Category Archives: teacher learning

Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others

Sarah Blaine is the author at the excellent and thoughtful Parenting the Core blog.  She recently explored the question of whether or not teaching is a profession, recounting a law professor who argued teaching was not a profession because teachers did not control entry to the profession as doctors and lawyers do.  Ms. Blaine took that observation to a very intriguing and, I think, valuable discussion of how teachers could play a bigger and, consequently, far more informed than current regulators role in how people enter teaching.  It is worth your time to read the whole piece.

It also has spurred me to ponder the ways in which teaching is a profession, but a profession unlike most others that have high status in society.  Further, I have to wonder to what degree the efforts of the late 1980s and 1990s to construct a vision of teacher professionalism that is similar to those in medicine and law has contributed, at least indirectly, to some of our current dilemmas in what passes today for education “reform.”  Beginning with the A Nation At Risk report, teacher organizations and teacher research cast for ways by which the profession can embody the elements of professionalism and professionalization that define other fields of endeavor, but in doing so, we have opened ourselves to reforms that actually debilitate teaching and learning.

The status of teaching in general and of the teaching as a discipline for study is not a new problem.  David Labaree, in his collection of essays, The Trouble With Ed Schools, traces teaching and teacher preparation’s status anxiety back to the establishment of normal schools which were under pressure to turn out large numbers of mostly working class women to teach in the growing compulsory school systems of the 1800s.  When normal schools evolved into state colleges and universities, the new education schools with their teacher training missions were marginalized by the more established and prestigious fields of classical studies who relied on education schools to bring students to the universities but who did not respect teaching as a discipline of study and who did not respect the largely female population studying it.

The public’s familiarity with teaching and with teachers also complicates questions of professional status.  Unlike most other fields with professional expertise nearly every adult in society has extensive and intensive contact with teachers practicing their profession.  Doctors and lawyers are capable of enshrouding their professions in mystery because the average citizen, thankfully, has only periodic and limited needs of their services.  The average citizen, in contrast, spends more than 13,000 hours in teachers’ classrooms during what Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” through which most people conclude that they are entirely familiar with the work of teachers and develop very strong assumptions about what it is that teachers know and do.  However, this familiarity is facile.  Students are not privy to the preparation that goes into teaching, nor do they understand what it is like to enact teaching while maintaining attention on each and every learner in the classroom, adjusting and pivoting as necessary, and taking effective opportunities when they present themselves. The result is that despite the enormous amount of time spent with teachers, very few former students see teaching as a highly complex practice that requires expertise and substantial experience.

The search for a definition of teacher professionalism may not be new, but it  began in earnest with the devastating rhetoric of the 1983 Reagan administration report A Nation At Risk which reported:

  • Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

  • The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

  • The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

  • Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

  • The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.

  • Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers.

Education leaders and policy makers rushed to respond to these criticisms. Teachers and teacher educators are familiar with the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy report A Nation Prepared, the various reports of the Holmes Group, John Goodlad’s Teachers for Our Nation’s Schools, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report What Matters Most, the development of the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium model teaching standards, increasing influence of organizations such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and with a growing industry of educational consultants such as Charlotte Danielson providing standards based rubrics and frameworks for teacher evaluation.

This mass body of work and effort and the attending changes in state and national policies that have flowed from them work on a vision not merely of teacher professionalism, the knowledge, skills, actions, and dispositions of professional teachers, but also of teacher professionalization, efforts to more closely align teaching and teacher preparation with the standards and technical rationales of high status professions such as medicine and law.  Such efforts appeal on two fronts.  First, they attend to concerns that teachers need more rigorous preparation for the difficult work of teaching and that teachers who complete their education with strong content knowledge, deep pedagogical knowledge, substantial understanding of learning and motivation, and who have meaningful experiences in the classroom prior to student teaching will have easier transitions into the world of full time teaching and begin their careers more able to help students learn.  Second, this reconfiguration of teacher preparation and conceptualizing of teaching as a profession akin to medicine and law attempted to instill higher status upon the profession in general.  Terms like “clinical experience” and “professional development school” and “master teacher” all convey a message that learning to teach is a rational experience with technical components that can be measured and that teachers should have ongoing and mediated entry into the professional roles much doctors who master a complex body of knowledge and then move into increasingly responsible roles within practice over time.  By adopting the preparation and learning structure of high status professions, teaching was envisioned to occupy a greater level of respect more commensurate with the importance of its mission.

There is much to recommend in this approach, and such efforts have spurred genuine innovations to improve how teachers are prepared.  It is important to acknowledge that contrary to many popular beliefs teachers possess specialized knowledge far beyond their understanding of the content that they teach.  Further, much as the technical knowledge of medicine and law must be put into practice, knowledge of content, theory, and pedagogy must be practiced in order to become skilled and it must slowly improve over time with the accumulation of experience.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the teacher professionalization discussion has been the continued focus upon moving from theory to practice in a controlled and mediated fashion, allowing prospective teachers to practice and to learn from practice long before they undertake full time teaching duties.

However, while moves to make learning to teach more clinical have opened valuable efforts to increase time teaching before licensure, it is vital that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers understand the ways in which teaching is not like those high status professions professionalization has attempted to imitate.  To begin with, while there is an important knowledge base for teaching, it is a much softer knowledge than that held by high status professions.  Before moving into technical practice of medicine, medical students learn a tremendous amount of knowledge that is well-defined and clearly delineated.  This does not mean that medical knowledge is never changing; obviously, it is.  However, those changes take place through pain-staking research and replication before it can become part of the body of knowledge for practice.  When compared to this, teachers’ knowledge is less defined, more subject to change, and subject to particular circumstances that vary day to day and class to class.  Experienced teachers know that a “best practices” teaching strategy may not be a “best practice” for a particular bit of content or with a particular group of students, and because teaching has to be enacted authentically by individual teachers, different practitioners can find that so-called “best practices” are not “best practices” for them. Teachers are constantly experimenting and tinkering with their practice, often within the act of practice itself.

Lawyers can rely upon volumes of case law, and doctors have mountains of medical research backing their choices, but there is no laparoscopic appendectomy for teaching a room of 6 year olds how to read.

This should greatly complicate our desires to present teaching as a profession that can be mapped onto the professional education of fields that employ a more technical/rational approach.  Standards based preparation and evaluation can provide important starting points and frameworks for discussing, assessing, and improving teaching, but the rubrics and evaluation scores cannot become ends unto themselves.  Preparation and evaluation do a great disservice to teachers and teaching when rubric scores become more important than discussions about students and their learning that can be prompted by the categories on the rubric.  Too much of a focus on the technical at the expense of developmental understanding of learners and their needs reduces teachers’ teaching and students’ learning to outcomes which can be superficially inflated without substance.

It is possible that the teacher professionalization movement’s efforts, as well intentioned as they have been, are responsible for some of the mess that education “reform” has made of the teacher evaluation and testing environment.  After all, if teaching is a technical/rational activity whose practices result in observable and measurable outcomes, then it was not a big sell to policy makers for figures like Michelle Rhee and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to suggest that teachers should be evaluated using supposedly “objective” results like standardized test scores.  Run through statistical formulas that claim to account for a vast number of variables that can impact students’ test score gains, reformers promise that test data, as a component of teacher evaluation, offers a fully objective view of teacher effectiveness. This slots nicely with the view of teacher professionalization that emphasizes measurement of teacher practice — even though the bulk of the evidence now says that such modeling does not work.

There are other reasons to question the teacher professionalization models or at least to insist that they be made more complex and nuanced.  To begin with, unlike high status professions, teaching is, by necessity, a vast field.  Doctors and lawyers maintain careful control on their supply and high skill specialties are even tighter, but the reality of compulsory, public, free education means that we need enough teachers, teaching specialists, and paraprofessionals to teach 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools.  In any labor market, that means that teaching cannot claim a high status simply because supply has to be high compared to other professions requiring college education and certification.  We may value, or at least claim to value, teachers and the work they do for our society, but from the standpoint of scarcity, we cannot compare the field to others, and it would take a significant change in our society’s values to do so.  Further, the long history of low status associated with fields that are predominantly female is still with teaching, which remains a profession dominated by female practitioners.

Teacher professionalization is also complicated by the previously mentioned apprenticeship of observation.  While the long contact time with teachers and schools does not actually instruct the public about the fullness and the complexities of teaching, it does lend an extreme familiarity with teachers themselves and with the visible aspects of their practice that no other profession really has.  Hard knowledge professions carefully guard their knowledge within specialized preparation and language, effectively blocking outsiders from access without the mediation of the professional.  Teachers, from the public’s view, are in the business of giving knowledge away and making it more accessible.  While pedagogical knowledge is not readily available to non-teachers, the practice of it is visible in thousands of hours spent in teachers’ classrooms, the best of which result in students able to learn on their own.  The public may not really understand teaching, but there would be little value in the profession cloaking itself in the mystique conferred upon lawyers and doctors whose practice depends almost entirely upon their clients and patients being unable to practice for themselves.

The aura of mystery about knowledge and professional language in other fields is often accompanied by a general obligation to be distant and to minimize personal involvement with clients and patients.  Teachers, however, sit in an unusual place in terms of relationships with their “clients” and frequently need to cultivate professional but close relationships with individuals and groups of students that foster motivation and provide the affective support students need to succeed.  Many conceive of this as a mentoring relationship that helps students not only academically but also with social and emotional needs.  This stance both helps students and also comprises a significant portion of the “psychic rewards” that teachers historically report among the most gratifying aspects of their jobs.  Much like the deployment of pedagogy, such relationships and their attendant rewards will remain particular and impossible to measure in any rational sense, yet they remain among the core practices of teaching.

During the height of the teacher professionalization literature, David Hansen wrote cogently about teaching as a vocation and what that means to practitioners:

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.

This is extremely important as we continue to discuss and debate what teaching as a profession means and what it looks like in practice.  I would not suggest abandoning all of the elements of teacher professionalization as we work to develop a rich view of teachers as professionals, but it is important to recognize the limits of standards and measurement.  Standards and rubrics for evaluation should be used as means to focus conversation on practice and its continued development rather than to focus on specific score bands on evaluations themselves.  We should flatly reject continued efforts to reduce teachers’ impact to fully rational statistical outcomes that have no proper basis in research.  And we should passionately embrace those aspects of teachers’ professionalism that is immeasurable and defend them as essential to teachers’ work.  Maybe we cannot measure inspiration and passion for children and their intellectual, social, and emotional development, but without those qualities, performances on professional standards rubrics are probably meaningless.

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Filed under Data, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing

What if We Really Cared About Teacher Preparation?

Abstract

Efforts to reform teacher education in recent years have focused on demands for higher quality candidates and indicators of rigorous preparation without careful consideration of the total policy environment in which such preparation must take place.  In the era of test based accountability, efforts to recruit, prepare and induct qualified and passionate new teachers are severely hampered by contradictory and high stakes priorities enacted by state level policy makers.  In this article, I locate the different policy pressures that make thoughtful and effective teacher preparation less likely and explain what teacher preparation would look like if we took a systemic and developmental approach to teacher education that recognized how teachers learn.  Policy makers need to understand the interconnected nature of their decisions and offer policies aimed at support and growth of teachers at all experience levels and at development of capacity in universities, schools, school districts, and state offices.

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It is, of course, easy to criticize the reform plans for teacher education that are in various stages of implementation in New Jersey.  Most proposed changes exist either as evidence-free assertions that “more is better” or as potentially defensible proposals whose consequences remain unexamined.  Perhaps most importantly, they exist in tandem with other policies in both teacher preparation and education in general that seem to contradict their central premises of attracting only the best students to teacher preparation and holding them to rigorous professional standards.  Demonstrating those contradictions is an exercise that lends itself to sarcastic wit and to taking potshots at those in authority, a two for one deal that is difficult to resist.

More daunting, however, is putting forth a positive vision of what teacher preparation ought to look like if we accept the premise that all involved would favor seeing passionate and able young teachers take to our classrooms after being strongly prepared to meet the challenges of teaching.  One does not have to seek out the poorly supported declarations of agenda-driven, self-appointed “teacher quality” watchdogs to find negative assessments of teacher preparation; they are deeply embedded in the popular culture which frequently asserts that teachers are “born” rather than made.  These assertions are expertly addressed here by David Berliner, past president of the American Educational Research Association.  However, it is important to note that a belief in teaching as a craft whose knowledge cannot be learned outside of experience is common among teachers themselves and strongly related to teacher education’s continued struggles to provide meaningful contexts for practice prior to teaching (and the reality that no controlled practice environment is fully sufficient to represent full time teaching under any circumstances).

Those of us who labor in good conscience for the preparation of tomorrow’s teachers need to articulate visions of that preparation focused upon the needs of teachers and their students.  My goal here is to detail concerns and priorities that should exist at three different stages of teachers’ professional preparation: recruitment, preparation, and induction.

Recruitment

Becoming a teacher is unlike training to join most other professions in no small part due to our apparent familiarity with teaching and teachers.  Dan Lortie, in his landmark 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, observed that a typical student spends 13,000 hours observing teachers teaching during the course of a K-12 education.  That is a remarkable level of familiarity that does not exist for professions like law, psychology, medical doctors, or nurses, and, as Lortie notes, it takes place in fairly close quarters and frequently develops interpersonal relationships as well.  A strong theme among people seeking to become teachers is a desire for continuity in the experience of school; having enjoyed school themselves and having developed meaningful relationships with teachers during the long “Apprenticeship of Observation,” many teachers enter the profession desiring not to begin anew, but rather to continue.  While the apprenticeship is lengthy, it can also be deceptive because, as Lortie notes, the student’s vantage point is substantially different from the teacher’s, and it does not lend itself to viewing teaching via pedagogy and the goal-setting orientation that drives teachers’ decision making. Regardless of the limitations of student perspectives, they do matter for future teachers, many of whom seek a teaching career based upon those perceptions and the personal value derived from them.

If future teachers develop deep seated beliefs about teachers and teaching during their prolonged experience in school, we should want that experience to convey a powerful vision of meaningful learning upon them.  Our current policy environment of “test and punish” which was instituted under the No Child Left Behind act and placed into overdrive with Race to the Top has resulted in a more narrow curriculum focused upon tested subjects and a deep decline in teacher satisfaction with their jobs.  Between 2008 and 20012, teachers who are “very satisfied” on the job declined from 62 percent to 39 percent, a 25 year low, and the percentage of teachers who report that they are “under great stress” several days each week rose to 51%. A curtailed curriculum and dissatisfied teachers who cite lack of time for professional development and collaboration with their colleagues are not ingredients for P-12 schools that will nurture the next generation of teachers.  In fact, recent evidence from the United States Department of Education shows enrollment in teacher preparation programs, including alternate route programs, dropping 10% overall nationwide with several state, such as California where applicants for teacher preparation shrunk by 53%, showing steep declines.

Policy makers need to pay especially close attention to the working conditions of teachers not merely because those conditions impact teacher satisfaction and student learning, but also because it impacts the building of professional commitment by future teachers. The idea of future teachers building their commitment throughout their long apprenticeship in P-12 education is related to the concept of teaching as vocational work, a concept that has been unwisely disregarded in this era of high stakes accountability via measurement.  David Hansen of the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote in 1994 that teachers develop a sense of their work as vocational through dispositions and through their tight connection to the very specific social context of teaching and enacting teaching.  Hansen writes that seeing teaching as a vocation…

…suggests that the person regards teaching as more than simply a choice among the array of jobs available in society.  It may even mean for such a person that there is something false about describing the desire to teach as a choice at all.  An individual who is strongly inclined toward teaching seems to be a person who is not debating whether to teach but rather is contemplating how or under what circumstances to do so.  He or she may be considering teaching in schools, in institutions of higher education, or in one of the many other social setting – from military bases to visitors’ centers – in which teaching can occur.  But it may be years before such a person takes action.  He or she may work for a long time in other lines of endeavor – business, law, parenting, the medical field – before the right conditions materialize.  This posture in fact describes may persons who are entering teaching today. 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.  (pp. 266-267)

We would do well to remember this concept for several critical reasons.  If we want young people or career switchers to become teachers, we have to accept the variety of reasons why people make the decision to teach.  Lortie’s observation that many teachers seek continuity with an experience they themselves found desirable reminds us to enable working conditions that foster teacher satisfaction, student learning, and a positive disposition towards teaching among future teachers. Excessive test preparation, teachers without time to collaborate positively with colleagues, and general stress among teachers and students act as disincentives for otherwise interested students to consider teaching and may distort vocational aspirations.

It also should caution us about the type of person who becomes interested in teaching under such circumstances, as Lortie also noted that the desire to continue in school also contributed to teacher conservatism, the impulse to replicate existing practices.  Hansen’s vocational framework deepens this dilemma because for a person to act upon a sense of vocation in a particular field there must be a field where the individual’s desire to serve and to contribute can be enacted.  Jobs incentives such as pay and benefits matter, but they will be insufficient if a potential teacher sees a field dominated by distorting policy initiatives that focus work upon aspects that detract from the sense of motivating purpose.  When accountability ceases to be a monitoring activity that reflects upon teacher effectiveness and becomes a goal in and of itself as it has in test-based accountability, we risk undermining the critical sense of self which motivates students to become teachers.

In addition to attending to the school climate that shapes potential teachers and the sense of vocation they develop prior to teacher education, policy makers need to consider what they are looking for as requirements for prospective teachers.  Many policies are aimed at driving up the academic qualifications of students seeking to become teachers, and a frequently cited “fact” about why this is important is because high performing Finland supposedly only accepts the “top 10%” of students to become teachers. While it is true that only 10% of applicants for spots in teacher training programs are accepted at Finnish universities, it is not exactly true that they are all the “top 10%”.  In fact, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and visiting professor at Harvard University, Finland’s teacher preparation programs seek applicants from across the academic spectrum in attendance at university, and they do this because “…successful education systems are more concerned about finding the right people to become career-long educators” and because the best students are not always the best teachers.  It is actually likely that students who have at least some experience struggling in school will be far more receptive to the need to differentiate their teaching and will know from experience that students can need a variety of supports in order to succeed with challenging material.  State policy makers and university based teacher preparation should look far beneath simple test scores to identify prospective teachers with genuine commitment and passion for teaching and learning.

Preparation

Situated between 13,000 hours of being a student in teachers’ classrooms and entering a profession of millions of fellow teachers are four, short, years for undergraduate teacher preparation.  Consider Lortie’s warnings about teacher sentiments.  If the long apprenticeship of observation leads prospective teachers to strong ideas about what teaching is, but those ideas cannot encompass all of the real work that makes teaching happen, and if the desire for continuity with previous school experiences leads teachers to conservatism by favoring smaller scale changes, if any, then a four year undergraduate teacher preparation experience is a necessary step to help prospective teachers enlarge not only their knowledge and teaching repertoire, but also to enlarge their vision of what teaching and learning actually are.  It stands in stark contrast to alternative pathways into teaching that rely upon teachers training on the job and without space and time to fully embrace what their work means.

Consider Maxine Greene’s warning in her 1978 essay Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality where she writes about teachers without self knowledge encountering the school system:

The problem is that, confronted with structural and political pressures, many teachers (even effectual ones) cope by becoming merely efficient, by functioning compliantly—like Kafkaesque clerks. There are many who protect themselves by remaining basically uninvolved; there are many who are so bored, so lacking in expectancy, they no longer care. I doubt that many teachers deliberately choose to act as accomplices in a system they themselves understand to be inequitable; but feelings of powerlessness, coupled with indifference, may permit the so-called “hidden curriculum” to be communicated uncritically to students. Alienated teachers, out of touch with their own existential reality, may contribute to the distancing and even to the manipulating that presumably take place in many schools….Looking back, recapturing their stories, teachers can recover their own standpoints on the social world. Reminded of the importance of biographical situation and the ways in which it conditions perspective, they may be able to understand the provisional character of their knowing, of all knowing. They may come to see that, like other living beings, they could only discern profiles, aspects of the world.

Greene’s argument points to a vital role for undergraduate teacher preparation in coaxing future teachers to understand themselves and others not merely for self reflection but also to understand that all knowledge is provisional and to value the perspectives their own students will bring with them, greatly expanding the possibilities of their own teaching. Andy Hargreaves argues that while Lortie and his successors have presented “conservatism” as a professional trait, it is actually best regarded as a “social and political ideology and power relationship,” so change “must first be needed, wanted and acknowledged” if any of the characteristics inhibiting change in teaching are to diminish.  Like Greene’s analysis, this is intensely personal and not an endeavor likely to be completed without significant time and space to challenge deeply rooted assumptions about how teachers teach and how students learn, especially students whose lives do not reflect the experiences of our mostly white, mostly middle class, teaching corps.

Gary Fenstermacher expands upon John Goodlad’s concept of teaching as practicing “stewardship” to include “a deep and thorough understanding of the nature and purpose of formal education in a free society.”   Learning to teach, then, requires a genuine commitment on the part of programs and participants to explore dispositions that allow prospective teachers to see their work not only as a continuation of their own school experience, but also as a set of experiences with potential transformative power for both their students and society.  Teacher education that does not lay that gauntlet at our students’ feet risks thoughtless replication instead of empowering improvement.

Undergraduate preparation is also an important, and sheltered, environment in which future teachers develop professional knowledge and repertoires to use in the classroom.  While popular sentiment, as mentioned previously, suggests that teachers only “know” what their students learn, that sentiment is uninformed by what it takes to transform content into something pedagogically powerful that lasts for students.  I actually sympathize with teachers who groan when someone comes along with a new “best way” to teach that is typically a repackaging of long-known ideas into a new textbook and professional development workshop series.  On the other hand, behind a lot of academic rhetoric are critically important concepts for teachers that can be effective frameworks for practice.  Linda Darling-Hammond notes that significant research demonstrates routes to teaching that lack significant pedagogical training and student teaching result in teachers who only have generic teaching skills of limited range.

Darling Hammond, however, cautions university programs against complacency, especially in critical aspects of preparation such as developing deep content and pedagogical knowledge as well as closely tying university and school based preparation together.  Many programs have extended preparation time, and a growing number of university based teacher preparation programs have expended the time and resources to develop school based partnerships where prospective teachers gain richer opportunities to practice what they are learning in environments that encourage them to learn from those experiences.  It is worth noting that when done well, such partnerships go far beyond developing teachers who can consistently check off the right ticky boxes on the Danielson framework.  Darling Hammond notes that the most promising teacher preparation practices “envision the professional teacher as one who learns from teaching rather than one who has finished learning how to teach…”  We are, in fact, talking about a stance towards professionalism as beginning with strong skills and continuously learning and developing rather than simply achieving specific point ranges on a rubric.

Sharon Feiman-Nemser characterized the central tasks of teacher preparation as “analyzing beliefs and forming new visions, developing subject matter knowledge for teaching, developing understanding of learners and learning, developing a beginning repertoire, and developing the tools to study teaching.”  To accomplish such tasks, teacher preparation programs need “conceptual coherence” meaning programs need to be organized around central principles that inform the structure, content, and assessment of courses and experiences and sequences them so that prospective teachers have the best possible chances to develop their abilities.  Articulating a conceptual vision is not simply slapping a “mission statement” on a website, then; rather, it is a core set of beliefs guiding decision making and how evidence is used for program development.

Programs also need “purposeful, integrated field experiences.”  This critical component to teacher preparation allows prospective teachers to gain practical experience applying their growing knowledge and teaching repertoire, and it allows them to test teaching theories in supported environments.  Feiman-Nemser notes that promising programs include a variety of activities for prospective teachers in the field that prompt them to think critically about their experience so that the traditional divide between theory and practice is lessened.  Kenneth Zeichner writes that the traditional disconnect can be diminished by programs creating “hybrid spaces” where the expertise and knowledge held by teachers is given equal footing with the academic knowledge housed at university campuses.  He further notes that a growing body of research demonstrates that teacher preparation programs that coordinate course activities and assignments with “carefully mentored” field experiences better prepare teachers who are able to “successfully enact complex teaching practices.”

Undergraduate programs further need to pay “attention to teachers as learners.”  Programs have to prompt their students to challenge and extend their existing assumptions about teaching and learning, and they have to actively help them challenge those assumptions “in response to students’ changing knowledge, skills, and beliefs.”  As Feiman-Nemser points out, this is not merely a disposition to be fostered in prospective teachers, but also it is one that should be modeled by program faculty who engage in teaching methods they expect of their students.  Such preparation to teach and to learn from teaching serves the interests of program graduates’ future students, and it gives the graduates skills they will need to make best use of their need to learn and develop when they enter the profession full time.

It should be noted that elements such as these in teacher preparation require more than program faculty who are conscious of these elements and conscientious about the need to make certain all teacher candidates enjoy preparation guided by these principles.  Elements of this work are entirely within the control of teacher education programs, and, notably, state level policies on the qualifications of teacher candidates have very little impact upon them except to narrow the pipeline of potential future teachers.  However, other elements depend heavily upon state and local policies, and they can be negatively impacted by them.  Zeichner notes that the kind of clinical work that is necessary for teacher education to be effective is still rarely valued at research universities, and that faculty who take the time and effort to foster genuine two-way ties with practicing teachers suffer detrimental consequences to their careers.  Further, in a time of continued cuts to state support for higher education, it is exceptionally hard for university programs to build and scale the kinds of meaningful partnerships in local schools needed to prepare prospective teachers.  If we expect teacher education to provide excellent preparation, policy makers need to facilitate the necessary elements of that preparation.

Also, we need policy makers to consider the environment that they are pushing into our public schools.  Teaching is a time consuming and demanding profession even under ideal circumstances; increased demands upon teachers with no changes in their other work requirements serves as a disincentive to accept novices in their classrooms.  The impacts of state policies on teachers is no small matter.  In New Jersey, all teachers have to submit Student Growth Objectives as part of their annual evaluation, and while the early explanation of SGOs suggested a potentially valuable process of self examination with the support of administrators, the reality is a time consuming mess for which teachers have received little training and even less time.  Page 16 of the state distributed SGO Guidebook is a textbook case of instructing people to create meaningless tables that resemble statistical analysis but bear absolutely no resemblance to statistics done with any integrity.  Teachers in subjects that are tested in the PARCC consortium exams are also evaluated using Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) which have some advantage over value added models by being relatively stable but which are also statistically correlated with the percentage of children in poverty.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers sarcastically and correctly questions the validity of SGPs since they only seem to work if we assume that, somehow, the only truly effective teachers in the state of New Jersey ended up in wealthy school districts.

Given the demands to produce laborious yet meaningless statistical analyses of themselves and given the use of questionable measures of their teaching effectiveness via student test scores, it is perhaps miraculous that any teachers at all agree to work with inexperienced undergraduates in field placements and in student teaching.  However, we might all legitimately ask policy makers what conditions they envision enabling truly deep and risky work with novices in public schools?  Are teachers enabled with the time and support to mentor?  Are principals and other administrators given the chance to be instructional leaders who foster collaboration and professional growth?  Are there incentives and funding necessary to develop actual two-way collaboration between universities and schools?

Induction

The early career phase and its steep learning curve seems more and more like an abandoned concept in today’s policy environment, yet it remains critically important.  A simple reality is that regardless of the quality of teacher preparation, there is only just so much that can be done prior to actually teaching.  It is not that high quality programs do not prepare teachers more able to take on their full time responsibilities; it is that the mediated and supported environment of teacher education and mentored field experiences cannot fully replicate the reality of full time classroom teaching with the full range of both instructional responsibilities and demands to acculturate to a new school and community.  Teachers have been, traditionally, placed into their first classroom on the exact same footing as their experienced peers and expected to perform with only those supports either in place or absent from the schools in which they work.

This is no small matter because, far from the “crisis” of tenured teachers resting on their laurels as portrayed by anti-union activists like Campbell Brown, our schools face a far more serious problem with excessive turn over and the early exit of young teachers from the profession.  Richard Ingersoll demonstrates that teacher turnover is a significant phenomenon and a substantial factor in the need for new teachers each year.  Additional research by Dr. Ingersoll for the Alliance for Excellent Education calculates that the movement of teachers from one school to another and the replacement of teachers who leave the profession entirely costs upwards of $2.2 billion each year.  Dr. Helen Ladd of Duke University reports that in 2008, more than a quarter of our nation’s teachers had five years of experience or less, and that concentrations of teachers with limited experience are found in schools serving underprivileged children.  This is especially problematic given that teachers gain in effectiveness very rapidly in the early career with a general leveling off after 15 years of experience;  Dr. Ladd’s research found that teachers with that level of experience are generally twice as effective as teachers with only two years in the classroom.  Experienced teachers provide schools and students with other advantages as well, but the general point should be clear:  we can increase requirements on teacher preparation and upon graduates of teacher preparation all we want, but if the systemic ignoring of the early teaching career continues, those changes will yield nothing.

Researchers from Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers have found that working conditions are the strongest predictor of why teachers leave a given school or the profession.  Among the school climate elements that impact teacher turnover are the level of trust and support apparent in administration, higher levels of order denoted by matters like student absenteeism and respect, and collegiality in the form of strong support and rapport among teachers.  Further, the researchers note that while policy makers can try to impact these aspects of the school environment, they are unlikely to succeed without careful attention to capacity building in the schools and in the district and state offices that seek positive change.  For example, expanded and positive collegial interaction requires serious consideration of teaching schedules and administrative duties, so that they can focus upon planning and collaboration with colleagues and curriculum experts, practices that are implemented in higher performing countries.  This is not work that can be accomplished on the cheap by rewriting regulations; it needs funding and direct support.

While such initiatives would benefit teachers across the experience levels, special attention should be paid to teachers in the early stage of their career.  Before test based accountability dominated the school landscape, we had good evidence that school culture and climate mattered significantly for the success and retention of new teachers.  According to Susan M. Kardos and associates, schools that were characterized as having “integrated” professional cultures had a blend of experience levels among teachers and new teachers found high levels of support and sustain collaboration across experience levels that was supported by administrators.  In such schools, new teachers were not expected to be polished veterans and found serious efforts taken to provide them with appropriate mentors and to regard them as learning and developing colleagues.  Making such environments work requires shared norms that are supported by administrators who work to provide the time and space necessary for productive collaboration across different experience levels of teachers with an expressed goal of improving teaching and learning.

While inspired leadership can build such environments, policy makers can assist by taking the induction period seriously and by seeing that mentoring of new teachers is not a haphazard add on to teachers’ existing work.  Feiman-Nemser makes clear that induction of new teachers will happen whether or not it is designed by policy because regardless of the quality of their preparation, new teachers must undertake the following tasks in their early career: gaining local knowledge of students, curriculum, and school context, designing responsive curriculum and instruction, enacting a beginning repertoire in purposeful ways, creating a classroom learning community, developing a professional identity, and learning in and from practice.  While quality teacher preparation can lay the groundwork for all of these tasks, they must be implemented within a specific school and community context for a new teacher to be successful, and that process can either be left to chance or policy can seek to increase the number of fruitful contexts for induction so novices are not left to rely upon luck for their specific needs to be recognized and addressed.

Formalizing induction can take different approaches, and policy makers need to carefully consider how they wish to support the matter.  Feiman-Nemser observes that promising induction policies seek mentors for new teachers who are appropriate given the context and people involved and allow reduced teaching loads so that novices and mentors can actually collaborate.  Strong induction programs also allow for novice development over a period of time, so policy should not confine mentoring and support to just the first year of teaching.  Mentors provide genuine and constructive feedback aimed at improving novice practice, and schools and districts provide regular development specific to the needs of novice teachers.  Effective mentoring and induction also embraces the dual role of assistance and assessment of novices, so mentors cannot simply confine themselves to a cheer leading role; their practice has to come with tools and dispositions aimed at improving novice teaching.  Just as we recognize that the very best students are not always destined to become the very best teachers, we recognize that the very best teachers are not always well-suited for mentoring.  Novices need “caring and competent mentors” who are well prepared for their role and given training to understand how to teach teachers.  Under ideal circumstances, the mentoring process is two way as mentor teachers, in the process of supporting and teaching novices, sharpen their abilities to observe, analyze, collaborate, assess, coach and other skills important to their improvement of teachers and schools.

It must be noted again that such work and policy does not come without cost.  Schools and districts coping with decreased state spending on education, are unlikely to afford resource and personnel intensive policies on their own.  If districts can find additional funding, it seems likely they will use it to make up for cuts to programs previously supported by the state (In New Jersey, for example, over 11,000 vulnerable students lost access to after school programs between the hours of 3 and 6pm in the 2011 budget cuts).  However, if policy makers are serious about the need for high quality teachers, and if they see the threats to teacher quality and student learning inherent in early career turnover, then they must consider legitimate efforts to create early career induction and mentoring within integrated professional cultures as the norm rather than as lucky exceptions.

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Policy makers have to consider the kinds of school environments their efforts have developed.  Just as teacher stress and job dissatisfaction are serious impediments to recruiting prospective teachers to the field, and just as evaluation requirements that force teachers to create meaningless reports of their teaching and to increase the amount of time spent on test preparation stand in the way of experienced teachers opening their classrooms to novices, those same policies are inherent barriers to instituting deliberate policies of mentoring and induction.  Test based accountability and evaluation tasks with little inherent legitimacy but high time commitments are distorting elements in today’s schools.  They absorb time and priority from even the very best teachers in our schools, and they given nothing of value in return.  Worse, they serve as a disincentive for teachers who would be genuinely accomplished mentors of preservice and early career teachers to even consider taking on the role.

Policy needs a serious realignment to consider what practices can be instituted that would shift accountability from a test and punish focus and into a support and growth focus when it comes to teacher quality.  Recruitment of students into teacher preparation can only happen in an environment when the actual rewards of teaching are evident.  Most teachers would be unlikely to turn down an offer of better salaries across the board, but by overwhelming margins, teachers want to be able to work for the best of their students and they want more time and resources to do that well.  Current policies in most jurisdictions simply pile more work on teachers with fewer resources and demand growth in test scores as the main indicator of success.

Higher demands on teacher education are not made in a vacuum.  It may be defensible to seek higher entrance requirements into teacher education and to call for more work in the field by teacher candidates, but the development of genuinely quality partnerships between schools and universities is resource and time intensive work that is difficult to accomplish simply by fiat from state capitols.  Capacity must be built at all levels of the system, and resources in the form of money and development time have to be built into the changes for work to be genuinely meaningful.  Further, experienced teachers, even those disposed to mentoring, cannot be fairly expected to participate in increased responsibilities for teacher education under current circumstances.

In the era of test based accountability, little attention has been given to the needs of novice teachers during their induction period, and that has continued the long standing and increasingly unsustainable churn in early career teaching.  Our schools lose both money and valuable experience as the unique needs in induction remain met only by haphazard circumstance rather than by a systemic focus on novices as learners, colleagues as mentors, and teachers as growing throughout their careers.  While school climate cannot be commanded from afar, policy makers ignore the circumstances that they incentivize at the peril of both teachers and students.  Induction of novice teachers will happen whether we attend to it or not, and failing to do so in any systemic way perpetuates the current “system” that has no focus or operating principles.

Becoming a teacher is frequently a lengthy journey.  Our future teachers are in our public schools right now forming their earliest, and sometimes most enduring, ideals about what purposes are served by public education and what the work of teaching and learning entails.  This time period is absolutely essential to the formation of their sense of vocation and commitment to the best ideals of education.  Entry into teacher preparation, in many senses, begins with the first desire to be like a child’s favorite teacher, but the path laid before that prospective teacher is one within the influence of policy.  If we want that path to be both effective and purposeful, then we need to understand it and use policy to enable its best possibilities.

References:

Alexander, F. (2014, April 21). What Teachers Really Want. The WashingtoN Post. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/21/what-teachers-really-want/

Alliance for Excellent Education (2014). On the path to equity: Improving the effectiveness of beginning teachers. Washington, DC: Mariana Haynes.

Baker, B. (2014, January 30). An Update on New Jersey’s SGPs: Year 2 – Still not valid! Retrieved April 19, 2015, from https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/an-update-on-new-jerseys-sgps-year-2-still-not-valid/

Berliner, D. (2000). A Personal Response to Those Who Bash Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(5), 358-371.

Cawelti, G. (2006). The Side Effects of NCLB. Educational Leadership, 64(3), 64-68.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). How Teacher Education Matters. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(3), 166-173.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2013, June 18). Why The NCTQ Teacher Prep Rating Are Nonsense. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/06/18/why-the-nctq-teacher-prep-ratings-are-nonsense/

Day, T. (2005). Teachers’ Craft Knowledge: A Constant in Times of Change? Irish Educational Studies, 24(1), 21-30.

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). From Preparation to Practice: Designing a Continuum to Strengthen and Sustain Teaching. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 1013-1055.

Fenstermacher, G.D. (1999). Teaching on both sides of the classroom door. In K.A. Sirotnik & R. Soder (Eds.), The beat of a different drummer: Essays on educational renewal in honor of John Goodlad (pp. 186-196). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Greene, M. (1978). Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality. Teachers College Record, 80(1), 22-35. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=1080

Hadley Dunn, A. (2014, August 3). Fact-Checking Campbell Brown: What she said, what research really shows. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/08/03/fact-checking-campbell-brown-what-she-said-what-research-really-shows/

Hansen, D. (1994). Teaching and the Sense of Vocation. Educational Theory, 44(3), 259-275.

Hargreaves, A. (2009). Presentism, Conservatism, and Individualism: The Legacy of Dan Lortie’s “Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study” Curriculum Inquiry, 40(1), 143-155.

Ingersoll, R. (2001). Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 38(3), 499-534.

Johnson, N., Oliff, P., & Williams, E. (2011, February 9). Update on State Budget Cuts. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=1214

Kardos, S., Moore Johnson, S., Peske, H., Kauffman, D., & Liu, E. (2001). Counting of Colleagues: New Teachers Encounter the Professional Cultures of Their Schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 37(2), 250-290.

Katz, D. (2015, March 27). Does Anyone in Education Reform Care If Teaching is a Profession? Retrieved April 19, 2015, from https://danielskatz.net/2015/03/27/does-anyone-in-education-reform-care-if-teaching-is-a-profession/.

Ladd, H. (2013, November 24). How Do We Stop the Revolving Door of New Teachers? Atlanta Journal Constitution. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.ajc.com/weblogs/get-schooled/2013/nov/24/how-do-we-stop-revolving-door-new-teachers/

Leachman, M., & Mai, C. (2014, May 20). Most State Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=4011

Lortie, D. (2002). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McGuire, K. (2015, February 23). As veteran teachers face more time demands, placing student teachers becomes more difficult. Star Tribune. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.startribune.com/local/west/293771361.html

MetLife, Inc. (2013). The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership. New York, NY: Harris Interaction. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/foundation/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2012.pdf.

Moore Johnson, S., Kraft, M., & Papay, J. (2012). How Context Matters in High Needs Schools: The Effects of Teachers’ Working Conditions on Their Professional Satisfaction and Their Students’ Achievement. Teachers College Record, 114(10), 1-39. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=16685.

Ravitch, D. (2014, March 24). How New Jersey is Trying to Break its Teachers. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/03/28/teacher-how-new-jersey-is-trying-to-break-its-teachers/

Sahlberg, P. (2015, March 31). Q: What Makes Finnish Teachers So Special? A: It’s Not Brains. The Guardian. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/31/finnish-teachers-special-train-teach

Sawchuck, S. (2014, October 21). Steep Drops Seen in Teacher-Prep Enrollment Numbers. Edweek. Retrieved April 19, 2015 from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/10/22/09enroll.h34.html.

Simon, N., Moore Johnson, S. (2013). Teacher Turnover in High Poverty Schools: What We Know and Can Do. (Working Paper: Project on the Next Generation of Teachers). Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1231814.files//Teacher%20Turnover%20in%20High-Poverty%20Schools.pdf.

Taylor, A. (2011, December 14). 26 Amazing Facts About Finland’s Unorthodox Education System. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.businessinsider.com/finland-education-school-2011-12#teachers-are-selected-from-the-top-10-of-graduates-19

Zeichner, K. (2010). Rethinking the Connections Between Campus Courses and Field Experiences in College- And University-Based Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), 89-99.

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Filed under Funding, NCLB, politics, schools, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Merryl Tisch Suggests Firing A Lot of Black and Hispanic Teachers

New York Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has been downplaying the potential negative consequences of sweeping changes to teacher tenure and evaluation in the new state budget.  On April 1st, she commented that the new system does not specifically say that test scores make up 50% of teacher evaluations and suggested that concerns over the weight given to tests was overblown.  Dr. Tisch is technically correct which, as we all know, is the best kind of correct.  The new evaluation law does not say scores are 50% and it leaves various weighting decisions to the Regents and the NYSED.  However, the scoring matrix, which is in the law, has two axes, one of which is for test scores.  I can count really well up to two, and it is fairly obvious the tests, as one axis out of two, are 50% of the evaluation (not to mention that both axes determine the outcome in the matrix roughly equally).

Dr. Tisch was back in the press this morning, suggesting that she thinks the new evaluation system should potentially be lifted from districts that have had strong records of student achievement.  The upshot is that if a district has high graduation and college acceptance rates and strong “college readiness” (aka test scores), they could be freed from state regulations and allowed to craft their own evaluation and accountability systems within certain parameters.  Dr. Tisch suggested that such changes could come from the Commissioner’s regulatory power, but she would also consider asking legislators to make amendments to the newly passed system allowing these changes.  In her view, such changes in favor of high performing districts would “…give them the respect that they deserve for the job that they do, and let us turn our attention, our scarce resources and our capacity to the districts that really need us in terms of access and opportunity for students.”

It would also mean many fewer African American and Latino teachers would ever get tenure and many more of them would be fired.

Now I am not suggesting that Chancellor Tisch actually hopes to do this, but there are consequences to not thinking things through in policy.  Exempting districts with records of high achievement from the new evaluation requirements would place a significantly heavier burden on teachers of color and result in their removal at disproportionate percentages.  The reason for this is fairly simple: just as our communities and schools are segregated by race and income, so are our teachers.  In New York State, 9.8% of teachers are Hispanic and 8.6% are African American.  These numbers are not, however, even distributed across the state.  In New York City, for example, African American teachers make up 19.6% of all teachers and Hispanic teachers are 14.4% of all teachers.  The numbers shoot up when you are talking about schools with a high percentage of students in poverty:

Teachers by race and poverty

Now we are talking about schools where 25.2% of the teachers are African American and 23.7% are Hispanic, while in schools that are low poverty, those numbers are only 12% and 8.2% respectively.  That means of the roughly 21,000 African American teachers and the roughly 24,000 Hispanic teachers in the state of New York, 5,275 of the African American teachers and 4,961 of the Hispanic teachers work in high poverty schools in the city of New York alone.

Given the long known impact of poverty on school performance, it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science (or even a doctorate in education from Teachers College) to understand that schools with higher concentrations of poverty are going to be schools where more students struggle to demonstrate annual progress on standardized tests and that the teachers who teach them will have similar trouble demonstrating their “value added” to those test scores as required in the new evaluation.  What percentage of new African American and Hispanic teachers in New York will struggle to and ultimately fail to reach “effective” for three out of four years in the new tenure process?  What percentage of their more experienced colleagues will fluctuate between “ineffective” and “developing” because the lack of statistical validity given to one axis of the new evaluation matrix?  How many schools with high concentrations of poor children and faculty who are disproportionately African American and Hispanic will be forced to sacrifice social studies, science, art, music, and health education in favor of mimicking the teaching practices of charter schools who emphasize test preparation for months of the school year?

Looking for a way to allow high income districts with good test scores to avoid the new evaluations might be a politically savvy move to allay growing discontent among outspoken parents.  But it will also end up kicking teachers of color and their students right in the teeth as they, already hard pressed by test based accountability, will be the only ones to bear the full brunt of the new system.

The sad part is that Dr. Tisch is not entirely wrong, but her statement demonstrates only a minor understanding of how to use data to leverage system wide change.  She suggests that relieving high performing districts would allow the NYSED to focus its efforts and resources on struggling districts, but she has not offered any insight into how that would work as a system that focuses on support and growth rather than on test and punish.  It is possible to use system wide data to identify schools and school systems that can have greater autonomy, but the policy should be wedded to increasing resources and support within schools that struggle with the understanding that the vast majority of teachers want to do well by their students and that a great many are doing precisely that even if it is not captured on one test.  Instituting a continuous improvement policy takes time and patience and resources — things for which Dr. Tisch has not recently demonstrated patience.

So I have to ask the Chancellor: If you uncouple wealthy districts from the new accountability system will you simultaneously implement a vastly different perspective for our struggling school districts with high levels of poverty? Will you embrace a support and growth model of system wide change and work to find ways to de-emphasize test and punish?  Because if you do not, the end result of your suggestions will simply be to subject schools with a majority of poor students and high percentages of African American and Hispanic teachers to the kind of churn and burn faculty turnover that we tend to see in many urban charter schools while leaving teachers and students in the majority white suburbs largely untouched.

That cannot possibly be what you want — right, Dr. Tisch?

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Filed under New York Board of Regents, teacher learning, Testing

When “Evaluation” Means “Ruin Teaching”

Observers of the budget negotiation process in Albany, N.Y. had some reasons to be hopeful over the past week.  Various reports indicated that the new Assembly Speaker, Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, was holding firm against various education proposals from Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Backed by polling showing the public in New York dead set against the Governor’s proposals by wide margins, it looked like much of the education agenda laid out in the January budget address was at risk.  And early reports from Sunday suggested that the Assembly representatives secured significant increases in education aid and managed to trim a number of the worst proposals from the budget framework.  An aid increase between $1.4-$1.6 billion dollars is in the agreement, and Governor Cuomo’s plans to lift the charter school cap and provide a new tax credit for donations to private schools are both absent from the framework.

Teacher evaluations and tenure, however, remained problematic.  The evaluation agreement still relies upon standardized testing, outside evaluations, and principal evaluations, but at unspecified weightings.  In a tenure process extended to four years, new teachers would have to have three years rated as “effective” to earn tenure, and teachers earning “ineffective” in consecutive years would face an expedited removal process of 90 days.  Reports of these proposals reaching the budget framework obviously concerned those hoping for relief from test based accountability and an evaluation process that recognized the mounting evidence against value-added models of teacher effectiveness based on standardized tests.

Oh, what a difference 12 hours has made.

Not only are the evaluation proposals worse than originally feared, but also the desperately needed increase in school aid is contingent upon cities and towns adopting the evaluation framework and having it approved by Albany before November.  According to the Capital New York report, Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner explained the following details of the agreed upon evaluation framework in the budget negotiation:

  • Increase in state aid will not happen if a district fails to submit a new evaluation and have it approved by November 15th.
  • Tenure will be extended to a four year process, and a probationary teacher must have an “effective” or better rating for three of those four years.  A rating of “ineffective” in the fourth year will deny tenure.
  • The state Education Department will be tasked with creating a “matrix” based upon test scores, outside evaluators, and principal evaluations; districts may request an additional state examination to be developed by the NYSED, but it is unclear how many districts would want more testing in the current environment.

These conditions were on top of earlier reports that stated that the evaluation system would be designed so that a teacher who is found “ineffective” based on the testing portion of the matrix will not be able to be rated higher than “developing” overall regardless of the observation scores.  In essence, the state Education Department has until June to craft a teacher evaluation system where test scores will govern whether or not a teacher can be rated “effective,” and districts have until November to submit their plans to implement such a system or they will receive none of the budgeted aid increase.

This is not a plan to strengthen teaching.  This is a plan to use test scores to severely curtail the teaching profession in the state of New York.

The reasons not to use value-added models for teacher evaluation are numerous, but the most important ones are:

  1. Teacher input on the differences among student test scores is too low and the models used to locate that input are not reliable enough to be used to evaluate individual teachers.  This is the judgement of the American Statistical Association whose statement on using value-added models makes it clear the models have very large standard errors that make ranking teachers by them unstable.
  2. The instability of VAMs is considerable, and teachers who are deemed “irreplaceable” because of a VAM ranking in one year can be ranked very differently in subsequent years.
  3. Even teachers who are known to be excellent and teach advanced students can be found “ineffective” by VAM ranking.  Working in an excellent school with highly privileged students who score extremely well on tests is not a guarantee of an effective VAM ranking.
  4. Teachers who score well on VAM ranking do not necessarily score well when their students are tested on measures of critical thinking, suggesting that VAMs do a poor job of finding out which teachers are actually promoting meaningful learning with their students.

What possible outcome will be the result of the teacher evaluation proposals in Albany?  For starters, it will not only be much more difficult to obtain tenure, it may become impossible without converting significant portions of the curriculum into test preparation.  If teachers are held to a top ranking of “developing” if the test based portion of the evaluation is “ineffective” then it is distressingly possible that many new teachers will not be able to reach “effective” or better for three out of four years, and it will be through no fault of their own given the problems with VAM derived rankings.  Just as the No Child Left Behind act resulted in a narrowed curriculum due to pressure from high stakes testing, New York is poised to exacerbate that problem, and parents can expect their children to spend fewer hours with social studies, science, art, music, health, and physical education.  The final results of the budget negotiation may not be as bad as Governor Cuomo initially proposed, but there is still a hefty dose of poison in it that threatens to increase the replacement of our schools’ curricula with testing while gaining no actual improvement in the teacher workforce.

Noticeably absent from anyone in Albany who professes to care about the quality of teachers in the Empire State?  Support.  Meaningful professional development and education.  Mentoring and induction proposals.  While there is no “one size fits all” in helping teachers grow in their jobs, there are general principles that matter.  The Albany budget negotiations offer no support for schools to improve their working conditions and general environment, factors that research shows have impact on both teacher satisfaction and student learning independent of demographics of the school.  Supporting principals in being genuine instructional leaders within their schools and providing teachers with real opportunities to collaborate and to lead across experience levels would do far more to substantively improve student achievement than hanging yet one more Sword of Damocles over teachers’ heads.  Doing so would require an actual investment of funds and resources not tied to blackmail demands.

That might be a novel approach for Albany these days, but it is the only one that is right.

New York Assembly members can be found and contacted from this page.  Members of the Senate can be found here.  The New York State Allies for Public Education has a list of the important leaders’ offices here.  Every phone call, email, and Tweet makes a statement.

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Filed under Corruption, Funding, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Does Anyone in Education Reform Care If Teaching is a Profession?

Bob Braun, retired veteran reporter for the New jersey Star Ledger and current independent blogger, reported earlier this month that state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson announced that Newark teachers seeking graduate education would only get district stipends if they did all of their study at the Relay “Graduate School of Education.”  For those who are unfamiliar, Relay “Graduate School of Education” was singled out as an innovator by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last November, but it is a “Graduate School of Education” that has not a single professor or doctoral level instructor or researcher affiliated with it.  In essence, it is a partnership of charter school chains Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, and it is housed in the Uncommon Schools affiliated North Star Academy.  Relay’s “curriculum” mostly consists of taking the non-certified faculty of the charter schools, giving them computer delivered modules on classroom management (and distributing copies of Teach Like a Champion), and placing them under the auspices of the “no excuses” brand of charter school operation and teachers who already have experience with it.

In the case of North Star Academy in Newark, that means that the teachers who earn certification through Relay “Graduate School of Education” will have “instructors” who meet state requirements for faculty degrees by the school claiming “equivalency” because they are such amazing teachers who get amazing results.  In Relay’s words that is “the equivalent of the leading entrepreneur teaching in MBA programs or the leading writers and artists teaching in MFA programs.”  That’s quite a lofty claim, especially when Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has demonstrated (repeatedly) that the “awesome” results of North Star are deeply connected to how the school has many fewer students with high needs due to poverty, language, or disabilities issues, how it suspends students at rates much higher than district schools, and how an African American male who enrolls in 5th grade has only a 40% chance to staying at the school until 12th grade.

So, there you have it: a “Graduate School of Education” without a single professor of education, offering teacher certification and degrees to the employees of the charter school in which it is housed, specializing in a curriculum that emphasizes teaching and discipline strategies that successfully drive away more than half the students whose families deliberately sought out the school in the first place. And THIS will be the sole provider of compensated continuing education for all of the teachers in the Newark Public Schools.

sheldon-throwspapers

What makes the embrace of Relay “Graduate School of Education” in Newark, Trenton, and Washington D.C. so frustrating is that university-based teacher preparation continues to have the standards for our graduates raised by the very same entities that think Relay should be allowed to call itself a graduate school and confer certification and degrees.  Trenton, in particular, is barreling ahead with proposed revisions to teacher certification rules that university-based programs will need to adhere to whether or not there is evidence that they will result in better teachers.  Currently, the young people who wish to become teachers must meet entrance criteria upon matriculating at our school.  Once in they must maintain a minimum GPA to take classes in their education major.  In addition to a full major in education courses, they must have a major in a content field within the College of Arts and Sciences, and they must take additional coursework in a liberal arts core to fulfill both university requirements and state requirements of a minimum number of credits in liberal arts courses.  Our program has extensive field work prior to student teaching that go beyond current state requirements that our students must coordinate with their full time class schedule.  The state also requires that all students seeking certification pass Praxis II examinations.  Various changes to the code requirements are under consideration in Trenton, all of which will make it more difficult for people to seek certification at universities.  Entrance requirements may be increased, or potential students can demonstrate “readiness” to begin their studies with another standardized exam.  The state is considering requiring what would amount to a year-long student teaching experience, and the next version of the state code will almost certainly require teacher candidates to submit a performance assessment to the state which, for all intents and purposes, will require most universities to adopt Pearson’s EdTPA assessment.

All of this probably sounds great if you agree uncritically with self appointed teacher quality watchdog, National Council on Teacher Quality, that declared teacher preparation an “industry of mediocrity” in a report so exhaustively researched that they failed to visit a single university campus and gleaned most of their quality “data” from online catalogs and program descriptions.  For more cautious observers, changes like these might be intriguing, but they come with questions and trade offs.  The biggest question is whether there is any evidence at all that trimming the available corps of potential teachers entering preparation and then holding those who make it in to more rigorous benchmarks will result in better learning in their eventual classrooms.  Critics of traditional teacher preparation often criticize the academic caliber of students entering teacher preparation without noting a very obvious point: if being the best student was absolutely essential to being the best teacher, then the nation’s professoriate would enjoy a much better reputation for teaching skills.

However, even beyond the question of evidence, advocates for increasing requirements on traditional teacher preparation need to acknowledge there are trade offs for increasing standards and requirements this way. Increasing the necessary test scores for entry into a program means that certain populations of students may not be able to even begin teacher preparation and prove their ability in a timely fashion and be effectively locked out of undergraduate study in the field (you can have one guess about from which communities most students who might not meet this hurdle would likely come).  A full year in the classroom for student teaching is an appealing idea  — that comes with massive logistical challenges for students trying to get all of their coursework completed in just 4 years and might make undergraduate preparation unworkable for transfer students and community college graduates.  A state required performance assessment is an idea worth exploring, but with indications that the state is willing to simply farm this out of a major testing corporation at a cost of $300 out of pocket for students, there should be a robust debate on the instrument itself and the ethics of tying up another certification requirement with a corporate revenue stream.

Assuming these issues could be resolved favorably and equitably, there is another issue to consider.  Current conditions and proposed changes all appear aimed at trying to ensure that high caliber students and high caliber students only enter and make it through traditional teacher preparation.  That goal might be defensible, but what, exactly, is Trenton, or any other state capitol for that matter, doing to make teaching an attractive prospect for such high caliber students?  Chris Christie breaking his own pension reform obligations probably isn’t a big incentive.  Despite claims to the contrary, New Jersey teacher salaries are not comparable to other professionals with similar education levels.  In my 22 years in education and higher education, I have yet to meet a single teacher who thinks the distorting stakes attached to current high stakes examinations would be a job perk.  The callous havoc unleashed upon school districts under state control by Trenton appointed superintendents cannot make many of the state’s best and brightest want to work in urban schools.  While Governor Chris Christie has not yet traveled to the New Jersey Education Association annual meeting in Atlantic City to personally beat up a teacher on the boardwalk, he has yelled at several of the state’s teachers in person and accused them of using students “like drug mules” for a Project Democracy assignment near school elections.  All of this is certainly going to entice New Jersey’s best students to accrue debt and work hard to enter a profession held in such esteem by the highest offices in the state:

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers' Public Esteem Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

The disconnect between allowing Relay “school” to operate while placing these requirements on traditional programs and leveling this much disrespect upon working teachers is staggering.  To a degree, those of us in academic teacher preparation have ourselves to blame for some of this.  As the first wave of the “failing schools narrative” took shape with the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, numerous reports and proposals were released that focused upon “professionalizing” the field of teaching, conjuring a future where the teacher workforce more closely resembled higher status professions in career trajectory and in clinical preparation.  While the wholesale transformation never happened, the clinical preparation ideology is well entrenched within different teaching standards, accreditation organizations, and among no small share of teacher educators themselves, and David Labaree of Stanford University noted in the early nineties that this focus emphasized teaching as a technical, rational, activity and potentially shut out public input the way medical fields protect their specialized knowledge.  Indeed, by accepting wide swaths of the teaching as technical/rational viewpoint, teacher education has limited the role of powerful visions of teacher development that embrace all of teaching’s complexities and, as Ruth Vinz wrote, begin “to look behind the act, the formula, the answers to the causes, conditions, and contexts.”  We have, in fact, participated in portraying teaching as technical practice whose most important aspects are measurable, so it is little wonder that policy makers are hurling a runaway train through that opening.

However, given the promotion of Relay “Graduate School of Education” and given the continuous disrespect and degradation of working conditions heaped upon teachers, I cannot accept that Trenton is really trying to elevate the profession — in either a technical manner or not.  Taken together, the current and proposed policy environment seems more geared towards greatly decreasing the number of teachers who obtain certificates via traditional teacher preparation while opening the door for many, many more to enter teaching via what amounts to on the job training without ever having studied for the job in the first place.  Trenton, intentionally or not, is engineering a shortage of teachers with credentials from undergraduate study, which will result in more schools like Relay “Graduate School of Education” being “needed” to fill in the gap by certifying their own employees.  Those who survive the “churn and burn” for which charter schools are famous would have state issued credentials to move on to fully public schools.

Or perhaps they won’t.  I find it hard to believe that today’s education “reformers” really believe that teaching is a profession at all.  If they did, the pressure to make certain only top students enter university-based teacher preparation and then to make sure those students have rigorous preparation would be coupled with similar efforts to raise the attractiveness of teaching as a lifelong career.  Instead, reformers act as if they believe that teaching is something you do in your twenties when you are idealistic and want to “give something back”  — and then you move on to a “real career” in some other sector.  If your charter school bosses like you, perhaps they will make you a school principal before you are 30, or they will set you on a path to become Commissioner of Education for the state of New York when you are only 36 years old.  But mostly, they will thank you for a few years of service and see you off to your grown up life outside of education.  After all, reformers’ favorite schools — “no excuses” charters — manage to train their students into “little test taking machines” without very many career teachers, so why should reformers really value teachers who dedicate their entire adult lives to teaching?  That people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are dedicated and developing professionals who wish to remain in the classroom must seem like an amusing and quaint anachronism to them.

The teachers I know and work with are not laughing.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, teacher learning, Testing

A New Year’s Resolution for Ed “Reformers” — Remember Our Future Teachers Are In The Schools You Are “Reforming”

About five years back, I got my first impression that our older child might potentially decide to become a teacher.  It was during what I thought was going to be a game of “Hungry Hungry Hippos” which took quite an unexpected turn when our child took all of the marbles, placed them neatly in the center of the game, and told the hippos that they all had to “wait for snack time.”  Over time and with more time in school, other hints have cropped up such as an almost immediate affinity for any teacher at the head of the classroom, a willingness to respect norms of classroom behavior, an almost obsessive love of certain stories and storytelling, a fascination with explaining acquired knowledge to others, giddy excitement at the opportunity to do a presentation for students in a lower grade, and a certain flair for the theatrical.  While this same child is also a bit of a homework resister and not a fan of rote tasks, I can see aspects of a “born teacher” growing up (even though these same traits could apply to other fields).

This lines up well with what we know about how individual students make the decision to become teachers.  It is not a process that begins simply with a sudden decision to teach.  Rather, it unfolds over time during the some 13,000 hours that students spend in contact with classroom teachers from Kindergarten to 12th grade, a period that Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” in his 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.  Those who decide to teach have prolonged and substantial experiences with people practicing their chosen profession over the course of 13 years, and many potential teachers wish to teach because they, themselves, enjoyed being taught.  They found the study of subjects and school itself to be enjoyable.  While many of the ideas about what teaching actually is that are formed during this observational period are simplistic and need to be challenged both in teacher preparation and throughout the career, it remains true that school is the most active recruiter of future teachers.  If my older child does decide to become a teacher, like most others who choose the field, it will be out of a desire to share with future generations of students a love of learning and to make their school experiences enjoyable, joyous, and inspirational as well.

That is, if Governor Andrew Cuomo and Board of Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch manage to not ruin New York’s schools first.

That statement is not made even a little bit tongue in cheek because both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch have made it abundantly clear in the past month that their dissatisfaction with New York teacher evaluations will not go unanswered and their likely “solution” will unleash a torrent of perverse incentives upon our schools.  Andrew Cuomo signaled his intentions to make teacher evaluations more “rigorous” just before the election with newspaper interviews and public statements.  The process was set in motion last month with a letter from Jim Malatras, director of state operations, to Dr. Tisch and outgoing New York State Education Department Commissioner Dr. John King.  The letter opens with the now familiar refrain that the new Common Core aligned state examinations are showing far too few of graduating seniors being “college ready” (even though the proficiency levels, which were set with cut scores pinned to the SAT scores of successful college freshmen, slightly exceed the percentage of New Yorkers over 25 with a bachelor’s degree), and then laments about the unacceptability of the situation.  Teacher and blogger Peter Greene nearly dissects the letter in this post, and among its many facets is a clear desire to make it far easier to get rid of teachers and to increase the number of teachers found ineffective and thus able to be removed from the classroom.

On December 29th, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill his office had originally drafted that would have given teachers a two year grace period from the new exams being used to remove them from the classroom, a move that starkly reversed his pre-election promises to give the new systems more time to be understood.  Questioned on his change of course, the governor raised the irrelevant specter of child abusers remaining in the classroom, “I understand the union’s issue; they don’t want anyone fired,” Cuomo said. “But we have teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom.”  He did not explain himself with any specific cases of teachers actually found guilty of sexual abuse still teaching, nor did he explain how tying more of teachers’ evaluations to student test scores will get abusers out of schools faster, but he did join both Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown in trying to scare people into endorsing radical changes to teachers’ workplace protections.

Dr. Tisch responded to Mr. Malatras’ letter with her own set of priorities to tie far more of teachers’ evaluations directly to student progress in the state examinations and possibly eliminating local measures of teacher effectiveness altogether.  2013 New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris explains in this article what Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo appear to be proposing:

The system she wants to change is one that she created several years ago with former education commissioner John King, which was put into law by the New York Legislature and that was rushed into place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who denied districts state aid if they did not adopt it. It became mandatory for teachers and principals to be evaluated in part by student standardized test scores.

The short version of what she wants to do now is this—double down on test scores and strip away the power of local school boards to negotiate the majority of the evaluation plan. Tisch would get rid of the locally selected measures of achievement, which now comprise 20 percent of the evaluation, and double the state test score portion, to 40 percent. She also recommends that the score ranges for the observation process be taken out of the hands of local districts, and be determined by Albany instead.

Principal Burris further notes that Dr. Tisch appears intent on ensuring that the predicted growth of students on standardized tests be the supreme measure of teacher effectiveness, suggesting that teachers found ineffective by those measures be found ineffective overall and removed from the classroom after two such ratings.  Such a system would provide no room for a principal to protect a teacher known locally as both effective and valued by the community, as Principal Burris relates in the story of a teacher from Great Neck who would fall victim to Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo.  Given the growing understanding that value added measures (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness rely upon tests not designed to detect teacher input, are highly unstable, and cannot account for teacher impact on variability among student scores, it is quite apt that Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of Arizona State University and a leading researcher on value-added measures, described the proposal as going from “bad to idiotic.”

This aggressive move to double the value added portion of teacher evaluations and to override local measures in favor of standardized tests is bad for teachers, and it is potentially even worse for students.  By doubling the state examination’s role, eliminating locally chosen measures, and potentially overriding any consideration other than the state examination, Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo are proposing a system where teachers would face strong incentives to push test preparation into a central role in the curriculum.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor Schools in Washington, D.C. demonstrated the not excusable but entirely predictable results of tying people’s job security to capriciously unstable measures of their effectiveness.  Less drastic, but potentially more widely damaging for more students, is the evidence that raising the stakes on standardized tests to these extremes will result in an even narrower curriculum than under the original No Child Left Behind provisions which have already reduced time spent on non-tested content and increased teacher centered instruction.  In New York State this will be compounded by the constant gaming of state aid from the Cuomo administration that has coincided with increased demands on districts, especially struggling districts, to perform at higher levels.

It takes no powers of prognostication to see where New York schools are headed if the Governor and Chancellor get their way.

John I. Goodlad, a giant in education research in the second half of the 20th century, passed away at the age of 94 on November 29th of last year.  In his 1984 book, A Place Called School, he asked, “Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions. … Why are our schools not places of joy?”  The Cuomo/Tisch goals for teacher evaluation are almost guaranteed to drive a huge amount of joy right out of our schools alongside art, music, civics, and health.  Teachers and students will have less room to explore, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and shared purposes for education outside of test performance will be even further diminished.

And this is where education “reformers” need to think especially carefully because it is not just the schools of today that they are impacting.  Children in Kindergarten today were born in 2009.  Several 100 thousand of them will likely be first year teachers by the year 2031-2032, and the kinds of teachers they will become will be greatly influenced by what school is like for them between now and their graduation from high school as the class of 2027.  Will their schools be places of extreme test preparation, didactic instruction, and a curriculum that is narrowed by the parameters of tests?  Will these future teachers learn that school is supposed to be emulate even a fraction of the stress and narrowness of the Chinese cram school portrayed in this recent New York Times Magazine? Will there be joy?  And if not, what kinds of future teachers will emerge from those schools to teach the generations behind them?

So, education “reformers” — a New Year’s Resolution for you just as America’s teachers are returning for the second half of the year: The next generation of teachers are currently in the schools that you are reforming. Resolve not to wipe out the joy.

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Filed under schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Bride of VAMenstein: No Bad Idea Gets Left Behind

When I was much younger, my grandfather, a carpenter and engineer, had an expression he was fond of saying whenever we drove through a particularly poorly designed intersection or highway interchange.  He’d grunt in disgust and comment, “Whoever built this should do the world a favor.  Design ONE more and then drop dead.”

There are times when I’d like the economists who keep insisting they can design value added models of teacher effectiveness to consider following the same advice.

On November 25th, the U.S. Department of Education released newly proposed regulations for teacher preparation in the over 1200 programs that exist across the country.  The press release stated:

“It has long been clear that as a nation, we could do a far better job of preparing teachers for the classroom. It’s not just something that studies show – I hear it in my conversations with teachers, principals and parents,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “New teachers want to do a great job for their kids, but often, they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much for themselves. Teachers deserve better, and our students do too. This proposal, along with our other key initiatives in supporting flexibility, equity and leadership, will help get us closer to President Obama’s goal of putting a great teacher in every classroom, and especially in our high-need schools.”

This is not a new subject for research and policy speculation.  In 1984, Judith Lanier of Michigan State University contributed a comprehensive chapter on teacher education for the 3rd Handbook of Research on Teaching.  Dr. Lanier concluded that while many spoke of the importance of teacher preparation, there were no entities willing to take robust authority for making sure its many parts worked, and that its quality remained highly spotty and often quite poor.  Since then, there have been numerous proposals to change and improve teacher preparation from the Holmes Group Reports, to the Carnegie report on teacher preparation, to John Goodlad’s proposals for preparing teachers, to the original report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.  In the 30 years since Dr. Lanier wrote her chapter, there have been numerous proposals, programs, and practices that have worked upon teacher preparation in the United States.

Now it is the turn of the Data Junkies.

The DOE announcement says states will be required to report on the performance of teacher preparation programs based upon the following:

  • Employment outcomes: New teacher placement and three-year retention rates in high-need schools and in all schools.
  • New teacher and employer feedback: Surveys on the effectiveness of preparation.
  • Student learning outcomes: Impact of new teachers as measured by student growth, teacher evaluation, or both.
  • Assurance of specialized accreditation or evidence that a program produces high-quality candidates.

Some of this is benign, some of it is deceptive, and some of it is rank foolishness.  The fact that Secretary Duncan’s statement specifically cited Relay “Graduate School of Education” as an example of an innovation in teacher preparation to be held up does not lead me to a great deal of confidence.  Relay, for those who do not know, is a teacher training “graduate school” that has no actual professors of education and is not attached to an institution of higher learning.  Rather, it is an alternative program housed in North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ using its own teachers to train new hires in the methods of teaching used in North Star and allowing them both to be credentialed and to “earn” graduate degrees.  Relay and its supporters defend this because the charter school has externally impressive scores on standardized tests, but those scores come, as Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University demonstrates, at the expense of more than half of the students who enroll at North Star – because they never make it to graduation.  North Star enrolls over 14% fewer students on free lunch than Newark Public Schools in general, less than half as many students with disabilities, and the students with disabilities at North Star are vastly more likely to be mild or low cost to the school, including no students with autism, no emotionally disturbed students, no intellectually disabled students, and no students with multiple disabilities.  Between 5th grade and 12th grade, half of students attending North Star leave the school, and 60% of African American boys leave.

Just to be clear: The Secretary of Education for the United States of America announced new teacher preparation regulations by praising the “innovation” of a “Graduate School of Education” that does no serious graduate study, has no qualified educational researchers, and that prepares its graduates to teach the methods espoused by a charter school where an African American male student only has a 40% chance of reaching his senior year of high school.

Components of these regulations are puzzling.  The DOE wants states to keep track of teacher retention rates, presumably because of the long known problem of early career teachers leaving both assignments or the profession in high numbers.  Such a requirement raises staggering logistical challenges, as states do not readily have ways to track the careers of teachers certified in their states who teach in other states, teachers who switch teaching in a public school for a position in a private or parochial school, and teachers who take up full time graduate studies — all of which are very different than leaving because of feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared.

More troubling, such data would be largely indicative of the professional cultures and environments of the schools in which teacher preparation graduates teach.  While teacher education has worked in the past three decades to provide prospective teachers with quality experiences to reduce the long recognized “reality shock” experienced by novice teachers, such work is frequently difficult, time and resource intensive, and requires significant rethinking of the relationship between universities and schools where prospective teachers are prepared.  However, significant research also exists that demonstrates that teacher turnover is deeply tied to school factors in initial job placements that are entirely outside university control.  In no place in these regulations on preparing teachers do I see anything related to how states and communities support the local schools to promote collaborative environments that support early career educators. What I do see is a potentially perverse incentive for teacher preparation programs to steer their graduates as far away from struggling schools as possible.

Worse than this provision by far, however, is the proposal to take the already invalid concept of Value Added Measures (VAM) of teacher performance and to use the VAMs of teachers to evaluate their teacher preparation programs.  A VAM is a statistical model based on student standardized test performance that takes a student’s previous year’s test scores, claims to predict how that student will perform given a year of effective teaching, and then generates the teacher’s “value added” based on how well students do based on those predictions.  The American Statistical Association issued a clearly worded statement this year detailing the problems with VAMs, citing both the lack of tests that are valid for the purpose and the very limited impact that teachers have on student variability on standardized test performance.  Research generally agrees that teachers are a very important if not the most important in school factor for students, but research also agrees whatever teachers’ impact is, standardized tests are an exceedingly poor measure of it, accounting for only 1-14% of student variability on the tests.

Despite these inherent flaws, VAMs remain highly popular with the federal DOE which has been influenced by the Gates Foundation funded “Measures of Effective Teaching” study which claims that VAMs can be used as a component of teacher evaluation.  Jesse Rothstein of University of California at Berkeley, however, notes that the data used to justify that claim is strikingly weak, and that teachers who are effective by some measures show up as ineffective by others and vice versa.  Dr. Baker of Rutgers illustrates here that teachers whose students score high in one year (called “Irreplaceables” by Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project “thought leaders”) are not all “irreplaceable” in subsequent years (and in fact most drift all over the map), making it absolutely necessary to consider that factors outside of the classroom play significant roles in student test performance. VAMs also potentially damage teachers whose students, far from being low performers, work at an accelerated curriculum that is several years past the material directly tested on the exams used to generate VAMs.  The New York Times reported in 2011 of the tribulations of Ms. Stacy Isaacson, who was universally regarded as an outstanding mathematics teacher whose students got excellent scores on state examinations and over two dozen of whom went on to New York City’s highly selective high schools, got ranked in the 7th percentile of teachers in the city by the VAM formula used that year:

NYC VAM

Ms. Isaacson’s low percentile could not be explained to her by anyone in her administration, and the fault lay at the opaque statistical formula used to rank her based on students’ tests.  Given the inherent flaws with VAMs, my explanation is as follows.  In the New York City Value Added Model, what is circled in this picture is a real number:

NYC VAMreal

Everything circled here is the result of misapplying statistical tools used to model entire national economies to a single teacher’s classrooms:

NYC VAMfake

Anyone who knows children and their development should be troubled by VAMs because in order to believe that they work with such small samples as a single teacher’s classroom, we have to believe that the VAM can adequately account for every factor outside of a teacher’s instruction that can impact how students do on a test.  Did Johnny get an Individualized Education Plan this year that finally provides support for his dyslexia?  Are Johnny’s parents reconciling after a period of separation and his home life is stabilizing?  Has Johnny’s cognitive development reached a point where he is ready for more complex learning and will outpace previous years of instruction because children do not actually develop in straight lines?  All of these are factors that can boost a teacher’s value added score without the teacher actually having done anything especially different for Johnny.  There are as many factors not directly related to a single teacher that can negatively impact a value added score.

So let’s review: Research supporting VAMs ignores its own contradictory research.  No current standardized test is sufficiently well designed for the purpose of generating VAMs. VAMs measure teacher input on student variability in standardized test scores which is as low as 1% and only as high as 14%.  Teachers whose students score in very high percentiles in one year can have students who score far differently in subsequent years. Teachers who are effective by every other measure possible can be placed in the very bottom tier of teachers using VAMs.  This is not the kind of stuff that inspires much confidence, but the federal DOE is going to push ahead anyway.

Have really terrible measures of teacher effectiveness on your hands?  Never mind!  If you are Secretary Duncan, you have Bill Gates backed research and advocacy, and seriously flawed “research” from Michelle Rhee’s pet group to tell you otherwise.  Full speed ahead.

Of course, if you are going to blatantly ignore what a growing body of genuine research tells you about your favored reforms, it stands to reason that you will double down on them and try to push them even further into the system by measuring teacher preparation programs by the VAMs their graduates generate.  There is a lesson here that Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and an entire platoon of corporate reformers seem incapable of learning, and it has to do with learning humility when beloved projects turn out to be far more complicated and fraught with failure than anticipated.

In the 1935 sequel “Bride of Frankenstein,” the badly wounded but recovering Henry Frankenstein initially renounces his creation but is forced by his former mentor, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, to assist a project creating a “bride” for the monster.  The monster is excited by the chance to have a companion like himself, but is quickly devastated by her immediate, terrified, rejection of him and destroys himself, Henry’s laboratory, Dr. Pretorius, and the bride, proving again that the power of life and death is not a toy to be trifled with.

I could save Secretary Duncan quite a lot of trouble if he’d just ask.

Well, that didn't go as planned, did it?

Well, that didn’t go as planned, did it?

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Filed under Gates Foundation, schools, teacher learning, Testing, VAMs

Wanted: A Slow Schools Movement

I invited a number of my department’s alumni back to campus this week for an informal panel discussion about our preparation program, their experiences as early career classroom teachers, and what we can do to improve the experiences of our current undergraduates.  It was a fantastic evening, largely because the young people with whom I had been impressed when they were here remain an impressive group of early career teachers.  They had many insights about knowledge, both practical and theoretical, that would have aided them even more as they began their careers, and myself and my colleagues have been similarly considering several of those ideas as we engage in our constant work of program assessment and renewal.  Beyond those ideas, however, a consistent theme seemed to emerge from our conversation:

Schools today need to slow down.

Our graduates told us of their experiences with phenomena that we know about and that we have observed in schools during field visits and from regular discussions with teachers in partner schools.  However, we have never directly experienced those changes as teachers in the classrooms effected by them.  They spoke of having to create and measure “Student Growth Outcomes” with no practice, no training in creating statistical measurements, and no release time to do analysis.  They spoke of rapid changes with little time to adapt, and they spoke about constantly shifting technology demands made upon their teaching and their record keeping/administrative tasks.  They spoke about the changing nature of the young people entering their classrooms, many of whom have grown up in a world of information that constantly streams into their hands with few opportunities to truly comprehend and analyze that information and with few adults who truly understand the technology’s strengths and pitfalls — even while they demand that teachers find ways to use them productively in the classroom.

As our alumni spoke about these issues, one overarching description of their work lives became clear to me: hurried.  It is not that teachers have ever felt entirely relaxed in the profession.  In his 1975 book, “School Teacher: A Sociological Study,” Dan Lortie (1975) notes that feeling pressed for time because of constant demands from outside of the classroom is a common complaint among teachers:

“First, we can think of time as the single most important, general resource teachers possess in their quest for productivity and psychic reward; ineffective allocations of time are costly. Second, from one perspective teaching processes are ultimately interminable; one can never strictly say that one has “finished” teaching students. At what point has one taught every student everything he might possibly learn about the curriculum?  More broadly, when can one feel that one has taught everything that any particular student should learn? The theme of concern about incompleteness ran throughout the interviews; unfortunately, it occurred in various places, making systematic collation next to impossible. Presumably teachers develop defenses against overexpectation for themselves; yet these defenses do not always seem to work. If one is inwardly pressed by a feeling of not having finished one’s work, inert time must be particularly galling.” (p. 177)

Little in the teacher education research suggests that this has changed, and quite a lot of new education policies and changes to how young people seek and consume information has layered on top of Lortie’s observations rather than replaced them.  If teachers are being required to account for the impact on students’ learning in new (and statistically questionable) ways using standards and examinations with which they have little familiarity and inadequate training and no release time, if teachers are required to utilize new tools and accounting procedures without substantial in school support, and if the students they have are used to a constant stream of unfiltered information but have never been taught discernment in the use of that information, then there is little doubt that teachers today are feeling heavily pressured and constrained in their time.

My former students’ conversation on such matters got me thinking about the “Slow Food Movement,” which began in the late 1980s to educate consumers about the benefits of food that is local, minimally processed, and diverse in both culture and biology.  As a response to the rise of fast food and factory styled agriculture, slow food emphasizes the variety of local cuisines that should be preserved and the value of food that has to be prepared and cooked rather than defrosted and heated up.  Slow food obviously takes time that fewer and fewer people believe that they have, but it also represents more knowledge about food and its preparation, and it preserves more of the inherent nutritional value in ingredients.

I want a Slow Schools Movement.

While teachers grapple with the pressures of new and unfamiliar standards whose scopes are being narrowed with the highest stakes testing in national history, it is unsurprising that the pace of everything in school is being increased.  In the history of education, it is almost always more common for duties and responsibilities to be added to what teachers are expected to do rather than to see them peeled back.  Teachers’ duties are not restricted to classroom work, but with 35 states still providing less per pupil funding than they did in 2008 and with over 324,000 jobs in K-12 education being lost, remaining teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals have even more work that they need to accomplish on a daily basis.  The number of school aged children ages 6-17 has declined slightly since 2008, from 49.9 million to 49.6 million (it is set to rise again in the near future), but with a larger proportion of people working in schools gone, each individual has more to do.  In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

How detrimental to the practices of teaching and learning.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.  In order to foster it, teachers need to possess deep knowledge of their subjects and how to structure lessons that move students along in their understanding.  Jerome Bruner (1960) writes about this in “The Process of Education” where he quotes elementary mathematics teacher, David Page:

“…’When I tell mathematicians that fourth-grade students can go a long way into ‘set theory’ a few of them reply: ‘Of course.’ Most of them are startled. The latter ones are completely wrong in assuming that ‘set theory’ is intrinsically difficult. We just have to wait until the proper point of view and corresponding language for presenting it are revealed. Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions or lead the child to ask trivial questions.  It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions.  The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and can take you somewhere.  This is the big job of teachers and textbooks.’  One leads the child by the well-wrought medium questions to move rapidly through the stages of intellectual development, to a deeper understanding of mathematical, physical, and historical principles. We must know far more about the ways in which this can be done.”  (p. 40)

Of course, what Mr. Page says to Jerome Bruner is not simply a matter of finding a “trick.”  Rather, it is a complicated interplay of knowing the subject, knowing the pedagogical means of asking questions that transform children’s understanding, and of monitoring how students are developing in response to those questions, often in ways that are not precisely rapid or predictable.  Doyle (1983) explains students’ work in terms of “tasks” comprised of the products students are to produce, the operations  necessary to produce them, and the materials or models available to assist.  He further notes that tasks with the greatest learning rewards are often the most complex and difficult to establish in the classroom: “The central point is that the type of tasks which cognitive psychology suggests will have the greatest long-term consequences for improving the quality of academic work are precisely those which are the most difficult to install in classrooms.” (p. 186)

Eleanor Duckworth (1987) of Harvard University explained many of these issues eloquently in her essay collection, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas.”

“One of the teachers, Joanne Cleary, drew on the blackboard this picture of the earth in the midst of the sun’s rays and was trying to articulate her thoughts about it. Another member of the group was asking her to be more precise.  Did she mean exactly half the earth was in darkness? Did it get suddenly dark at the dividing line or was there some gray stripe? The one who was trying to articulate her thoughts grew angry, and gave up the attempt.  She said later that she knew the questions were necessary at some point, but she had not been ready to be more precise. She was struggling to make sense of a morass of observations and models, an idea was just starting to take shape, and, she said, ‘I needed time for my confusion.’

“That phrase has become a touchstone for me. There is, of course, no particular reason to build broad and deep knowledge about ramps, pendulums, or the moon.  I choose them, both in my teaching and in discussion here, to stand for any complex knowledge. Teachers are often, and understandably, impatient for the students to develop clear and adequate ideas.  But putting ideas in relationship to each other is not a simple job. It is confusing; and that confusion does take time. All of us need time for confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that gives significance to our knowledge.” (p. 102)

Consider how important this is from the perspective of a learner.  A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

Even though I have recently criticized the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts for being too narrow in their reading perspectives, I would like to use an example from them to illustrate this point.  This is taken from the sixth grade writing standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.a
Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.b
Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.c
Use words, phrases, and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.d
Establish and maintain a formal style.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.e
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the argument presented.

From Doyle’s perspective, these quoted standards denote tasks that are both high in ambiguity and high in risk (p. 183) if taken seriously.  Sixth graders are required to perform a complex series of cognitive moves in order to write arguments that are organized, supported with evidence, follow a logical order of argumentation including a conclusion, and use formal language and syntax to enhance readers’ understanding of their argument.  For accomplished college level writers, this is probably a task that appears simple, but the simplicity is entirely the product of its familiarity to those same writers.  For sixth graders, this is a complex set of cognitive moves that requires significant modeling and experimentation as well as a wealth of preexisting knowledge about how to write coherently and connectedly and an ability to adjust argument and tone depending upon the purposes for writing and the author’s sense of her or his audience.

More important than these skills, however, is that in order to accomplish what is envisioned in the standard, students will need the time and the safety to fail, possibly often.  Writing is a messy and often nonlinear endeavor, and even the most accomplished of authors revise often, change direction, and even throw out entire ideas and start over again.  For a student in the classroom open recognition of imperfect performance is often overshadowed by a fear of the consequences such imperfection often provokes.  Teachers who genuinely want their students to write in this way have to create conditions where students are willing to risk that their imperfections will be a source of improvement rather than of punishment, and students will need time to understand themselves as writers and to develop not merely the forms of analytic writing, but also an inwardly critical eye.

And this is where the increasingly hurried pace of schools and teachers’ work is more than a concern for how teachers measure their job satisfaction; it becomes a threat to children actually learning.  It is not that we have merely adopted new, complicated standards that have been pushed into classrooms far too quickly and with questionable materials for classroom use, but also it is that by tying teachers’ promotion and job retention to student performance on standardized tests that, at best, can only approximate student learning (and then only when they are well-designed), we have incentivized teaching to those tests as literal make or break decision for teachers and schools.  Teachers are most heavily pushed in the current policy environment to focus on those student skills that prepare them for performance in multiple choice, timed examinations.  Students learning to process confusion and teachers promoting classrooms where students can risk failure so that they build genuine understanding over time?  Today’s concepts of teacher accountability can make teaching for powerful and transformative purposes a career ending decision.

Consider the process by which teachers in New Jersey are held accountable for “Student Growth Outcomes” (SGOs) in addition to student annual progress in standardized exams via Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs).  SGPs are related to value-added measures of teacher effectiveness which use predicted gains on student test scores as a measure of how well teachers are teaching.  The SGO process is supposedly a professional research investigation that every teacher in New Jersey must accomplish each year by examining what students know at the beginning of the year, making predictions about student growth after a year of instruction, designing instruction to promote that growth, and then demonstrating the students’ actual growth in the classroom.  SGOs are set every year by every teacher working with an administrator and submitted to the state for verification.  While layered with external accountability, the concept had potential to help teachers see their work as a process of continuous improvement in the “teacher as researcher” mode of professionalism.

In practice, this is, charitably, far more dicey.  New Jersey insists that SGOs must be clearly measurable, so qualitative investigations are out of the question.  However, teachers are not, by trade, quantitative measurement experts, and the instructions issued the state department of education strike me as highly questionable.  Consider the following selection from page 16 of the DOE handbook:

Setting the Standard for “Full Attainment” of the Student Growth Objective
In order to develop a scoring guide based on how well you meet your SGO, determine the following:
a) a target score on the final assessment that indicates considerable learning;
b) the number of students that could reasonably meet this mark;
c) the percentage of students in the course that this represents; and
d) a 10-15 percent range around this number.
For example, you and your evaluator may decide that 80% on a challenging assessment indicates considerable learning. Based on an initial evaluation of the 65 students in your course, your evaluator agrees with the assessment that about 50 of them could reasonably make this score at the end of the year. This is 77 percent of the students. You make 70-84 percent the range around this number. This means that if between 45 and 55 of students (70-84 percent of them) score at least 80% on the final assessment, you would have fully met the objective. This is shown in Figure 4 on page 16.
Setting Other Standards of Attainment
Once a range is established for “full attainment,” subtracting 10-15 percent from the lower range of “full attainment” will produce the “partial attainment” category. Any number below this range is the “insufficient attainment” category. Above the high end of the “full attainment” range is the “exceptional attainment” range.

The problem here is that there is absolutely no indication upon what teachers will determine what represents “considerable learning” and what percentage of students can be expected to meet this target other than a cursory examination of an early year assessment. Such determinations would have to be fairly complex statistical exercises if done with any recognition of the complexity of predicting individual student outcomes, and, in fact, give the very questionable reliability of VAMs and SGPs, we should question the SGO exercise being based upon similar assumptions.  Worse, the state handbook encourages setting of ranges that are entirely arbitrary, probably favoring a neat reporting of the data rather than a valid one.  Upon what basis are predicted ranges of student performance set in 10-15 percent intervals?  What individual and group characteristics make those ranges plausible?  If the state requires ranges of performance in 10-15 percent intervals, what happens in classrooms where initial student performance falls into different ranges?

I asked these questions at a training session on SGOs last Spring, and the answer was a wan smile.  Unsurprisingly, some reports from implementation suggest that the enterprise is time consuming and confusing.  Consider this account by teacher Douglas McGuirk of Dumont High School sent in a letter to Diane Ravitch of New York University:

The next day, the SGO was rejected, and my supervisor told me that all SGOs had been done incorrectly and that our staff would need training. We held a department meeting to review SGO policies. We then held an after school training session to discuss the writing of SGOs. I attended both of these. After two weeks of writing and rewriting my SGO, complete with all of the Core Curriculum Content Standards pasted from the web site, I finally had an acceptable SGO. I managed to accomplish absolutely no lesson planning during this period of time. I graded no papers. I am a veteran teacher with nine years in the profession. I understand how to manage my workload, overcome setbacks, and complete my responsibilities. In short, I am a professional who maintains a diligent work ethic.

But nothing could prepare me for the amount of time I had just spent on a new part of my job that basically exists so that I can continue to prove that I should be entitled to do the other parts of my job. After I completed my SGO, my principal told our staff to make sure we save all of the data, paperwork, and student work relating to our SGO, just in case people from the State want to review the integrity of the data. Seriously? This is the most egregious assumption that there is an infinite amount of time.

How different this is from more empowering visions of teachers researching their own practice.  Many proposals have been made over the years to have teachers treat their classrooms as ongoing research projects, and, indeed, the best teachers already do this informally by making ongoing assessments of what their students are learning and consistently adjusting instruction based upon what they need.  However, critical components of seeing teachers as researchers are things entirely absent from the SGO process: 1) authentic teacher interest in what is being studied; 2) time, space, and resources.  Consider how Eleanor Duckworth (1987) describes her conclusions about working with teachers researching their teaching:

“I am not proposing that schoolteachers single-handedly become published researchers in the development of human learning.  Rather, I am proposing that teaching, understood as engaging learners in phenomena and working to understand the sense they are making, might be the sine qua non of such research.

“This kind of research would be a teacher in the sense of caring about a part of the world and how it works enough to want to make it accessible to others; he or she would have to be fascinated by the questions of how to engage people in it and how people make sense of it; would have time and resources to pursue these questions to the depth of his or her interest, to write what he or she learned, and to contribute to the theoretical and pedagogical discussions on the nature and development of human learning.

“And then, I wonder – why should this be a separate research profession?  There is no reason I can think of not to rearrange the resources available to education so that this description defines the job of a public school teacher.  So this essay ends with a romance.  But then, it began with a passion.” (pp. 199-200)

Imagine policy and administrators at every level of the system actually facilitating a vision of teaching like this instead of placing roadblocks to thoughtfulness, contemplation, experimentation, and craft at nearly every juncture.  Such roadblocks not only prevent teachers from the careful work of improving their teaching, but also they stand in the way of students having time to truly get deep with their content and skills.  Hurried teachers do not genuinely improve their teaching, and hurried students do not genuinely deepen their understanding.

I want Slow Schools.

References:

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53, 159-199.

Duckworth, E. (1987). The Having of wonderful ideas: and other essays on teaching and learning. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Filed under Common Core, Data, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching

Dear Common Core English Standards: Can we talk?

Back in 1993, when I had barely been teaching in my own high school English classroom for a month, I had an epiphany.  I looked around my classroom of ninth graders and realized, consciously, that they were not all going to become high school English teachers.  As epiphanies go, I admit that does not sound exceptional, but it was actually foundational for the rest of my career in education.  The reason for this was that I simultaneously realized that I was teaching English because of the lifelong qualitative relationship that I had with reading and writing in English.  My father probably read “Oscar the Otter” to me every night for a month when I was four.  As a young reader, I often wondered if I would ever have a friend as cool as Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball.  Later, I was positive that I found a lifelong friend in Charles Wallace Murray, and my copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” and  “A Wind in the Door” were shortly falling apart from their spines.  Bilbo Baggins’ fate trading riddles in the dark is still a matter of tense anticipation, and what I remember most about a bout of chickenpox was that it gave me an opportunity to read all three existing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books in one afternoon.  Why was I a high school English teacher?  Because of the transformative power of reading to develop relationships over distance and centuries, to teach about cultures and ideals, to illuminate human nature, to amuse and to challenge.  I am a better person because of books, and I wanted students to discover similar experiences and to build skills that would allow them to both read and to write powerfully.

That most of my students would not seek the same path did not mean that they were incapable of such reading and writing, but it did mean that I could not ignore that they had their own reasons for being where they were, and that I had to allow them to find reasons for reading and writing that mattered to them.  In other words: You cannot be an English teacher and aim your instruction at the students who most remind you of yourself.

Common Core English Standards, you really need to learn that lesson.

I have read the standards, many times.  I have introduced them in foundations classes.  I am now working with teacher candidates in an English language arts methods class with the standards used for planning.  In this class, candidates not only are learning classroom methods for teaching English, but also they are learning the theoretical basis for adolescent literacy.  I have told them that if they squeeze the standards really hard and shake them a lot, it is possible to get something other than close textual reading out of them.

Common Core English Standards, you are making me a liar.

It is not that the Common Core English Standards do not describe aspects of reading and interpretation.  It is that they describe them from a single literary perspective, and then they backwards engineer them from high school all the way down to Kindergarten.  But don’t take my word on it, let’s look at the Reading Literature Standards themselves.

The Reading Literature Standards are laid out by what they call “College and Career Readiness” anchor standards that are iterated in each grade level.  Those ten anchor standards are organized in groups by Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Text Complexity.  For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to select one standard under each of these groups to present at different levels.

From the grade 11-12 Reading Literature Standards:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Range of Reading and Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

If you have graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college or university, odds are good that this sounds familiar regardless of your major.  The selected standards in Reading Literature represent a description of the close textual reading you were required to do as part of your introductory English coursework, possibly taught by an enthusiast of the New Criticism school of literary analysis from the mid-twentieth century.  For college bound students, this is not off the mark as far as a portion of their work with literature is concerned.  However, reading the entirety of the reading literature standards demonstrates that close textual reading is pretty much ALL that they contain.  Each of the anchor standard descriptors reiterates the anchors’ focus on the text — to the exclusion of the reader.

As mentioned, these standards then move down to Kindergarten, largely describing simpler tasks for less experienced readers.  From 6th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7: Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

From 3rd grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5: Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

From Kindergarten:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.5: Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.10: Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.

So what is wrong with this?  It represents a very specific purpose of reading literature, a purpose that does not serve the reasons why all children read, not even all children destined to become college English majors, and it is backwards engineered to grade levels when students cannot be expected to have full fluency.  What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis.  In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.

This stands in stark opposition to Reader Response criticism where the role of the reader in creating meaning not only cannot be set aside, but also is absolutely essential for the words on the page to have any meaning whatsoever.  Louise Rosenblatt informed this school of thought by demonstrating that the process of reading is best understood as a transaction between the text and the individual readers who approach the task of reading it:

The transaction involving a reader and a printed text thus can be viewed as an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. It stresses the possibility that printed marks on a page will become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers….

Does not the transactional point of view suggest that we should pay more attention to the experiential framework of any reading transaction? Is it not extraordinary that major social upheavals seem to have been required to disclose the fact that schools have consistently attempted to teach reading without looking at the language and life experience, the cognitive habits, that the child brought to the text? And should not this same concern be brought to bear on more than the problem of the language or dialect that the child brings? Should not a similar concern for reading as an event in a particular cultural and life situation be recognized as pertinent to all reading, for all children at all phases of their development as readers, from the simplest to the most sophisti­cated levels? (pp. 15-16)

Reader Response does not deny that there is a text with a structure that readers must encounter in order to make meaning, but it also recognizes the robust and essential elements brought by each individual reader in the meaning making process.  Instead of the text containing a single meaning to be derived by close textual analysis, the text is brought to many different meanings because of the histories, cultures, dispositions and experiences of the multitude of readers who transact with that text.

At this point, some advocates of the Common Core standards may protest that the Reading Literature standards are not trying to shoehorn all readers into New Criticism, and that with the tools of close textual reading, students and teachers could possibly engage in any number of reading experiences incorporating social, cultural, historical, psychological and personal knowledge.  To some degree, it is upon this that I have been hanging my promise to my own students that you can shake a social reading out of the CCSS if you just shake hard enough.  The problem is that I am not really convinced of that myself.  To begin with, even when the standards suggest some form of reading that is connected to something other than the text, it circles right back to close textual analysis. From the third grade standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

Looking at these, I get somewhat hopeful.  RL3.2 states that students will recall some rich literature such as fables, folktales and myths which could become a great basis for comparing current and past societies, understanding the concept of a the heroic figure and how it relates to the child’s life.  But the standard quickly segues right back to picking out “key details in the text” in service of determining “the central message, lesson, or moral.” (emphasis added) Similarly, RL3.3 begins with some hope that students might develop personal relationships with the characters in the story and use those character traits to better understand themselves.  Then the standard immediately purposes their understanding to “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.”  In Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis.  The reader is a bit player.

This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise.  After all, one of the key players in the creation of the English Language Arts standards is David Coleman, current president of the College Board, philosophy graduate from Yale and Rhodes Scholar in English literature at Oxford University.  He is, plainly, a man of great intelligence and of sincere interest in the classical liberal arts.  What he is not, however, is a person with even the slightest credentials in literacy acquisition, elementary literacy or adolescent literacy.  As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts all the way down to Kindergarten is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom.  This seems entirely unproblematic to Mr. Coleman, and while I have not read his thesis from Oxford, I have little reason to doubt that he is an enthusiast of New Criticism and other formalist schools of thought.  When presenting on the Common Core standards, Mr. Coleman derided what he described as a heavy emphasis on personal writing in most school curricula, thus:

When you add together the structure of the standards with the heavy testing regimen that have been tied to them and actual career consequences for teachers tied to those exams that were simultaneously put in place with the adoption of the CCSS, I find it hard to believe that very many teachers, on their own, are going to be able to use these standards to promote children’s love of literature from any social or experiential angle.  There is also extremely limited room for states to maneuver around the standards, as Mercedes Schneider reminds us here because the Memorandum of Understanding that states signed before adopting the CCSS only allows 15% of states standards to differ

If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.

Did anyone have anything better for children before Common Core?  That’s difficult to answer because while states have been held to progress in examinations since the No Child Left Behind act of 2001, this is the first time that nearly nationwide assessments are going to be aligned with a single set of standards.  However, it is possible to speak about how states with standards different from Common Core did on nationally administered assessments prior to this endeavor.  For example, Massachusetts has long been recognized as a high performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  In 2009, when Common Core was still twinkling in its authors’ eyes, Massachusetts’ 4th grade NAEP reading scores were higher than any other state in the nation.  At the time, Massachusetts was still using its own English Language Arts framework, adopted in 2001.  I would like to draw attention to Standard 9: Making Connections:

Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
By including supplementary reading selections that provide relevant historical and artistic background, teachers deepen students’ understanding of individual literary works and broaden their capacity to connect literature to other manifestations of the creative impulse.

The standard is then extrapolated forward, requiring that students examine works as related to the life and experiences of the author and in relationship to key concepts, ideas and controversies that existed in the society that produced the work itself.  Examinations such as these are fruitful grounds for personal experiences and comparisons of current society and events as well.  This is similar to principles articulated by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) in the standards for the English Language Arts that they released in the 1990s.  Standards 1-3, in particular, articulate a broad vision of what reading is for and how readers go about doing it:

  1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Neither of these documents rules out close textual reading, nor do they dismiss the need for students to develop skills in creating sophisticated analyses using the tools of text.  Common Core, however, provides no explicit space for any other kind of reading or analysis, and it appears entirely uninformed by any framework of reading as a process that includes the reader in any capacity other than as faithful seeker of the text’s internally constructed meaning.  Readers who want to understand society and history via the text?  Readers who want to explore their own humanity across space and time with characters who live and breathe after centuries?  Readers who want to enjoy the feelings of a work of art without picking it apart into its component parts?

People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

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Filed under Common Core, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Welcoming a New Generation of Teachers

My university welcomes the Class of 2018 this week which means that I will begin teaching a new class of first year students enrolled in our secondary education and secondary/special education programs.  It goes without saying that I am consistently impressed with the caliber of young person I meet each year.  They have committed themselves to a program requiring hard work from them early in their college careers, and they have committed their talents and futures to a profession that is intellectually and emotionally demanding.  These are the types of young people I have admired since I began my work in teacher education in 1997 at the beginning of graduate school, and it is genuinely exciting to know how many of them over the years have stayed in teaching, honing their craft, becoming leaders and teaching many 1000s of young people over the years. This is incredible work.

My first year students were born in 1996, when I was still a high school English teacher, and they began Kindergarten in 2001.  This means that among the myriad of things the media likes to remind us that Millennials have “never known”, this class of Millennials has never known a school system without the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization of 2001, popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Hailed by President George W. Bush as refusing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” NCLB ushered in an age when school districts, schools and teachers were to be held accountable by student results on mass standardized tests.  While President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program was billed as loosening the punitive measures of NCLB, it has further entrenched mass test-based accountability by pushing states to adopt common standards and to include the results of students’ standardized test scores into teacher evaluation.  Any current hot potato issue in elementary and secondary education, from the Common Core State Standards, to the mass standardized testing and the use of those tests to evaluate can be traced back to the premise of both of these laws:  accountability of schools for students’ annual “progress” on mass testing is an appropriate lever to effect positive school change.

The cumulative impacts of these reforms on teachers, teacher morale and schools is a subject for another blog, but suffice to say that despite recent efforts to paint the picture more rosily, overall teacher morale has suffered and has suffered more in our schools that need help the most.  It hardly helps that most high profile efforts to “improve” teaching focus solely on weeding out teachers deemed to be ineffective and placing pressure on all teachers to demonstrate effectiveness via standardized test scores.  Absent in those reforms?  Improving school working conditions, increasing teacher collaboration and leadership, emphasis on markers of student learning and accomplishment outside of mass testing, addressing community poverty impacts and looking at what opportunities actually exist in our economy.

Despite all of this, I will meet a group of young people who want to teach.  Experience tells me that all of them, despite the environment in which they grew up, believe in the transformative potential of education and are genuinely committed to inspiring future generations of students.  

But this is also where a cautionary note must be sounded.  The process of becoming a teacher is not one that actually begins with university classes.  Most people begin to make the commitment to teach many years earlier.  Talk to an elementary school teacher, and you will frequently find someone who began with make believe games set in an imaginary classroom.  Talk to a secondary school teacher, and you will often find someone whose love of subject matter set her apart from peers from middle school forward.  During their long “careers” as K-12 students, future teachers observe upwards of 15,000 hours of teachers teaching which forms the backbone of what Dan Lortie called “the apprenticeship of observation” with which all teachers enter their formal preparation.  Unlike professionals in medicine and law, most students of teaching are intimately familiar with being the recipients of teachers’ practice, and it is that familiarity that largely inspires them to enter the field and informs their deeply personal visions of what it means to teach.

Many researchers have noted to much of what future teachers learn from this apprenticeship is incomplete and fails to capture all of the work that goes on beyond teachers’ in classroom performances.  Regardless, it is a beginning, and an important one to people who want to teach — it is our job in teacher education to layer upon it, making elements of it problematic so they can be revised and adding to it the hidden pedagogical skills of teachers that are not generally learned before teacher education.

If learning to teach, if the very commitment to learning to teach begins with the process of one’s own K-12 education, then it is vitally important to the profession and its future that we are mindful of the kinds of schools in which the future’s teachers are currently enrolled.  I would argue that we have done a poor job historically, but especially in the past 15 years, of listening to what teachers themselves believe will help them be better at their profession.  According to Francie Alexander of Scholastic, INC., a survey conducted for a joint Scholastic-Gates Foundation study by the Harrison Group found the following

  1. Most teachers feel heard in their own schools, but 69% do not believe they are listened to by district, state and federal players.
  2. 71% believe they need more time to study and understand the Common Core State Standards before implementing them.
  3. Teachers value collaboration, but 51% cite a lack of time for collaboration as a challenge.
  4. 99% of teachers believe their work goes beyond academics.
  5. 88% of teachers believe the rewards of teaching outweigh the challenges.

While that survey cited high levels of teachers “enthusiastic” about the Common Core standards, more recent surveys have shown significant cratering in teacher support.  Further, the overall satisfaction reported in this survey has to be weighed in contrast with the 2013 findings of the 29th annual Metlife Survey of Teachers which found only 39% of teachers said they were “very satisfied”.

There is a lot of “churn” in the waters of education today, and it is beyond admirable that so many teachers are able to take professional satisfaction in the concept of the “small victories” many of them routinely see in their work with students and community.  It is equally admirable that young people with exceptional talents and skills seek to join the profession.

But we must be careful that reforms are not allowed to alter the aspects of schooling that make it such rewarding work.  Mass test-based accountability that reduces teachers’ work to an “effectiveness rating” tied primarily to test scores is a toxic approach.  Not only does it disrespect the fullness of the work teachers know that they do, but also it over emphasizes what can even been learned from such tests, and few current reform advocates put their efforts behind better support, collaboration and leadership.  Schools must remain humane places where teachers and students can meet as far more than average annual progress calculations, or we will lose those who wish to become teachers because they want to do good in the world.  If our vision of school tilts too heavily towards the technical/rational aspects of measurement in learning and ignores the humanistic development side, we will end up with future teachers who lack a rich and full vision of their profession.

Think of it this way:  If you have a baby born this year, she will be ready to enter high school in 2028.  Many of her potential ninth grade teachers were born in 2006 and are beginning 3rd grade this Fall, the grade where most high stakes testing begins in earnest.

What kinds of school experience do you want your child’s teachers to have?

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Filed under Common Core, Data, teacher learning, teaching, Testing, Uncategorized