990s, the late-1990s, very high ability young people are going into teaching because salaries have begun to increase, because teachers are being given more decision-making responsibility, because in many communities teachers are involved in redefining schools, in developing new kinds of reforms. We're attracting some of the best and brightest back into teaching. But to keep them there we've got to really be able to ensure that they get the respect that they deserve, the access to knowledge that they need to feel competent and successful in the job, and the supports within the schools to do high quality teaching well. And that's the challenge we have.