On February 14th, 19 year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, armed with an AR-15 rifle and proceeded to murder 17 students and staff before he fled the scene and was quickly apprehended. The tragedy was the third mass shooting with more than a dozen fatalities in only 4 months and the seventh mass shooting in the same period. The event also brought a swift round of accusations and counter accusations about responsibility and apparent inaction to repeated calls to law enforcement over Cruz’s behavior. The fallout of that is still ongoing, and it will certainly sort itself out over time.
What was less expected was the swift and, for now, sustained call for action from the very victims of the mass shooting, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. America is caught in a cynical cycle where a mass shooting tragedy is met with a chorus of political “leaders” offering their “thoughts and prayers” and declaring that now is “not the time” to discuss policy changes that might address America’s unique problem with gun violence in general and with mass shootings in particular. It was widely, sadly, believed that after 20 first graders were murdered in Sandy Hook in 2012 with little more than a round of “thoughts and prayers,” a call from President Obama for action, and zero action by Congress for years that nothing will change. That belief seemed validated as the years ticked by with over 400 additional people shot in more than 200 shootings in schools.
There is a chance that might change.
The reason for that hope is the unexpected but inspiring “Never Again” movement that the high school survivors of Parkland have put together at breakneck speed. These students, raised entirely after the Columbine massacre, well-educated, media and social media savvy, have captured a tremendous amount of attention and have openly expressed the frustration and exasperation with the nation’s complete standstill on gun policy purchased by millions of dollars in political donations by the NRA. Consider this speech by Senior Emma Gonzalez:
This interview with her classmate, David Hogg:
Cameron Kasky, asking Senator Marco Rubio if he will reject NRA donations:
Or Delaney Tarr explaining to lawmakers that they will not go away:
It would be remiss to not mention how activists and supporters of Black Lives Matter expressed both admiration of and support for the Parkland survivors, and dismay at how powerful figures in the media, in entertainment, and in politics never afforded similar attention and support for their protests:
Gosh. This is amazing. And a I'm not being sarcastic. I have to be honest and say that I'm a bit taken aback (and a bit hurt) that those of us who were in the streets in the past five years for Black lives didn't receive this type of reception or public support. https://t.co/HLYXTcVdfL
It is interesting to note the difference in support for the kids in FL versus the kids in Black Lives Matter. I say that with full admiration for the kids in FL, to survive such a trauma and fight for everyone to be safer. But that’s also what was happening in Ferguson and beyond
It is also important to note the passion and dignity that Black Lives Matter brought and continues to bring to their protests, despite constant misrepresentation, backlash and police response, as evidenced by the arrest of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge after the death of Alton Sterling:
This is important because both Black Lives Matter and Never Again ask at least one clear question in common: Is it possible to go about a daily life without constant fear of violence and death? Both movements deserve answers in the affirmative, but neither are likely to get those answers soon.
It appears, also, that America’s teachers have been forced into the same question alongside the student activists. Educators have been present at every one of the 400 school shootings since Sandy Hook, and they have been victims. Teachers in American schools are tasked with training students through mandatory “lock down” drills in the event that the increasingly thinkable visits their schools. During actual school shootings, teachers are responsible for following school procedures that are hopefully designed to keep their charges safe. In the days after the Parkland murders, teachers shared stories of their discussions with students about what would happen in the event of a shooting in their school, and they have been, frankly, heart breaking. A teacher in Ohio, Marissa Schimmoeller, explained how her students promised to “carry her” to safety as she is confined to a wheelchair, and other teachers took to twitter to explain their gut wrenching conversations with students in the wake of the Florida attack, like this one about how a teacher would have to lock her students into a closet from the OUTSIDE:
All thirteen pairs of eyes looked up at me. “Yes,” I said, “and that’s why I need you to be absolutely silent in that closet, no matter what happens.” “You would do that?” she pressed. “In a heartbeat. Just stay quiet so you get out alive. Make it worth it.” /12
Teachers were further forced to wonder what their lives and safety mean when the President of the United States insisted upon using his social media platform to claim that arming teachers would be a big step in “solving” the problem:
….If a potential “sicko shooter” knows that a school has a large number of very weapons talented teachers (and others) who will be instantly shooting, the sicko will NEVER attack that school. Cowards won’t go there…problem solved. Must be offensive, defense alone won’t work!
It would be tempting at this point to take comfort in raw numbers. The reality is that the vast majority of America’s 50 million school aged children and their 3 million teachers go to school 180 days a year and never have more than a preparedness drill. American education is a vast enterprise spanning 98,000 public schools spread across 15,000 school districts. Students spend a total of 54 BILLION hours in public schools in every year, and Americans’ odds of dying in a mass shooting in any location are about 4 times less than the odds of choking to death on food. But that is not how terrorism really works. The sheer randomness of mass gun violence in our society means that even if we are very unlikely to die from such violence, we can never really dismiss the possibility, and the unique position America occupies in the developed world as the undisputed capital of gun violence and mass shootings cannot be dismissed either. Besides, the odds of dying in a tornado in Kansas are also very low for any individual. It is still prudent to have a storm cellar and a plan to get to it in an emergency.
Does this mean I have to change my teacher education curriculum?
This isn’t an idle consideration. Since I moved from the classroom to teacher education in 1997, one of the core principles that has guided my work has been preparing future teachers for work far beyond instruction. Gary Fenstermacher, interpreting the work of John Goodlad, states that teachers have to learn how to be “good stewards” of their school, meaning that they take responsibility for the well-being of the entire enterprise within the school within the context of free public education in society. Further, teachers must practice communication and be informants to the community, they must understand and promote the role of citizenship in a democracy, and they must model transformational learning, demonstrating to students that they themselves are always learning deeply and meaningfully. This is complex vision of teachers’ work that takes a tremendous amount of dedication and knowledge to put into practice and which the best teachers refine over the course of their careers.
The work beyond instruction points to an ethical responsibility for teachers that is both humbling and daunting. How can I practice stewardship of the school and its role in the community if I do not confront bullying and abuse regardless of its source? How can I be an effective communicator to parents and the community if I condescend to them or embrace pernicious stereotypes? What kind of citizenship will I promote if I do not challenge injustice and the complacency that lets it flourish? Teacher education that does not present these questions to future teachers fails to provide even the barest preparation for what teaching really is.
Do we now have no choice but to fold “What will you do if someone aims a gun at your students?” to teacher preparation?
On the one hand, this does seems like a “storm cellar in Kansas” concept. You can go your entire life without ever needing it, but if you do not have it if the time comes, you are far worse off. On the other hand, merely acknowledging this as a responsibility of teachers – as if it were taking attendance – without at least trying to challenge the insanity is a massive failure of moral imagination. Perhaps this is why Black Lives Matter activists make so many people uncomfortable and why the Never Again activists have captured an available platform. As the young people who have grown up in a system that is insufficiently outraged by the outrageous, they are not simply accepting it and are demanding to know why those in power will not use their legal authority to make it better.
Perhaps it will be sufficient for teacher preparation to follow the lead of NYU’s Steinhardt program with a crisis preparedness seminar centered on case studies of situations that arise in school and which brings in guidance counselors, other professionals, and students themselves to consider what can arise in schools — including shootings. But I think this is stunningly insufficient if we do not add our voices to those calling for real and comprehensive answers to our gun problem, and if we fail to highlight how many schools are insufficiently prepared to meet their most pressing needs — a rich curriculum, guidance and full care of students, nutrition programs, fully funded and staffed libraries, working facilities — then we are merely acquiescing to further neglect of our students and co-workers. Responding to the tragedies that have spanned Columbine and Sandyhook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas requires not to simply run children through preparedness drills, but also requires that we add our voices to the young activists demanding why our political system can offer them nothing more than drills layered with thoughts and prayers.
Education reform has finally gotten around to taking direct aim at teacher preparation. On October 4th, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an “open letter” at Brookings to America’s university presidents and deans of education. In it, he used “evidence” from a report from self appointed “teacher quality” watchdog, NCTQ, which claimed that America’s future teachers get a disproportionate degrees with honors to claim that our teacher preparation programs are too easy. The NCTQ “study,” which follows their standard method of examining available materials gleaned from websites without ever visiting a campus, claimed that few programs offer enough rigor and grade subjectively. On October 12th, Mr. Duncan’s successor, Secretary of Education John King, released long expected federal regulations for teacher preparation, the heart of which focus on reporting of program “success” in preparing successful teachers. The transparency rules will require states to report program by program on:
Placement and retention rates of graduates in their first three years of teaching, including placement and retention in high-need schools;
Feedback from graduates and their employers on the effectiveness of program preparation;
Student learning outcomes measured by novice teachers’ student growth, teacher evaluation results, and/or another state-determined measure that is relevant to students’ outcomes, including academic performance, and meaningfully differentiates amongst teachers; and
Other program characteristics, including assurances that the program has specialized accreditation or graduates candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, and quality clinical preparation, who have met rigorous exit requirements.
The bolded section obviously refers to student growth measures based upon standardized examinations, essentially requiring states to utilize value added measures or student growth percentiles and then pegging that to the “value added” of various teacher preparation programs. “Meaningful” differentiation “amongst teachers” is obviously yet another “highly effective” to “ineffective” stack ranking system beloved by the Federal DOE.
Finally, on October 14th, the editorial board of The New York Times, weighed in with an editorial that hit on all of the familiar themes of recent education reform efforts: Other nations “eclipse” our educational outcomes, our schools of education have no real standards, and they don’t prepare the “right” teachers to fit our need. The board accepted without question the conclusions of NCTQ about teacher preparation and embraced the reporting of “multiple measures” of teacher preparation, especially the tying of value added on standardized test scores back to the supposed quality of teacher preparation. While the regulations leave the choice of “growth measures” up to the states, it is obvious that such language inherently means value added based on standardized test scores as those systems are the only ones actually in place. This is not unlike how Arne Duncan did not “force” state competing for Race to to the Top grants to adopt the Core Curriculum Content Standards, but he actually did by requiring them to adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards” which, to the surprise of nobody, only existed in any form in CCSS.
Let me offer a concession at this point: Teacher preparation in America could certainly do a better job. It is common among teachers to express that their teacher preparation was inadequate and disconnected from their actual work teaching, and this complaint is hardly new. Tying what is learned in university classrooms to elementary and secondary classrooms is both difficult and often tenuous. Even programs that constantly include extensive work in classrooms throughout preparation struggle with the reality that few experiences can adequately simulate the full responsibilities of teaching day in and day out, and adapting to that reality while keeping a clear focus on what students are learning is one of the most difficult things anyone ever teaches.
But can teacher preparation – and by extension, the teaching profession – survive this next round of attention from federal regulators and reform advocates?
There can be no doubt that teaching and teachers are suffering today. A recent article in The Atlantic reviewed the various forms of stress that have had demonstrable impact upon teachers, and it tied that stress to growing concern over high attrition rates caused by on the job dissatisfaction. Further, the pipeline of willing teachers has contracted dramatically in recent years, as much as 35% with enrollments in teacher preparation programs falling from 691,000 to 451,000 in only 5 years. Reasons for this tightening supply at a time of high demand vary, but it cannot be disputed that it is increasingly difficult to replace qualified teachers with qualified new teachers.
Of course, nobody openly cops to wanting to wreck teaching as a profession (with the possible exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who cannot seem to pick apart his ire at New Jersey’s teacher union from New Jersey’s teachers). However, actions, regardless of intentions, have reshaped teachers’ work for the worse, and if the profession is to survive as a profession serious changes are necessary. Some of the most obvious threats:
Attrition: Experienced teachers are better at their work than rank novices. While advocates like Teacher for America’s Wendy Kopp claim that the “best” schools can develop new teachers into very effective teachers in only a year or two, that is based heavily on a charter model of scripted lessons aimed at test performance. Although teachers develop rapidly in their very first years in the classroom, that improvement continues far past that point not only in test-based measures, but also in areas like lower student absenteeism and improved classroom discipline. Findings that we are losing teachers at a rate of 8% a year – and only a third of that due to retirement – should worry anyone concerned about the viability of the profession. Teachers with little preparation leave at rates of two to three times higher than those with strong preparation, and teachers in our high poverty schools tend to leave more frequently. Loss of teachers with experience also harms novice teachers, who try to learn their work within schools that lack a depth of knowledge represented by experienced colleagues.
Obsession with test based measures: It is disheartening to see that the Federal DOE remains gripped with its obsession on using standardized tests to root out ineffective teachers and, now, teacher preparation. The reality is that these measures are poorly suited for the job. Student Growth Percentiles are so tightly correlated to the poverty characteristics of schools that it is difficult to determine whether or not they measure teacher input at all. Value-Added Models, although more statistically sophisticated, produce enormous error rates and simply cannot account for all of the factors that contribute to standardized test scores, leading to a recent New York State court case which called the evaluation system using VAMs “arbitrary and capricious.” Although the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act directly forbids the federal government from requiring growth measures in state evaluation rules, it is imminently clear that Secretary King intends to jump on whatever lever he can find to maintain them. So long as this continues, teachers face continued pressure to narrow their curricula and schools face continued pressure to box teachers deeply in test preparation mode which is simply not the same thing as teaching and learning mode.
Vanishing teacher autonomy: If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means. Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions. Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turn over. Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.
Attacks on teachers’ representatives: It drives education reformers nuts that teachers are represented by organizations modeled on trade unions. The old line of attack on unions was that if teachers were professionals, they should have gradated careers like other highly educated professional workers, making unions less “necessary.” Today, the attacks are more directly aimed at union representation itself and workplace protections, with lawsuits attacking the practice of tenure under the guise of violating students’ rights to excellent teachers. Get rid of the due process procedures given to tenured teachers, the thinking goes, and bad teachers will be easily removed leading to better outcomes. The flaws in this are manifest. First, the most common arguments against tenure do not actually match what current research knows. Second, if the existence of tenure itself were a problem for student achievement, we would expect wealthy suburban districts where teachers remain on the job longer than average to be suffering with the weight of tenured faculty failing to work hard. Obviously, that is not the case because teacher attrition is much more detrimental to student achievement than tenure. Finally, teachers are in an odd profession where their duties and ethical obligations require them to actually speak up against administrators who are harming students. Peter Greene argues cogently that teachers need special protections in order to do their jobs properly: “It (lack of tenure protections) forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.” This is absolutely correct, and it is something the moguls and philanthropists funding much of the assault on teacher unions, who are used to work force operating in tight chains of command, simply do not grasp.
Workplace struggles: Loss of autonomy and attacks on workplace protections contribute to what many in the profession see as a deteriorating situation in the workplace. The American Federation of Teachers collaborated with the grassroots activist group Badass Teachers Association (BATs) for a first of its kind workplace survey with 30,000 teachers participating. Although the results are not representative of a scientific sample of teachers, what was reported should give education policy makers serious pause for concern, especially from the perspective of treating teachers as professionals. 45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own. 43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices. Worse, nearly a third of respondents reported experiencing bullying or intimidation in the workplace, and nearly half said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point in their careers. We know very well that teachers leave their jobs, especially in high poverty schools, when working conditions fail to foster collegiality among teachers and effective, supportive leadership among administrators. Poor working conditions coupled with attacks on teachers’ existing protections can only contribute to our attrition problem
A strangled supply line: While Arne Duncan is lamenting that teacher preparation programs are too easy, policy makers in various states are continuing to increase requirements for entry into such programs. In New Jersey, for example, policy makers mandated that nobody can enter a teacher preparation program unless he or she is among the top third of standardized test takers entering college. Once enrolled, he or she must maintain a GPA of 3.0 and complete both an education major and a major in a liberal arts subject. In order to successfully complete teacher preparation and gain a professional license, he or she must pass both the ETS PRAXIS II exam and submit a detailed study of his or her impact as a teacher in the form of Pearson’s EdTPA performance assessment. Whether or not these requirements are appropriate is a wider conversation, but one thing is certain: the number of students available to even contemplate teaching as a career is smaller today than it was previously. Higher selectivity might make sense in an environment with high retention of experienced teachers and where teaching is seen as a desirable profession. As of right now, teacher preparation programs in New Jersey at least have to try to convince honors students to consider teaching in an environment where they see their own teachers suffering and scapegoated. This is not a situation conducive to a sustainable number of teachers entering the profession.
De-professionalization: The contradictions from Washington and from education reformers are legion. We are told that teacher preparation must become more rigorous, but then we are told that we measure teacher effectiveness using test based measures which fail to actually capture what teachers do. We are told that teachers must be thoroughly prepared to teach students to thrive in a complex modern economy and information environment, but more and more teachers work in environments where the testing has spawned narrowly scripted curricula that have to be implemented without professional judgement. We see a broad coalition of partners from education reform and more traditional teaching advocates joining to “nenew” the profession with better and more in depth preparation, but within that coalition, Teach for America sees “no reason” to revisit their 5 week “training” model for corps members. It is not hard to see that the current reform environment favors de-professionalization over truly professional teachers. The new DOE regulations insist upon student growth being tied back to the quality of teacher preparation, an inherent call for heavy reliance of standardized test data. This opens the door for “highly effective” ratings to be lavished upon Relay “Graduate School of Education” which is largely in the business of training teachers in the methods of no excuses urban charter schools – high levels of behavioral control, heavily scripted curricula delivered as written, a heavy emphasis on preparing for the annual accountability tests, and relatively short “careers” in teaching. Such methods may result in high value added for Relay’s graduates, but it is not likely to result in lifelong career teachers who retain professional autonomy and a robust vision of how teachers shape curriculum.
These challenges to teaching are robust, and, by now, they possess a frightening degree of inertia. Together, they genuinely pose a threat to teaching as a profession that individuals pursue and commit to for a lifetime. Our future teachers are watching what goes on in school today and are either developing a commitment to become teachers – or a desire to stay far away, dispositions towards the profession that will not be easy to turn. Further, the increasing reliance on short time teachers granted credentials that emphasize high scores on standardized tests threatens to reinvent teaching into something that enthusiastic young people do for a short time before moving on to their “adult” lives.
A profession of many millions working with many tens of millions, however, does not turn quite so easily, as reformers have discovered over the past decade. In order to redirect our efforts so that teaching can genuinely thrive, we need better ideas competing for time and attention. Some ideas that demand our attention:
Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that). It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do. Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children. We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved. NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession. What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy. Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands. That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway. At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer. There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting. There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else. There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve. Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers? Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students? Are they well connected within the surrounding community? Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations? Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians? Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming? Are the students happy and safe in the building? There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching. Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession. Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced. While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans. If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers. This is false. Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps. The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator. What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary. What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial. Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth. Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not. Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former. While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations: First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics. Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money. Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world. Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate. Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001. But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools. David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago: “We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.” If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.
We are a month into the 2016-2017 school year in New Jersey. Public school children across the Garden State have met their new teachers and learned the expectations for the year. My teacher friends (many of whom are former students) have set up their classrooms, welcomed their students, and begun the long process of getting to know the young people in their care and helping them learn. In many of these schools, veteran teachers have welcomed student teachers as well, slowly giving them more responsibility as they begin the most intensive part of their preparation to become licensed teachers themselves. After years of studying both pedagogy and content, of combining that knowledge in planning for both learning and assessment of learning, and of demonstrating their combined skills in supervised field placements, these young people are ready to take the final steps on their journeys.
In my own classes, I have had the great pleasure of welcoming the Class of 2020 to their first class in our teacher preparation program. I have to be honest: after 23 years of teaching at every level from seventh grade to graduate school classes, this is my favorite time of any year. My students are both excited and nervous, and they are only just beginning to learn what it means to become a teacher. After thousands and thousands of hours of watching teachers teach, they have a great deal to learn about what goes into that work that they never saw, and they will have to learn how to translate their passion for their content and for learning into effective teaching. They also happen to be great people, a conclusion I draw basically every year. My students are bright, passionate, diligent, incredibly hard working, selfless, and they are giving up many of the traditional distractions of college life for their chosen profession. This time with us in university based teacher preparation is really a gift. Sandwiched between their thirteen years in K-12 classrooms and their future decades of work in a profession of millions, we have four short years to help them get their career journey off to a great start.
So I really have to ask you, Governor Christie: Exactly from where do you think our future teachers are going to come?
This is no idle question at this point. Concerns about the teacher pipeline have been brewing for some time, and while the phenomenon is complex, there is also no doubt that we’ve made it much harder for young people to imagine a positive future as a teacher:
How shocking that there’s a teacher shortage in a country whose politics now revolves around bashing teachers http://t.co/JldWmDw36V
While financial esoterica may escape the attention of today’s school children – although the cumulative impact of $6 billion of lost funding surely has an impact – Governor Christie’s continued and vicious attacks on the Garden State’s teachers is impossible to ignore. Governor Christie plainly hates the New Jersey Education Association, having opened his failed candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination by saying NJEA needs to be “punched in the face,” but the governor takes that hatred out in public on any teacher who dares to stand up for her profession while he slathers contempt upon the state’s schools and teachers. Governor Christie has accused the state’s teachers of using their students like “drug mules” for a civics lesson, and he has whined that the NJEA claimed that he hates children for a fairly mild billboard:
He has screamed at a teacher in public for daring to question him:
Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again
And he has pretty much consistently disparaged teachers as doing a terrible job and implying the 180 day official school year means they have pretty cushy jobs compared to other professionals:
Let’s be crystal clear on this: Governor Christie wants to be freed from the various Abbott decisions and the legal requirement that Trenton give supplemental funding to the state’s neediest students. And at the same time, he wants the state Supreme Court to allow him to rule those same districts he plans to defund by breaking contracts at will and ignoring state tenure laws. S0 – he doesn’t want to pay AND he wants to break contracts and rules on his say so with no accountability.
Which brings me back to my question again: From where does Governor Christie expect the future teachers in New Jersey to come? Those future teachers are currently in New Jersey’s K-12 schools watching a governor compare their teachers to organized criminals and proposing to make vast swaths of them into at will employees while criminally underfunding their schools. They have been watching him for a good portion of their K-12 education as he’s slashed school funding statewide and insulted the work ethic of teachers in every corner of the state. They’ve watched as he’s lashed out at anyone who dares to question his rhetoric about teachers. They watched as he’s forced more and more emphasis on state tests and as he cruelly derided a bill meant to guarantee that our youngest children have recess.
Whether or not these are good or bad ideas is open for debate, but what is not open for debate is that Governor Christie is raising the bar substantially on who is even allowed to begin teacher training in New Jersey in the middle of an environment where he has derided the state’s teachers for years and where he is demanding the ability to both slash school funding and deny urban teachers their contracts as he sees fit. Jersey Jazzman astutely observes that these proposals will be of significant cost to New Jersey’s teachers of color, who disproportionately work in the Abbott districts, but nobody should assume that Governor Christie would settle for merely breaking the NJEA in the cities. He wants to be Scott Walker on the Delaware, and it will probably have similar consequences if he succeeds.
And we’re supposed to try to convince the top third of New Jersey’s high school students to become teachers under these circumstances.
Like I said – my students are passionate and dedicated. They love school. They love students. They love their subjects. Whether or not that love can be sustained and whether or not future students will have enough love to even consider teaching is an open question.
This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers. They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity. We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts. We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign. A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.
The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:
Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.
Without irony at all, I think this is excellent. As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated. It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor. It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.
Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy. Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording. The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation. Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia. I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion. Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers. Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.
The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups. However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary. Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others. It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance. Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused. Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene? It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped. Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919. These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history. Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events. Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?
The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation. That assumption is unnecessary. And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.
The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.
Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.
But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community. Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.
Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.
In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.
In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost. Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it. Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not. Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.
This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited. I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago. I will certainly strive to enact them.
It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher. If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.
(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)
Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today. Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved naches. Historically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?
Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work. Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy. No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all. If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.
How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long? A few suggestions:
Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals. Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age. In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment. I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones. In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.
For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice. In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them. 79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.
The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously. Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year. Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment. Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans. We can get there, but only with a genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.
Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning. Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow. It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it. It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?
Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time. While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities. They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities. Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs. Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students. Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to the amount of $197 billion. This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.
The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well. If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.
We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.
Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.
Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.
It’s just that simple.
Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.
A private employee serves one master — the company.
A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles: to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.
I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher. It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible. Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.
So it is Teacher Appreciation Week. The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days. They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and genuinely support what makes that work possible.
As Fall semester slides into exams, most of my senior students turn their attention to full time student teaching. They also begin to think very seriously about how to enter the job market for new teachers beginning their careers in the Fall. It can be a harrowing time. In addition to being responsible for teaching a full load of students full time and engaging in deep capstone projects based on that teaching, they have to plan how they will seek out and apply for jobs. Adulthood and difficult choices lie directly on the other side of the most challenging work they have ever done. I certainly cannot find fault if any of them approach it all with at least some trepidation mingled with their excitement.
So it is unsurprising that I occasionally have students who apply for and are selected to join Teach For America. Their reasons are varied. TFA publicly espouses many values that are congruent with my students’ sense of vocationalism in service of their future students. TFA offers to take the confusion out of the job application process by helping them find a classroom somewhere they may have never considered on their own. TFA carries with it an aura of selectivity and prestige, and certainly by this point in its history, the organization has connections and influence among the powerful in education policy.
However, I have advice for my students regarding applying for or accepting a position with Teach For America: Don’t do it.
I don’t come to this advice lightly, and while I respect that my students might be excited to join an organization that says it is dedicated to getting young and talented people into classrooms with our most needy students, there is literally nothing positive that Teach For America offers my students that they cannot do for themselves. And what they package with those positives is entirely negative for our profession. There are a number of truths about TFA that my students should consider before seeking an application.
First, Teach For America needs you far more than you need them. TFA may be influential, and the competitive nature of their system may seem prestigious, but my students do not need Teacher For America anywhere nearly as much as TFA needs them. Anyone willing to join TFA is making two positive commitments: 1) I will go anywhere and 2) I will teach students from vulnerable families and communities. Well, if you are willing to do that, and you hold a valid teaching certificate, there are precious few barriers keeping you from doing just that on your own. Many states practice reciprocal certification with other states, and in other cases, fairly minor additional requirements are all that is necessary. For already credentialed teachers, TFA is just a middleman that makes the process of finding a job in another state less stressful, but it is hardly necessary. I know a great many of my students are deeply committed to working with students in poverty, and I applaud them for that. They don’t need TFA.
On the other hand, TFA does need them, or, perhaps more accurately, TFA looks better every time a fully qualified, licensed teacher joins their corps. My students who have joined TFA arrived vastly more prepared and ready to teach than most other corps members. They have studied child psychology, education law, general methods of teaching and content specific methods, evaluation, classroom management, and they have completed full subject majors in the content they intend to teach. Teachers who graduate from my program also have spent 100s of hours in experienced teachers’ classrooms where they have worked one on one with students, led classroom activities, shadowed teachers’ lesson plans, and planned and taught guest lessons – all before their full time student teaching began. Our entire program is premised on the belief that learning to teach requires careful and thoughtful entry into the classroom using ideas and skills learned from both college faculty and from practicing teachers, and it is premised on thoughtfully planned experiences in classrooms that are crucial at every stage of learning to teach. My graduates have also completed capstone projects working closely with our faculty examining the evidence of how their teaching has promoted student learning – and they have done so using substantive evidence rather than standardized test scores. Further, they have passed difficult examinations of their content knowledge as required by the state of New Jersey, they have maintained GPAs well above their college peers, and all of their programs of study are subject to demanding accreditation requirements.
Compare that to Teach For America’s perspective that all new teachers really need is a great attitude and a summer training institute. While all first year teachers, even those who are exceptionally well prepared, will find the experience more than the sum of their preparation, it is without question that TFA corps members who have actually studied to become teachers are vastly more ready than their counterparts who have not.
My students also benefit TFA in another manner: they all intend to stay classroom teachers. This isn’t something they suddenly decided to do. This isn’t a means for them to “give back” on their way to something else. This is a career they have been thinking about since they were much younger and to which they have dedicated their entire time in college to entering. TFA likes to claim that a huge percentage of their corps members “stay in education,” but they use marketing language to paper over the issue. Consider:
TFA also claims that “the most common profession for TFA alumni” is teaching. These are cleverly stated, but hardly as impressive as TFA wants you to believe. The first claim is worded to encourage you to believe that up to 80% of TFA alumni are working directly in schools, especially in low-income schools, but it obviously means no such thing and can mean something entirely unexpected if the definition of working “in education” is treated very loosely. Finish TFA, go to law school, and end up working with education “foundations” or fake grassroots and advocacy organizations pushing various elements of today’s testocracy and that easily slots in with TFA’s claim. Whether “the most common profession” of former corps members being teaching is impressive or not depends entirely on how many other professions are counted and how large a percentage stay in teaching as a career. 50% teaching out of 20 professions total would be far more impressive than, say, 15% of 20 professions. The language TFA selects is precisely chosen to obfuscate those distinctions.
Survey research conducted with Dr. Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University has better news for TFA in this regard than many critics might expect, but hardly great news compared to traditionally prepared and hired teachers. The study, conducted with TFA cohorts beginning 2000, 2001, and 2002 found that 60.5% taught in K-12 beyond their initial 2 year commitment, and 35.5% taught more than four years with 27.8% still teaching in their fifth year. 43.6% of TFA members continued teaching at their initial school past two years, but that number dropped to 14.8% at the end of four years. Traditionally prepared education majors made up only 3.34% of corps members surveyed, but 71.3% of them taught longer than four years – well more than double of other corps members.
While not a significant portion of corps members, traditionally prepared teachers placed by TFA help bolster their image by being far more ready to teach than their modal corps members and by staying in teaching for far longer. So when my students join TFA, they get help finding a job they could have found for themselves, and their preparation and career aspirations help TFA look better.
Second, Teach For America will challenge my students’ beliefs about quality education….but not in a good way. Teach For America likes to claim that they do not favor charter schools over fully public schools in their placements:
This means that basically a third of corps members get placed in charter schools – which doesn’t sound like a preference until you look at the numbers. There are just over 6000 charter schools in the country, enrolling roughly 2.3 million students. That’s roughly 4.6% of the public schools in the country, and charter schools are only 10% or more of public schools in Arizona, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. According to the Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools account for 30% or more of schools in only 12 districts nationwide, and there are 147 districts in the country where charter schools comprise 10% or more of the K-12 enrollment in the district. There are over 14,000 public school districts in the United States. The nation’s largest school district, New York City, only enrolls 7% of its students in charters while Los Angeles enrolls 21% and Chicago 14%.
So, sure, Teach For America does not favor charter schools – until you look at how its placements in charters vastly outstrips the percentage of schools that are charters nationwide or the percentage of students in our three largest cities who are enrolled in charters.
My students have been taught to fulfill a promise that all children deserve an equitable opportunity to learn, not that the only children who deserve to be in school are the ones who can quickly conform to an exercise in extreme behavior modification. But TFA has a significant preference for working with schools that do just that and then brag that they are “closing the achievement gap.” That should worry any professional educator’s sense of ethics.
Teach For America’s own record of helping its own corps members is open to question as well. A growing number of TFA “alumni” are publicly sharing their stories of how the organization failed them and their students. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of California State Sacramento shares the story of his former student who, against his advice, joined Teach For America and was placed in a “Knowledge is Power Program” (KIPP) charter school:
I never thought I would feel so alone in a organization like TFA. I imagined being a part of the Corps would provide me with the support I needed, even though I would be an inexperienced first year teacher. During my first semester, I was visited two times by my TFA manager. Afterward, we met for coffee, and he would ask questions about my vision for my students, but never offered the type of resources and support that I needed to make my teaching life more bearable. Looking back, I’m not even sure what a two-time visitor could have offered that would have really helped me….
Shame has a terrible place in this organization. I never believed that shame would become a motivator in my Teach for America experience, but shame holds onto the necks of many Corps members. Placing young college graduates in some of the toughest teaching situations with 5 weeks of training has negative repercussions on the mind, body, and soul of Corps members. The message is “If only I were stronger, smarter and more capable, I could handle this. I would be able to save my students.” Unfortunately, TFA intentionally or unintentionally preys on this shame to push Corps members to their limits to create “incredible” classrooms and “transformative” lesson plans. Would these things be good for our students? Of course. Is shame a sustainable method for creating and keeping good teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. It is defeating and draining.
My students understand that having a robust support and collegial system is crucial for good teaching, both for novices and experienced teachers, and this is validated by research demonstrating that schools with “integrated” professional cultures do the best at serving the needs of teachers at all experience levels. It is unconscionable that TFA would take college graduates with no training in education and leave them with both minimal preparation and entirely inadequate support systems. Worse, many former corps members explain that TFA substitutes what amounts to a cartoonish version of “grit” for actual professional learning, support, and development.
TFA appears frighteningly unconcerned with the school conditions and philosophies where they place corps members, plainly favoring working with schools engaged in practices that do not affirm educational equity. Further, TFA fails to provide what is critical for the development of good teaching and expert teachers, preferring shallow mantras over the complex and uncertain work of professional learning. My students are vastly more qualified than most corps members, but they should know that TFA will not help them grow further in any careful or deliberate manner.
Third, Teach For America denigrates our profession, ultimately harming children in the process. Recently, the Center For American Progress announced its campaign called “Teach Strong” based on nine principles that are supposed to “modernize and elevate” the profession of teaching. The campaign so far has some very strange bedfellows. Both national teacher unions have signed on as well the as the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, an organization of the nation’s accredited university-based teacher preparation programs. Teach for America is also a partner as well as the fairly odious “National Council of Teacher Quality,” a self-appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” whose signature “study” of teacher preparation quality was conducted by reading online course catalog materials. Seated at the table with some allies but also with organizations long connected to the research on learning to teach and tasked with helping to improve and “elevate” teaching as a profession, one might think that TFA would take a good hard look at their own contribution. Having signed on to a program whose stated principles include “reimagine teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates” and “provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed, including through planning, collaboration, and development” one might assume that Teacher For America would be willing to reconceptualize their own “preparation” of corps members with nothing more than summer training institute and demonstrably uneven and inadequate support systems once they enter the classroom.
You would think that, but you’d be wrong.
In fact, TFA’s CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, told The Washington Post that they see no need to change their training program, saying, “We do great, very rigorous pre-training work.”
It has been clear for some time that TFA is on the side of teacher professionalism that honestly does not care if teaching is a lifelong profession. Consider their obvious favoritism for urban charter schools, which frequently welcome unlicensed, short term, teachers who are easily molded into the school’s way of operating without any pesky baggage like existing pedagogical knowledge or classroom experience. TFA’s perspective on this is well summed up by their founder, Wendy Kopp, who opined, “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers….The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”
What Ms. Kopp is describing is not teacher growth and development as familiar to those who have dedicated their lives to teaching children, and I doubt that even former corps members who remained teachers would agree with her. She is describing school models that have such narrow behavioral expectations for both students and teachers that “development” is a matter of drilling people into a single, precise, way of going about business, and the preference for barely trained TFA recruits makes absolute sense because they are more easily molded. This is closely tied to TFA’s continued insistence that its training model is up to the task of preparing young people with no teaching experience and no undergraduate teacher training for work in schools with our nation’s most vulnerable children. The model is painfully inadequate as career teacher and former TFA corps member Gary Rubinstein has repeatedly noted in his blogging. More recently, the Network for Public Education has hosted stories from TFA alumni highlighting their lack of preparation for the often complex classroom situations into which they were placed and the lack of continued support needed to help them and their students thrive. Nothing about the stories host there or in the “preparation” paradigm practiced by TFA does much of anything to “elevate” our profession.
TFA likes to boast about their alumni who are leaders in education, and to be sure, there’s a long list of such alumni who have occupied influential and highly visible positions from which they have wielded power over our public schools. Sadly, as Gary Rubinstein also observed, a great deal of that influence has been entirely negative:
….these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools….
….TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed. The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’
TFA’s brand of education “leaders” are at the forefront of closing neighborhood schools in favor of opaque charters, using test scores to evaluate teachers, and breaking teacher unions. In this school of thought, there are no problems in education of vulnerable children that require increased resources and the dedication of experienced professionals. Rather, all that are needed are energetic but easily replaceable novices, a “no excuses” attitude, and school management that is relieved of any open and democratic accountability. This runs counter to everything we know about our most successful schools. Experienced teachers are more effective than novices. Money and resources matter in educational opportunity and outcomes. Wealthier districts have greater rates of teacher retention, significant levels of parental and community involvement and oversight – and higher test scores. If TFA and its alumni leaders truly cared about righting the inequities in our public education system, they would demand that teachers and students in high poverty districts have equitable situations with their peers in wealthy districts. Instead of denigrating teachers for failing to be comic book heroes, they could shine a clear light on the insanity of calling on teachers to fix some of the greatest injustices in our society armed with nothing more than youthful energy and attitude.
However, there is no sign that TFA or its enablers in board rooms, school districts, and legislative bodies across the country have the least interest in doing so. It is past time for young people to stop lining up to “Teach For America,” and there is no reason that my students – who have earned the title of professional teacher through years of hard work – should ever join them. I work with amazing and talented young people, many of whom are passionate about working with our schools’ most at risk children. They can do that brilliantly, and more effectively, without Teach For America.
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 Riskin 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 Schoolsthat 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:
Today, I get to meet the next class of students who have entered my university seeking to become high school teachers. This is always an exciting time in no small respect because being a part of their journey from student to student of teaching to teacher is some of the most rewarding work of my life, and I am consistently grateful for how their energy and optimism help revive my own year after year.
In recent years, that energy and optimism have been even more impressive because the in public battles over education and active disruption of today’s education “reform” have impacted these young people more than their counterparts in previous times. The morale of their teachers has been dropping during their time in the classroom, and the inherently busy and often confusing world of the classroom has been increasingly stressful to those with whom we entrust our children. If we accept what I believe is the very valid premise that the choice to become a teacher actually begins during one’s time as a student in teachers’ classrooms, then the students I meet today are among a remarkable group of young people who remain energized by education’s possibilities rather than discouraged by current circumstances. Nationwide, it is getting harder to find such young people to enter the teacher preparation pipeline.
And I have good news for them – there are excellent reasons to expect growing and vocal support from the parents whose children they will eventually teach, and those reasons should both encourage and inspire them.
The annual PDK/Gallup poll on the public’s beliefs about education was published recently, and while the results should be the subject of much debate and no small amount of disagreement, two messages ring out clearly: First, the public does not buy high stakes standardized testing as the best measurement of what teachers do, and second, the people who know our schools the best are the most positive about those schools.
Every demographic surveyed said that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing by very wide margins. 64% of the national sample and 67% of public school parents believe so as well as 57% of African Americans, 60% of Hispanics, and 65% of whites in the national sample. Support for opting out of standardized examinations showed more variation, but considering how test refusal was barely an issue a few years ago, the numbers in the survey may very well be surprising. Nationally, 41% of those surveyed agreed opting out should be allowed, and 47% of public school parents agreed it should be allowed. Whites agreed with allowing parents to opt out by 44% while 35% of Hispanics thought it should be allowed and 28% of African Americans thought it should be allowed. This poses a challenge to opt out advocates, certainly, who have made only modest inroads in urban communities so far.
Parents who say they themselves would opt out was as high as 31% of public school parents with similar differences among different ethnic groups. However, readers should remember that New York State, a national leader in the parental opt out movement, posted a test refusal rate of 20% for the 2015 examinations (which nearly matches the 21% of African American parents who would personally opt their children out), so there is room, given just this year’s support, to grow test refusal by significant numbers in the next year, complicating plans to evaluate teachers using test scores.
Survey respondents might not mind that, however, as they clearly find standardized tests a poor source of information on how teachers teach and how schools perform. All demographic groups said that student engagement, students’ hopes for the future, and the percentage of students who graduate and go on to further education are vastly more important measures of school effectiveness than standardized test scores. Similarly, all groups believed that samples of student work, teachers’ written evaluations, and teacher given grades were vastly more important indications of student progress, and all groups believed that teacher quality, expectations, principal leadership, and increased funding were more important tools for school improvement than measurement via standardized testing. African American parents were most interested in using standardized test scores to compare students with students in other communities, states, and countries, but that support was only 34% saying it was “very important” and overall support at that level was only 22% of all public school parents.
Parents and others similarly disagreed with using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Nationally, 43% of all those surveyed agreed with using student test scores that way, down from the slight majority who supported it in 2012 and up 5 points from last year’s survey. Public school parents were most vocal in opposition with only 37% in support and 63% opposed.
The PDK/Gallup poll reaffirms a long term trend in the survey over the years: people tend to think their local schools and the schools their children attend are better than schools nationwide. Local support for public schools remains robust in this year’s poll with 51% of the national sample giving their local schools a grade of A or B, and with 57% of public school parents saying the same. Worryingly, only 23% of African Americans and 31% of Hispanics felt similarly, highlighting known discrepancies in our highly segregated schools. Nationally, when public school parents were asked what grades they would give to the school attended by their oldest child, 70% said an A or a B. All respondents noted funding as a key issue for schools and quality as well with all demographics citing it as the most important problem facing schools and citing it as very or somewhat important for school improvement.
With trends like these emerging from the polling data, it is not surprising that direct action movements from parents and students to highlight dilemmas facing their schools and to challenge unpopular policies have emerged. The Opt Out movement is a large, growing, example of parental activism in communities across the country aimed at relieving schools of over testing.
In other communities, activists have come out to support their public schools via direct action as they’ve come under attack. In Newark, NJ, students of the Newark Student Union have been leading a movement to demand attention for how school “reforms” have harmed them and their community. Even more inspiring is the story in Chicago, where a dozen parent activists, having tried every possible means to save the last open enrollment high school in their community of Bronzeville, are beginning the third week of a hunger strike to save Dyett High School. While the press has been slow to notice the story in Bronzeville, it has caught the interest and support of public school advocates across the country.
So as I welcome my new class of future teachers to their first college education classes today, I also have a message for them: It is tempting, even easy, to spin a story of public education under attack and of those attacks winning, but you must also remember that you have the confidence and trust of parents in communities across the country, parents who understand the value of the work you have committed yourself to learning and doing. Year after year in polls, their faith and belief in you is clear. In the growth of Opt Out, their understanding of why the test and punish era of school accountability needs to be rolled back is evident.
And in communities like Newark and Bronzeville, students and parents are putting their very bodies on the line to support the importance of a fully public education. You owe them nothing less than full reciprocation and your every effort to justify their trust. Let’s get to work.
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.
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).
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.
Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions. Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new. Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:
This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.
The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.
Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects. Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated. Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach. Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012. The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year. Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.
This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention. While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:
We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.
I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring. While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment. From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.
What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy. We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history. The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession. And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.
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.
What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?
All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”
To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.
Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks. Things need to change. Now.