Education reformers in the 21st Century seem incapable of seeing any problem as something other than a marketing campaign. Faced with growing grassroots opposition to the Common Core State Standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, backed with fresh cash from the Gates Foundation, launched a #SupportTheCore event on social media to try to make CCSS support look genuine and natural. As they felt control of the education reform narrative slipping from their grip, major corporate backers of standardized testing and school privatization handed $12 million to former Arne Duncan aide Peter Cunningham to launch The Education Post, a pro-reform blogging outpost, providing content for itself and editorial pages. Needing to dress up her campaign to destroy the collective bargaining and due process rights of our nation’s teachers as something more noble, former news anchor Campbell Brown set up her own web headquarters called The 74, referencing the estimated 74 million children under the age of 18 Brown claims she is defending from greedy unions. It seems that whenever they want to tackle difficult and contentious issues, reform advocates turn immediately to the tools of viral advertising and public relations to create the imagery of genuine, natural support rather than bothering with the hard work of building it.
Let’s agree to set aside the choice of a name that inevitably invokes one of the worst doping scandals in the history of sport (although, seriously? millions of dollars in expert branding experience and nobody thought about that??). “Teach Strong” is the name chosen by a new group of stakeholders organized by the Center for American Progress to make teachers and the future of teaching an issue in the upcoming election. The campaign launched this week with a splashy web site and social media campaign, which is is par for the course these days, and a declaration of 9 “principles” that they believe will “modernize and elevate” the teaching profession.
Lyndsey Layton mentioned in The Washington Post that the coalition includes “some strange bedfellows,” and she certainly was not kidding. On one side, Teach Strong has both major national teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT. It also has the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, the national association of college based teacher preparation programs, and it has the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a long standing national organization for public school leaders. Also in the coalition is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which grew out of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy’s response to A Nation At Risk and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, whose early work was heavily influenced by executive director Linda Darling- Hammond, indisputably one of the leading experts in teacher preparation. Teach Strong is also joined by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a long time education advocate for disabled children and by The New Teacher Center, a non-profit that grew out of the nationally recognized teacher mentoring and support program at University of California, Santa Cruz and which now assists states and school districts across the country in developing new teacher induction and mentoring.
On the other side? There is the omnipresent Teach for America which recruits high achieving college students, gives them less than two months of preparation, and then places them in some of our nation’s highest need school districts for two years. They are joined by “Educators 4 Exellence,” a foundation funded astroturf group dedicated to promoting the Common Core State Standards and hosting a pledge that has members standing up for assessing teachers using standardized test scores. The similarly foundation backed “Deans for Impact” joins the table as an extremely small group of education school deans committed to various aspects of current reform efforts, and Relay “Graduate School” of Education is also present, bringing their odd posture as a graduate school that produces no research and which basically uses no excuses charter school teachers to certify other no excuses charter school teachers mainly using online modules. Former Arne Duncan aide Peter Cunningham’s Education Post is present, which is bizarre given its status as primarily a content delivery forum for education reform advocates. Revoltingly, the National Council on Teacher Quality is also on board – NCTQ is a self appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” which has such a rigorous system for reviewing teacher preparation programs that it basically sits in its offices in Washington reading online course catalogs before informing the nation that our teacher preparation programs are all horrible.
I suppose representatives from the Center for American Progress, an organization that has long been on the reform side of the Common Core and standardized testing debate, would call this a “Team of Rivals” to match the famed Lincoln Cabinet. I guess that’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it would be if the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnered with the Hormel corporation to design a school lunch program – you hope the more knowledgeable partner is guiding the work, but you strongly suspect that a lot of snouts and tails are going to get in there too.
What will TeachStrong aim this odd set of partners at? Nine principles are given top billing:
Peter Greene of Curmudgucation rightly notes that many of these principles are laudable – depending upon what actually materializes from them. Given the perspectives and previous projects of many of the partners in this effort, including TFA which stated in The Washington Post article that it felt no need to change its own five week training program to meet the principles outlined above, it is right to be cautious about what will materialize here. If “Reimagining teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice” means helping to bring more university-school district professional development schools to scale so that prospective teachers can constantly learn from practice while universities and schools inform each others’ work, that would be wonderful. If it means setting up more outfits like Relay “Graduate” School of Education where people with no teacher preparation get competency based modules on no excuses charter school practices, no thank you. If “Provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed” means giving teachers genuine collaborative control of their professional development and having administrators facilitate teachers getting what they determine they need, fantastic. If it just means more “granular” standardized testing data and a few more resources to jump through SLO hoops, that’s a big meh. If “create career pathways” means acknowledging excellent teaches and finding roles for teachers to play in induction and mentoring, curriculum development, and setting school and district policy, let’s talk. If it just means finding teachers with high value added measures on tests and giving them bonus cash, forget it.
While the devil remains in the details, a bit of that devil also resides in some very obvious retreads of past efforts to reform teaching. In fact, efforts to “modernize and elevate” teaching go back to the founding of many of our comprehensive public universities that began as normal schools before morphing into teacher colleges and then to regional universities. At every step of this evolution, there was an odd relationship whereby the field of education was held in disrepute even though the emerging comprehensive universities relied upon the teacher preparation mission of education schools. While the model of teacher preparation within a university setting was well established by the middle of the 20th century, this lack of status for the work persisted, and, following the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, a flurry of activity was aimed at enhancing and improving teacher preparation. In fairly short order, reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group produced proposals on how to improve teacher preparation and make it more in line with professional preparation in high status professions. Clinical language and portrayals of teaching as at least a partially technical practice subject to data driven analysis became more common. John Goodlad weighed in with Teachers for our Nation’s Schools that included 19 “postulates” outlining the professional territory and responsibilities of teacher preparation. The National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future also provided a summary report called What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future which further detailed a professional vision of teacher preparation aimed at replicating crucial elements of high status professions.
So let’s just stipulate that this is hardly a revolutionary concept, okay?
What might be ground breaking is the standard imprint of 21st century education reform – slick marketing, an emphasis on jamming things through quickly without thinking about consequences, and generally treating problems as public relations issues instead of as structural concerns. I am apprehensive that this is precisely where this is heading in no small part because, like so much else we contend with today, the campaign appears rooted in the notion that everything we are doing in school is obsolete and must drastically modernize immediately or we are all doomed. This is painfully wrong, and anyone who thinks that teacher preparation has remained unchanged in the past 30 years (Yes, that’s you NCTQ) needs to retreat to a library and not come back for at least two semesters. While I will never say that teacher preparation is unable to improve, it is also true that anyone who has gotten a teaching certificate since the 1980s has likely seen significant changes, often positive changes, as a result of efforts previously mentioned. From increased time spent in classrooms prior to student teaching, to stronger pedagogical and content preparation, to vastly improved preparation for working with students with disabilities, teacher preparation has not been standing still, and it would behoove a number of the Teach Strong partners (Again, that’s you, NCTQ) to familiarize themselves with the kinds of evidence that the 656 teacher preparation programs accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (since merged with TEAC and changed to the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation) have had to provide in order to demonstrate their strengths.
The reality is that our teacher workforce, whether made up of recent graduates from traditional programs who have benefited from changing preparation in the last 3 decades or whether made up of experienced veterans who have been continuously improving their practice over time, is not a static and obsolete lump that threatens our future as portrayed in the Teach Strong launch rhetoric. How we prepare and license teachers grew and developed over a 100 year long period, and there have been significant efforts to develop that process over the past three decades that have actually impacted change. If Teach Strong can work thoughtfully to help increase the scope of the most beneficial of those practices, it will be a positive influence, but if it simply tries to rush in the shallow metrics of NCTQ and the fly by the seat of your pants preparation of TFA and Relay, well, you get the picture.
There is, however, another, deeper, problem in all of this. While the teacher professionalization efforts of the 1980s and 1990s had some positive impacts, they had one seriously negative effect, an effect that has been compounded since test-based accountability took control of education policy. By emphasizing the type of preparation practices in high status professions, teacher professionalization tended to emphasize teaching as a technical and rational act with special emphasis on those aspects of teaching that can be measured or demonstrated. While this has some merit, over emphasizing it has diminished a critical aspect of teaching: vocationalism. David Hansen wrote cogently on this concern:
To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency. It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon. One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself. The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination. Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant. Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.
If Teach Strong is serious about a pipeline of great potential teachers, it had better look harder than most recent reform efforts that constantly emphasize getting the best students into teacher preparation without being concerned whether or not they are driven by the best motivations. It also means that rather than focusing on impossible goals like elevating the salaries of 3 million teachers to the salaries of doctors and lawyers, it would be much better to focus upon working conditions that grant teachers significantly more autonomy and input into how their work and workplaces are conducted. People driven by vocational aspirations may be willing to forgo some compensation – but they cannot forgo having a say in what they do.
This is the kind of teacher we should all be working to see with all of our children: