Teacher professionalism from the superintendent’s perspective 


School system leaders can’t do everything, but they can do a lot to make teaching jobs more professional.


If you haven’t yet read journalist Dana Goldstein’s 2014 book The Teacher Wars, I highly recommend that you do so. Goldstein, now with the New York Times, offers an engaging, thoughtful, and well-researched account of how teachers’ work has evolved over the past two centuries. As she describes, public education in the U.S. has long relied on a mostly female teaching force controlled by male administrators using top-down forms of management. It may seem obvious to many that teachers should be treated as professionals — applying their knowledge, experience, and expertise to the complex work of instruction — but the culture and traditions of schools have continually undermined efforts to give teaching a truly professional status. 

Goldstein concludes with 11 recommendations for promoting teacher professionalism. The ideas are familiar, and I agree with all of them. However, having spent several years as a district superintendent, I can’t help but wonder how these ideas translate to system-level decision making. Things always look a bit more complicated when you put on the administrator’s glasses. Here’s my take on her recommendations: 

#1. Increase teacher pay. Goldstein’s first recommendation seems like a no-brainer, but there’s no obvious way for system leaders to proceed. Teacher salaries tend to get stuck in the middle of a three-way tug-of-war among school funding pressures, calls for increased accountability, and the traditions of the profession itself (which tend to support lock-step salary increases, regardless of teachers’ performance or the scarcity of their skills). Superintendents may be committed to increasing teacher pay, but it’s never a simple matter to find the money, define criteria that will trigger an increase, and decide whether salaries can and should be differentiated by merit or specialty. District leaders’ best option may be creating a career ladder that offers additional pay for additional responsibilities. But such a system requires the active support of teachers, unions, and school boards; superintendents can’t do much on their own. 

#2. Support professional learning communities. While there’s a rich scholarly literature on PLCs, Goldstein focuses on the “still speculative” idea, from scholars Jal Mehta and Steven Teles, that teachers’ communities of practice should be linked to particular pedagogical approaches. For example, somebody who favors a project-based model might attend a project-based preservice program, get a job at a project-based school, and attend a weekly meeting of project-based practitioners. (Or they could join a community devoted to Montessori education, or “no excuses” schooling, and so on). Since K-12 education is divided among competing pedagogical traditions, say Mehta and Teles, and since teachers can’t possibly agree on the essential knowledge, skills, and practices, they should embrace “plural professionalism.” What it means to be a professional teacher at a Montessori school would mean something different from what it means to be a professional teacher in a “no excuses” school, and each would have its own community of practice. 

It’s an interesting idea (though many questions and objections come to mind), but it just doesn’t speak to my reality. In the districts where I worked, few teachers identified themselves in these ways, and most used a hybrid of traditional and progressive teaching methods. For me, the challenge was more prosaic: Could the union and I agree on shared expectations about who would run PLCs, how to fund them, how to assess their effectiveness, and what to do if they’re deemed to be ineffective? When you’re caught in the weeds, trying to figure out how to provide meaningful opportunities for teachers to meet and talk about practice, the effort to redefine professionalism seems pretty distant. 


#3. Find ways for teachers to keep learning and growing. Unless they want to go into administration, teachers have few options for career growth, says Goldstein. But they should have opportunities to coach other teachers, mentor new hires, write curriculum, and take on other assignments that allow them to advance professionally while continuing to teach. I couldn’t agree more, but I also have to point out that this issue has received much more attention than Goldstein lets on — e.g., she neglects to mention the important work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Plus, countless superintendents have made it a priority to create such opportunities, both formal and informal. For example, when I was superintendent in Stamford, Conn., we offered a stipend to teachers who joined local think-tanks that took the lead in deciding how best to proceed with detracking our schools. In Montgomery County, Md., we worked with the union to create incentives for teachers in high-need schools to take on new roles and responsibilities, such as overhauling the curriculum. Goldstein is right to argue that teachers have too few chances for career advancement, but there’s still a lot going on at the local level.  

#4. Make teacher preparation programs tougher and more prestigious. Goldstein traces the evolution of preservice teacher education and argues that colleges have always set their entry requirements too low. But seismic changes in university-based teacher preparation aren’t likely to happen in the short term. For now, the only real options that school leaders have are to focus on improving teacher hiring, onboarding, induction, and other support systems. Goldstein is right to point out the need for better preservice programs, but from my perspective, the higher priority is finding a really good HR director who can identify and recruit promising teachers, assess their skills and fit, make sure they have a smooth entry, and give them meaningful and ongoing professional learning opportunities.  

#5. Don’t forget the principal. Personally, I’ve never seen a great school without a great principal, and I agree with Goldstein that few school systems do enough to support principals, assess them fairly, reduce their paperwork, and give them more opportunities to provide real leadership. But a critical (and often overlooked) priority is to create a consistent approach to principal supervision. In school systems that employ dedicated principal supervisors, those people need time to do that important work rather than having their time diverted to other administrative duties, which often happens. And in districts too small to employ supervisors, the superintendent and other central office staff need clear and reasonable guidelines for evaluating principals, defining their scope of work, and supporting them over time.  

#6. Use tests as diagnostic tools. Goldstein is correct to criticize using test-based, value-added calculations to reward and punish educators, but she misses an important point about how we define our units of measurement. As any statistician can tell you, the less data you have, the more noise you’ll get, and the less valid and reliable your findings. If you focus on a single teacher’s performance in a single year, it will be more or less impossible to collect the data to reach a fair conclusion about their effectiveness. But while Goldstein assumes that the purpose of a value-added model is to assess individual teachers, it’s worth noting that value-added methods can be much more useful if we focus on larger units of analysis, such as the performance of a whole school or mathematics achievement across a whole district. Such data can help system leaders figure out which questions to ask, where to dig deeper, and which practices might be helping certain schools do better than others.  

#7. Encourage teachers to observe each other. As Goldstein argues, peer observation is valuable in every profession. But this tends to raise very complicated scheduling issues for school administrators, complicated even more by existing mentoring programs and collective bargaining agreements. Rather than making ad hoc decisions, district and school leaders should devise clear professional development plans for teachers, including specific ways to decide who should observe whom, when, and why.    

#8. Bring more men and teachers of color into the profession. Teaching long ago came to be thought of as a feminine occupation, and such cultural associations change slowly — though, as Goldstein notes, if teacher education programs were more prestigious and if teacher pay were higher, more men would likely enter the field. When it comes to increasing the number of teachers of color, however, school system leaders have more options. In Montgomery County, for example, we worked closely with the teachers union to develop a comprehensive approach to recruitment, hiring, induction, and support that resulted in a 15% increase in our diversity in the 2015 hiring class. Similarly, Educators Rising (PDK’s national program for high school students aspiring to become teachers) has taken an intentional approach to recruiting and supporting students of color, who now comprise more than 50% of the initiative’s 43,000 participants.  

#9. Renegotiate seniority rules for teachers. Hiring and firing policies such as last-in, first-out stand out as egregious examples of the dysfunction caused by outdated collective bargaining agreements. And the press loves to highlight outrageous stories such as New York City’s rubber room, where ineffective teachers, protected by tenure, spend years being paid to do nothing. But it would be more helpful if more attention were given to places where school system leaders and teachers unions have built trust and negotiated sensible ways to ensure teacher quality, such as teacher peer assistance and review programs (which Goldstein discusses and I experienced as superintendent of MCPS).   

#10. Encourage experimentation. Innovation in school design is all the rage these days, and Goldstein adds her call to “Let a thousand policy flowers bloom.” Yet, innovation is much easier to celebrate than accomplish. It’s also hard to define — for example, I know of school districts that call themselves innovative just because they buy some new technology. For system leaders, the challenge is always to set aside the vague happy talk about innovating and demand to know exactly what is being proposed, who will do what, who will fund it, what the expectations are, how it will be assessed, and so on. Business gurus love to wax eloquent about the value of failure, but educators never like to experiment on or fail with kids.  

#11. Be realistic. Goldstein rightfully notes that public education in this country differs in two key ways from high-performing systems in Europe and Asia. First, it is “radically decentralized” (to quote historian David Labaree), which means we’ll never be able to do a wholesale transformation of our schools. Whatever the U.S. Secretary of Education may want, states and districts make their own decisions about curriculum, teaching, and so on. Second, even though we provide few supports for children growing up in poverty, we expect schools to succeed in educating them to high standards. To Goldstein’s points, I would add only that these things combine to put enormous pressure on district leaders to devise and fund their own solutions to local problems. In the absence of federal oversight and a strong social safety net, we must form partnerships with health and human services directors, departments of recreation, volunteer programs, and on and on. If we analyze our data, identify needs, reallocate resources, and work closely with community members, we can help vulnerable students. But if we’re going to be realistic about what schools can accomplish, then let’s acknowledge just how much we’re asking local school and district leaders to do.  


Citation: Starr, J.S. (2017). Teacher professionalism from the superintendent’s perspective.  Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 72-73.


JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va. 

One Comment

  • Dr. Paula S. Washington

    I like your insights, but as a New York City public school teacher I must take issue with your characterization of the city’s reassignment centers. Tenure does not immunize teachers against firing; it simply assures due process. If teachers are incompetent then this can and should be demonstrated and 3020a proceedings should ensue. More often, struggling teachers are given supports to improve their practice. After all, if we don’t believe that people can learn then we are in the wrong profession. The people in the reassignment centers are often there because of an accusation of wrongdoing. Unfortunately, it takes the Department of Education a long time to investigate the claims. If the teacher is guilty then good riddance. If the teacher was falsely accused, then he or she should be returned to the classroom. In any case, the decision should be made in a timely fashion. Both the DoE and the teachers’ union are in agreement on this point and have made good progress in achieving it.

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