Blog: The Educated Reporter

Is Teacher Training School Reform’s Missing Link?

Should there be a Race to the Top for teacher instruction? After billions of dollars in  investments from the federal government, not to mention the philanthropic commitments of noted billionaires, is the school reform movement overlooking the need to educate the educators?

That question was the focus of a recent Education Testing Services event in Washington, D.C., that featured the sagacious Gary Sykes. The former Michigan State University professor of education turned ETS research director plumbed the challenges teachers face in adapting to the curricular and data-based reforms unveiled in recent years. Despite the “great ambition,” as Sykes puts it, pinned to the new Common Core State Standards and federal carrots to turnaround low-performing schools, teachers aren’t getting the support they need.

Challenges to the teaching profession are well-told and hard enough to navigate, even without changes to curricular standards and new performance assessments that scrutinize teachers like never before. But while budget cuts, a clash in reform priorities between state and federal agents, and the pressures poverty puts on many urban students are mountains in themselves, what ails the profession is something more structural, Sykes says. “Teaching is a profession without a practice,” he said, citing Harvard education professor Richard Elmore. “There’s no stable base of practice in teaching.”

While overhauling the way students are being taught and tested, it’s important not to overlook comparable tweaks to the teacher’s method of instruction, Sykes said. He worries that missed opportunity might spill into something he calls the “Reform Redux”: In previous large-scale attempts to revamp the education system, instructional change was necessary to make the reforms work, but the resources needed—and the appreciation for how hard it is for a teacher to pivot to a new brand of instruction—were lacking.

“Policymakers treated their job as crafting the legislation, then pushing the hard implementation problems down to the local level,” Sykes said. And when the reform results fell short of expectations, blame fell on local operators—something Sykes would rather not see this time around.

So what’s required of teachers this time around? A renewed focus on teaching higher-order thinking. Sykes showed the audience two types of standardized test questions, reproduced below. 


 As assessments move toward the example on the right, students will be expected to demonstrate substantive knowledge of the task, like explaining the steps used toward solving the problem. Sykes says the difference between the two problem types comes down to “low versus high cognitive load,” and imparting that skillset means teachers need to be ready. (A recent Education Week story notes education leaders have their work cut out for them in bringing even the enthusiastic students up to speed in reading comprehension.)

To that end, he made a pitch for a new round of RTT that deals solely with teacher instruction. I asked whether students long accustomed to a less challenging testing process might not saddle a teacher’s efforts to shift academic expectations. After all, the sample math question to the left is the format college and graduate school placement exams follow—students learn to anticipate these types of questions early in their school careers. Sykes offered a compelling analogy: For school children, the classroom is a game with rules that over time, they master to some end goal. By upgrading the curriculum and the tests that that determine their grades, Sykes says the students are asking, “Wait a minute, you’re crossing us up” with new rules and new strategies.

His advice? “You have to work with students because you’re changing the game on them. When you begin to alter instruction and create more academic demands on them,” you might be dropping a Tracker Jacker nest on students.

So how do teachers move forward? Holding back reforms to assuage anxious students shouldn’t be an option. Kids are a lot smarter than the current level of instruction gives them credit for, Sykes says. To challenge them, the whole system needs to be challenged, too.