Category Archives: NCTQ

SUNY to Teaching Profession: Meh.

It comes as no surprise that in New York the SUNY Charter School committee voted to approve its controversial regulations that will allow SUNY authorized charter schools to certify their own teachers.  Faced with criticism that ranged from teacher educators to the state teachers’ union to the Commissioner of Education to the state Board of Regents, SUNY altered the rules slightly, increasing course hours but cutting time spent in classrooms.  According to the Times reporting, even Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a self-appointed watchdog on teacher education that  rates teacher preparation programs without ever bothering to visit them,  spoke dubiously on the regulations as passed:

“It’s, ‘Here, we’ll make our candidates go out and take, what is this, a three-credit course that everybody will roll their eyes and say, “This isn’t very helpful,” but higher ed will get the dollars, so you get higher ed off your back,’” Ms. Walsh said. At the same time, she said, “I don’t understand how you justify reducing the practice time to 40 hours, which is not even two weeks of school.”

Teacher certificates earned at a SUNY authorized charter school will still only be good for teaching at another SUNY authorized charter school, so it is an open question about whether or not this will be a large pipeline for charter schools who are still held to state requirements that a large percentage of their teachers hold valid teaching credentials and are seeking to bypass that by doing it in house.  What is clear is that charter chains like Success Academy, which boast very high scores on state tests and very little tolerance for even mildly divergent behavior, are pleased since they will no longer have to bother with new teachers who have actually learned to teach and have existing teaching experience and knowledge of pedagogy.  The immediate upshot of the SUNY vote is that such schools no longer have to bother pretending that teaching is more than performance of a script informed by an enthusiastic reading of Teach Like a Champion.

I wrote about these proposed regulations, as did many education bloggers, when they were released for public comment.  Unsurprisingly, I found them appalling.  In order to circumvent their difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, the charter school sector proposed that their schools, which disproportionately operate in urban environments with largely minority student populations, be allowed to provide the barest minimal training, justifying it because they get high test scores, and call it “teacher certification.”  Compared to the actual programs of teacher preparation – including extensive coursework and work in classrooms as well as a rigorous external performance evaluation – the now passed regulations amount to the slimmest preparation, 16 credit hours of instruction and less than a week worth of time in an actual classroom.  Presumably, it is okay for black and brown children to be taught by teachers far less prepared than their peers in richer and less diverse schools.  Add in the incredibly incestuous relationship between charter schools, their donors, the Governor of New York, and the appointees on the SUNY Board, and the ethical quagmire here is obvious…even by Albany standards.

Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University reminded his social media followers that some charters actually have a financial interest in this arrangement:

The “Company Store” metaphor harkens back to pre-labor union days when workers could be paid in company scrip that was only good for use in the store run by the company itself.  In the charter school case, many of the schools that will operate SUNY approve “certification” programs will gain back teachers’ salaries in models already proven by Relay “Graduate School” of Education:

Former teachers from the affiliated charter schools report being obligated as a condition of employment to obtain credentials (MA degrees and related certifications) from Relay GSE. That is: employees at the charter schools are having a portion of their salary taxed to pay tuition to a “graduate school” run by founders of their own charter schools, operated within their own charter school facility (lease agreement unknown), where courses are often taught by their own teaching peers having only slightly more advanced education and experience.[xi] We elaborate on this example in Appendix A.

Another way for affiliated charter schools to channel money to Relay is to set aside a portion of their budget to subsidize graduate education—but only at Relay GSE. That is, some EMOs (including Uncommon) have a practice of paying for graduate degrees obtained from Relay, but not from any other institution (unless the teacher can prove that Relay does not offer a degree in the same field). Teachers agreeing to pursue their degrees from Relay with school support must complete those degrees or, as noted earlier, are required to reimburse their EMO for any/all tuition reimbursement they received.

While this model is not as well tested in New York State, the SUNY Charter School Committee just opened the entire system of SUNY authorized charter schools to give it a try.

Education blogger and Rutgers graduate student Jersey Jazzman, however, pointed out a very important potential consequence of the scheme that may not turn out so well for charters who decide to bypass traditionally prepared teachers.  New Yorkl charter schools with high turnovers of teachers get to “free ride” on the salary scales at district schools because their teachers, mostly in possession of traditional teaching credentials know they can move on to positions where their salary scales and benefits are guaranteed by union contracts:

But teachers who start their careers in charters will only stay a few years because they know they can move on to better paying and less stressful careers in public district schools. In this way, the charters “free ride”, as Martin Carnoy puts it, on the public school districts, who by paying experienced teachers more create incentives for charter teachers to enter the profession. The charters never have to pony up for these incentives, making them free riders.

But the SUNY credentials are only good at other SUNY authorized charter schools, meaning a new teacher who get “certified” this way has no option to teach anywhere else.  So either the SUNY schools will have to find a continuous stream of new teachers who do not mind that their experience is not applicable teaching anywhere else and who will begin and end their careers in charter schools, OR they will have to cough up benefits and salary and working conditions that will keep their teachers.  There is not an inexhaustible supply of young college grads looking to teach with no prospects of a career in the work — otherwise Teach For America would not find itself struggling to fill its corps in recent years.

The SUNY Charter School Committee has clearly seen all of this and offered a big “meh” as the height of their concern.  But if quality education is the actual goal of charter education, they will not get there by ignoring the evidence that experienced teachers are more skilled than inexperienced ones and by replacing adequate funding with choice and calling it a day, especially in a state that is still billions of dollars a year below it’s target for education funding from a decade ago.

 

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Filed under Betty Rosa, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, NCTQ, New York Board of Regents, politics, School Choice, schools, teacher professsionalism

#TeachStrong? Brother, Here We Go Again…

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.

Cue #TeachStrong.

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:

teach-strong-infographic

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.

nation preparedtomorrow's teachersgoodlad

NCTAF

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:

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Filed under Media, NCTQ, politics, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism

Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

Hey, New York Times, I’d like to offer a deal.  Please stop letting Frank Bruni write about school. In fact, get a clever programmer who can arrange so that any time he writes the words “school” “teacher” or “student” his keyboard gives him an electroshock.  In return, I will never again complain that you charge my family $20 a month for an electronic subscription that doesn’t include the cell phone app and which still has advertising.  I’ll even promise to refrain from leaving comments on any David Brooks column where he opines about the nature of character.

Do we have a deal?

I have good reason to want Mr. Bruni off the education beat.  In 2013, he briefly suggested that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was “impolitic” to place opposition to the Common Core State Standards upon “white, suburban moms” who don’t want to find out that their children are not brilliant — just before he jumped in and declared that Secretary Duncan was right to be concerned that “a laudable set of guidelines” would be rejected for making kids work too hard, characterized most opposition to the standards as “welling hysteria” from the right and left wing, and chided parents concerned about the increasing lack of joy in school with declarations that portions of school ought to be “relatively mirthless” while blaming stories of students breaking down from stress upon their parents. A year ago, he jumped into the teacher tenure debate with a breathtakingly one sided column that could have read as a press release from Campbell Brown’s anti-tenure lawsuit — shocking, given his personal friendship with Ms. Brown — and relied upon precisely ONE former Teach For America alum and current State Senator from Colorado as a source.  Mr. Bruni went even further in late October last year with an entirely uncritical review of former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s book on education, despite the fact that Mr. Klein is a serial misleader about his personal biography and that his record as Chancellor does not actually stand up to scrutiny.  Mr. Bruni tossed 27 words about respecting teachers into the mix while calling on them to “partner” with people like Mr. Klein who want to diminish their workplace protections and offer pay for increasing standardized test scores while completely ignoring issues like persistent and rising poverty.

So when it comes to education, and to teachers in particular, Mr. Bruni is something like William Kristol opining on foreign affairs — always wrong and frequently advocating for disasters.

Mr. Bruni was struck over the weekend by Times education reporter Motoko Rich’s story on the nationwide scramble to find credentialed teachers and the precipitous drop in college students seeking teaching degrees:

And he followed it up yesterday in his on Opinion page column, “Can We Interest You In Teaching“?  His opening laments the state of affairs in the teacher preparation pipeline and supposed competing draws for potential teachers:

When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more independence, more respect.

That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.

It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, as Rich reported.

Keep in mind, this lamentation of the lack of “honor” given to teaching as a profession comes from someone who has repeatedly taken the standard reformer line that all of the ills in our education system can be traced back almost entirely to teachers themselves and who has advocated for policy makers who diminish teachers’ workplace protections and their autonomy and who want to tie opportunities for greater compensation to standardized test scores.  It should be no real surprise, therefore, that Mr. Bruni’s exploration of the growing teacher shortage is focused not upon what people have done to teaching over the past 15 years in the name of “reform” but upon the profession itself.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Bruni has expanded his usual Rolodex for this column and has consulted with people actually connected to the world of teachers and teaching.  His spoke with Randi Weingarten who is the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union with over 1.5 million members.  He also spoke with a representative of “Educators Rising,” a project of Phi Delta Kappa International seeking to help guide young people to teaching as a profession. PDK is a professional association in education which runs various programs for teachers, collaborates annually with Gallup on a poll of the nation’s education perspectives, and publishes Kappan Magazine, a forum on practice, policy, and research.  Among the members of the PDK boards advising Educators Rising is Dr. Sharon Robinson, President of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.  So Mr. Bruni actually sought input from sources that know a few things about teachers and schools (even if Educators Rising has a logo unfortunately reminiscent of Enron’s).

Sadly, he “balanced” that by seeking input from “Educators 4 Excellence,” one of those imitation grassroots outfits that all have suspiciously similar web page design and sprang up right about when Bill Gates was spreading around tons of money to promote the Common Core State Standards and assessing teachers by value added modeling.  And, sure enough, E4E’s “declaration” includes language endorsing teacher assessments using value added modeling of standardized test scores, a method which is only slightly more reliable than throwing darts randomly at a wall.  Mr. Bruni also spoke to Kate Walsh, the head of the self-appointed national “watchdog” on teachers and teacher preparation, National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization whose caliber of research into the state of American teacher preparation is so rigorous that they mostly read course catalogs and syllabi available online without bothering to visit a single campus. This “method” of “research” is so weak that it produced errors throughout their entire original rating report at such a laughable rate that the organization should be shunned by anyone who bothers to check their record.  So while Mr. Bruni actually spoke to some people who know about teachers and schools, he balanced them with the usual suspects of agenda driven and fact deprived actors.  This is a bit like writing on climate change by speaking with scientists at NOAA and then seeking “balance” from the public relations office of Exxon.

Both Walsh and Evan Stone of E4E basically reiterated very old talking points of teacher professionalization.  Stone claimed teachers are concerned they will be “doing the same thing on Day 1 as they’ll be doing 30 years in” and called for a “career ladder” in teaching while Walsh repeated her contention that most students see teacher preparation as an “easy” major and steer away from it.  Making teacher preparation more rigorous is a well trodden path now that we are 32 years past A Nation At Risk, and Walsh flatly ignores or discounts the decades of work to increase teacher preparation standards and increase clinical practice time for prospective teachers in favor of her organization’s shockingly weak research.  Stone’s contention that teachers want a gradated career ladder is not an especially strong one, and while there is validity to a career structure that places experienced teachers into mentoring and leadership roles, most of the pathways that have been proposed over the years would, of course, require significant investments of time and resources that are notably absent from many reformers’ plans.  None other than Michelle Rhee herself decided that National Board certification was something prestigious but not worth the cost while she was Chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bruni’s representative from Educators Rising, Dan Brown, suggested that teaching could use its own “Flexner Report,” the document from the early 1900s that set medicine to its current high status in society.  I am at loss to imagine what another round of report writing would do that we have not already had from the Carnegie Corporation, The Holmes Group, John Goodlad, The National Commission on Teaching and America’ Future, or the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.  For three decades, researchers and policy analysts have advocated for and demonstrated value of various ways to improve teacher preparation that reflect the necessary balance of theory, pedagogy, practice, and contact with skilled veterans who inform preparation through their own teaching.  Policy makers, however, have rarely seen fit to fund it.

The biggest disappointment of the article is Mr. Bruni’s conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT.  It was not because President Weingarten missed the important message, but that Mr. Bruni gave it so little notice.  President Weingarten stated that teachers wanted “a voice, a real voice,” and she referred Mr. Bruni to the AFT’s collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association on the Quality of Worklife Survey.  Mr. Bruni, however, given a wealth of information on teacher concerns, only mentioned being left out of decision making as source of stress.  What did Mr. Bruni miss?

  • 79% of teachers feel disrespected by public officials.
  • 77% feels disrespected by the media.
  • 73% feel their workplace is often stressful.

While stressed teachers did feel they had less decision making power, Bruni missed that:

  • 55% said negative portrayals of teachers and schools in media caused stress.
  • 71% cited adoption of new requirements without training or support as causing stress.
  • Time pressure was a major source of stress.
  • As were mandated curricula, standardized testing, and lack of administrator support.

He also failed to notice:

  • A full 30% of teachers said they have been bullied in the workplace.
  • Including, 51% of teachers with disabilities, 38% of LGBTQ teachers, 36% of ethnic minorities, and 38% of religious minorities.
  • 26% said that in the past month their mental health was not good for 9 days or more.

Having a voice in decision making is certainly an important part of treating teachers as professionals, and it may even be true that teaching could be made more attractive with certain changes to the professional environment and professional preparation of teachers.  However, it is absurd to speculate that a reported teacher shortage is truly tied to these issues when we have had a similar career structure for teachers for decades without seeing such dramatic declines in number of college students willing to become teachers.  What Frank Bruni misses entirely is that teaching is deeply wrapped up in a sense of vocation as well as professionalism.  People going into teaching have always accepted that they are giving up some economic and social status in favor of enacting a career where they believe they can make a substantial difference in people’s lives.  They are drawn to teaching by positive experiences with teachers and with learning, and they develop a fondness and respect for school and its mission.

But with the clear evidence that reform efforts of the past 15 years to place the entire burden of lifting children out of poverty upon schools and teachers have led to serious degradation of workplace life, it is hardly surprising that young people who would be normally driven by their sense of purpose towards education would look elsewhere. They are seeing fewer and fewer role models who are allowed to practice their profession and their craft to not merely raise test scores, but to inspire and ignite young minds.  The data from the Worklife Survey should scream this message to anyone who looks at it, but instead Mr. Bruni chooses to emphasize warmed over servings of 1980s and 1990s era professionalization literature.

Instead of looking to make teaching look more like medicine, we should consider how to make teaching look like teaching again, and that will begin by listening to what teachers have to say about their working conditions.

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Filed under Media, NCTQ, schools, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

What Does It Really Take To Evaluate a Teacher Preparation Program?

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is back in the news having released their second report on the quality of teacher preparation in America.  To the surprise of nobody, they found that university based teacher preparation remains dismal.  Just last year, NCTQ described teacher education as “an industry of mediocrity” in a report so riddled with errors, it would have been reasonable to assume that they would fade away – if not permanently, then at least for a few years.  My favorite of their many mistakes was how they gave credit to Teachers College for having “highly selective” standards for admission to their undergraduate teacher preparation programs.  Friends and colleagues affirmed how selective these programs are — they have never admitted a single student because they do not exist.  Alas, the fade away did not happen, and they are back this year.

In order to understand how NCTQ could purport to make a serious contribution to teacher education while making such glaring errors and then putting them in view of the public, it is necessary to understands that the organization’s flaws are both methodological and philosophical.  NCTQ is an organization that was established by the Thomas Fordham Institute and has an expressed purpose to “shake up” traditional teacher preparation.  Given that they are generously funded by a laundry list of corporate reform advocates (The Gates Foundation, Edythe and Eli Broad, Carnegie Corporation, etc.) and given the presence of people like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein on their advisory board, it stands to reason that they are looking for faults.  But more important is the preposterous methodology employed by NCTQ to “evaluate” programs for evidence of “quality”.  Even before schools of education, looking at their bias and their proposed methods, declined to actively cooperate with them, NCTQ proposed that they would evaluate all teacher preparation programs in the country by not visiting a single program and by not speaking to or surveying a single graduate.  Instead, they examine web sites and publically available documents such as course catalogs and syllabi for “evidence” of the programs covering topics that they consider essential.  When programs decline to turn over internal documents for their examination, NCTQ is not above using deception to acquire them.

Such “methodology” has been aptly compared to writing a review of a restaurant by reading an online menu and making conclusions about the quality of the food preparation.  NCTQ misses how instruction is delivered and evaluated in every meaningful way, but they do not seem especially concerned about that given that a number of programs have tried to correct NCTQ’s errors only to see them published anyway.  This would be comical if the organization was not given uncritical coverage in influential publications.  Last Fall, both Joe Nocera and Bill Keller took to the opinion pages of the New York Times and cited NCTQ’s ratings without any indication that the group is both politically biased and rife with errors.  This year’s report is not being met with quite so much attention, but NPR did a very friendly interview with NCTQ President Kate Walsh with little focus on the organization’s methodology.  NPR did ask one pertinent question and it was why, if teacher preparation is so dismal, don’t principals and superintendents sound the alarm that new teachers are not able to teach?  Walsh replied:

“There’s a great hesitancy of public school educators to stand up to higher ed,” Walsh explains. “They’ve almost been bullied by them, and one of the things (NCTQ) is trying to work on with districts is to get them to be more assertive about their needs and to say ‘I’m not going to hire from you until you teach effective ways of reading instruction.’ “

I would like to challenge Ms. Walsh to come to New Jersey and try to find a single high school principal who is willing to admit, even off record, that he or she is intimidated by me.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

More seriously, that claim is bizarre because while a handful of institutions may offer grants and opportunities that are attractive to school districts, the reality is that for quality teacher preparation, I need schools more than they need me.  I need partners who are willing to open up their experienced teachers’ classrooms for student teachers and for clinical internships and who are willing to mentor teacher candidates in ways that make a strong connection between their studies and their developing practice.  To suggest that relationship is so lopsided as to see school districts as cowed beneath the Teacher Preparation Industrial Complex is simply strange.

I would never state that teacher preparation does not need improvement.  There is always something new to learn, and there will always be an effort to make meaningful connections between theory and practice and to situate prospective teachers in classrooms where they learn from skilled mentors able to discuss practice meaningfully.  But I would like to offer what it looks like to really examine and evaluate your work and to subject it to meaningful outside examination and rating.  My teacher preparation program is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), formerly the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. Such bodies are recognized by state departments of education as having high standards for the review of teacher preparation programs and for having rigorous methods of evaluation.  In preparation for their review, I have to prepare a report about our secondary students studying to become high school English teachers and submit it for review to the National Council of Teachers of English to determine how well we prepare students who are specifically seeking to be English teachers (other content areas submit similar reports to other content specialty associations).  In this report, I provided complete data portraits of three cohorts of graduating candidates that showed that they knew English content, that they knew pedagogy for teaching English and that they knew how to assess students’ needs, design instruction to meet those needs and evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction.  The report drew data from their coursework, lesson planning in courses, evaluations from field internships prior to student teaching from university supervisors and cooperating teachers, evaluations from their semester long student teaching experience and a Teacher Work Sample capstone project in their student teaching seminar.

The report was submitted directly to the National Council of Teaches of English where multiple reviewers read it and granted our program National Recognition as meeting high quality standards for the preparation of English teachers.  This is only one of many reports written by my colleagues and represents only our preparation for an eventual site visit by CAEP where the entire unit will be evaluated.  Such work is time consuming, but I have to admit that to a degree, I actually enjoy it because it helps, indeed it requires, that I take a step back from my own practice and examine artifacts that are indicative of its success or failures.  The process means that I have to propose ways to use what I have learned from the evaluation process to make improvements for following cohorts, and it pushes all of us to not merely rely upon impressions of success and failure but to have substantive reasons for those assessments.

When I began teaching in 1993, I said to myself that the day I figure that I have nothing left to learn is the day that I should quit teaching.  Substantive internal and external evaluation helps assure that I keep looking for things to learn.

Of course, even this is not the be all and end all of effective teacher preparation.  Data driven assessment is very useful, but it also contains the danger of becoming reliant on data to the point that teaching is treated as merely a technical performance that is neatly mapable onto standards, which is untrue.  There are qualities to teaching and to learning to teach that are aesthetic and which require a qualitative approach.  Most teachers have a narrative of their reality in mind when they commit to becoming teachers, and they need to constantly revisit and revise that narrative in ways that allow them to understand others’ purposes and to challenge themselves and their sense of purpose.  These qualities, championed by Maxine Greene, are critical for prospective teachers AND the teachers of prospective teachers, so we should embrace the role of data in our work as a tool of continuous improvement.  But we should not raise it so far above all other matters that we ignore their importance as well.

Which is why in addition to the substantial work I have put in to demonstrating my program’s quality to actually qualified experts, there is another testimony that is not being currently examined by any agency in a way that captures their real importance.  I know a large group of early career teachers who are simply outstanding young educators and who are doing fantastic work, both quantitatively and qualitatively, with 1000s of students across the country.  They came to my classes from diverse backgrounds and with varying ideas about the critical importance of public education, but they all left having had shared experiences in university courses and in lengthy field assignments that taught them what it really means to move from being a student to being a teacher.  They are remarkably interesting and talented, and they balance deep understanding of how to transform content into pedagogically powerful experiences with their students with the aesthetics of classroom community and student motivation.  I am lucky to have worked with them and to continue to know of them and their teaching.

If you want to evaluate the quality of a teacher preparation program, you need to speak with and observe the teachers they graduate.

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My Argument With the Director/Producer of the Fauxcumentary “The Cartel”

You may have missed that National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released another report recently, this one taking aim at teacher absenteeism.  It being an NCTQ report, it is not an exceptional work of scholarship, and they try to discuss policy implications absent any real statistical analysis.  This is par for the course from an organization that purports to seriously investigate the quality of teacher preparation in this country, but which does so by sitting in their offices looking at course descriptions online and calling up schools of education demanding materials and, failing that, trying to deceive schools into giving them those materials.  Needless to say, their errors are both shocking and laughable (my personal favorite is that Columbia got recognition for how selective its undergraduate teacher preparation programs are — those programs don’t exist, so they are VERY selective), but they are less laughable when you realize that influential people take them at face value.  It just goes to show that sometimes all you need to do is to put the letter “N” in your acronym to be considered serious.

This current report is perhaps not as egregious, but it is also not exceptionally interesting, mainly because all NCTQ does is provide a national overview of descriptive statistics  regarding teacher attendance and then claim that they have proven something.  Two problems:  First, the descriptive statistics are not complete.  NCTQ spends most of the report providing bar and pie graphs and a lot of averages, but they do not appear to have calculated means, medians, modes or standard deviations.  Consider that they divide teachers into attendance categories of “excellent”, “moderate”, “frequently absent” and “chronically absent”.  How many standard deviations separate a “chronically absent” teacher from a teacher with “excellent” attendance?  Damned if I know, and NCTQ provides no indication that they know either.

Second, NCTQ tries to draw conclusions from these data without demonstrating that they have analyzed them thoroughly using statistical inference.  For example, contrary to previous research from academics at Harvard and Duke, NCTQ claims there is no connection between the poverty characteristics of a district and teacher absenteeism.  In fact, they said:

Given the existing research on teacher attendance, an increase in teacher absenteeism was expected as school poverty levels increased. Surprisingly, there was no significant increase in these districts. The difference between the average days absent in the highest and lowest poverty schools was under one day and was not statistically significant.

How did they prove that?  Well, from the report, they lined up some bar graphs, and that appears to be it.  The report appendices claim use of a significance test that did not apply to poverty characteristics and a use of a variance test that did, but these results are not provided in the text of the report.  Readers are, supposedly, to look at the bar graphs, nod their heads and agree.  Such appeals to “obviousness” are a good way of avoiding doing sophisticated analysis (NCTQ does not mention any statistical testing that uses sophisticated methods capable of capturing poverty effects), but they are also a way of thoroughly deceiving lay people with no knowledge of statistical reasoning.

Such a lay person turned up on my Twitter feed. Looking for any news on the NCTQ report, I came across this tweet from a Mr. Bob Bowdon:

Not knowing who he was, I replied:

I thought that was it, but a few days later, he responded:

This is a typical strategy when given a reference that poses serious questions about something: take a little bit of it and use that to defend what you like against the rest of the article.  So I gave it another try:

I decided at this point to figure out who @BobBowdon actually is, and in short order found out that he is the director and producer of the “fauxcumentary” film “The Cartel” wherein he takes a hard look at education in New Jersey and decides that everything that is wrong with our schools can be traced back to and directly blamed upon…you guessed it: teachers’ unions.  He is a practitioner of a form of “advocacy journalism” that looks like what would happen if you blended Michelle Rhee and James O’Keefe.  Unsurprisingly, his work is riddled with errors in assumption and fact, points amusingly documented by Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker, here, here, here, and here.  I suppose he was feeling confident given that the NCTQ report came with numbers and graphs, so he replied again:

And I replied:

What I got back seemed defensive (and clueless):

Trying to be nice one last time, I responded:

There’s a stance in his comment that I find fascinating, however.  It is one that is impervious to even considering a critique and relies heavily on ignorance to bolster a position that is not especially strong.  I have no idea if Mr. Bowdon has no working knowledge of the difference between descriptive and inferential statistics, but he displays no interest in finding out here.  Further, he retreats into calling my objections “convenient” rather than inquiring after their substance.

His next tweet:

Ah, yes, “apologists” – boilerplate anti-union talk wrapped up in a thorough lack of understanding of how research is conducted whether deliberate or otherwise.  His complaint here is instructive, however.  Saying “any study can be called ‘incomplete'” covers the fact that the NCTQ report can barely be called a “study” because it really has no research questions but it tries to make inferences from the incomplete descriptive statistics that it employs.  Calling teacher “absences” “hard objective stats” is, I suppose, some attempt to claim there is no ambiguity in the data and any inferences we want to make from them can be made by appealing to “obviousness”.  This is how someone thinks when they truly do believe that you can make “statistics say anything” but it not anything that would be said by any honest person who understands reasoning with statistics.  For example, the NCTQ data suggests that teachers are absent more than the workforce average, and from that, they infer a need for policy interventions.  But without knowing the REASONS for teachers being absent, or if such absence rates are actually significant, it is impossible to make any informed comments on existing or possible interventions.  What if teachers are absent more than average because they work in close contact with children and get sick more often than the rest of the workforce?  What if teachers are more absent because the teacher workforce is still largely female and women still bear a disproportionate share of child care duties in American families?  Policy interventions for either of these circumstances would be radically different, but Mr. Bowdon is obviously only interested in blaming teachers specifically and unions generally.

So I took out the teacher in me:

 

Okay, fine, that’s a lot to read, but I was surprised that he tried to as if I hadn’t just written to him like he was capable of understanding my points:

I admit that baffled me.  But I have been teaching for twenty years, and I think that even the most obstinate of students is capable of a breakthrough:

Mr. Bowdon was still pretty oblivious:

Sometimes you have to throw in the towel:

Mr. Bob Bowdon is not an isolated case of low information punditry trying to stake out ground as a “thought leader” in education.  He calls his website a national “hub” for online information about education reform, but his bias in that space is obvious, where he actively champions education “reformers” seeking to increase testing, spread charter schools and curtail teacher unions and where he labels people who oppose such efforts as the education “establishment”.  Mr. Bowdon finds the NCTQ report important not because it reveals interesting and important insights into the teacher workforce (it doesn’t), but because he can use it to argue that unionized teachers abuse the “perks” of their employment. This is similar to no end of billionaire-funded efforts to fundamentally change the way we offer schools without a public vote and which dare to call themselves civil rights movements.

It may be momentarily fun to demonstrate how low knowledge many foot soldiers for corporate reform are, but it is also entirely serious.

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