Tag Archives: classrooms

Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

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

Do we have a deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also failed to notice:

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

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

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

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

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

The Teaching Workplace: Missing the Forest for the Bathroom Stalls

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers released the results of a survey on teacher workplace stress conducted in collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), a grassroots network of teachers across the country dedicated to pushing back “against so-called corporate education reform, or the Educational-Industrial Complex, and the damage it has done to students, schools, teachers, and communities.”  The survey focused on the quality of workplace life for teachers, and was comprised of 80 questions answered by over 30,000 participants. Results, presented in brief in this document, show a wide variety of issues that impact how teachers perceive their working conditions, including respect from politicians, the media, administrators, parents, and colleagues, frequency of workplace stress, major sources of stress, and frequency of bullying and negative health consequences within the workplace.  With so many participants, the survey is a notable first step to gaining major research and policy leverage for issues that have been impacting teachers for years, and it has already led to a meeting between the USDOE and the survey team of AFT and BAT representatives.

So it is somewhat disappointing that The Atlantic magazine decided to reduce the story to a tale of inadequate bathroom breaks.

To be fair, the article does discuss other workplace issues for teachers, and in a section of the survey report that also cites time pressure, disciplinary issues, and student aggression as everyday stressors for teachers, “lack of opportunity to use restroom” does stand out.  Further, the author, Alia Wong, makes very clear note of the health risks associated with inadequate hydration and use of the bathroom and quotes teachers in discussion forums noting the degradation of not being allowed basic sanitary needs.

However, the article missed a massive opportunity to take a substantive look at broader issues of workplace stress for teachers, potential reasons why it has been increasing in recent years, and how it contributes to the real staffing problem in our nation’s schools: the high percentage of teachers across the nation with fewer than 5 years of experience and the greater likelihood of schools with high percentages of students who are poor and ethnic minorities to have beginning teachers.  Research has shown that schools with blended cultures of experienced teachers able to mentor novices are best suited for teacher learning and professional development at all experience levels, and teachers in high poverty schools report that they leave either their schools or the profession entirely because of working conditions above any other factor.  The AFT and BAT collaboration on workplace stress opens the door to an incredibly important discussion that has, in recent years, been entirely shoved aside by anti-union activists who have declared, absent evidence, that experienced teachers protected by tenure are a central cause of school failure.

I was therefore disappointed that Ms. Wong’s article decided that, of all the issues reported in the public release of the survey, bathroom breaks warranted a lengthy treatment without pushing further on how workplace stress contributes to teacher turnover and the costs to students that come from high percentages of novice teachers who are often “on their own and presumed expert“.

Jamy Brice Hyde is a teacher in upstate New York, a member of the Badass Teachers Association, and a participant in the survey team that collaborated with the American Federation of Teachers.  According to Ms. Brice Hyde, The Atlantic “missed a tremendous opportunity to tell an incredible story about the crisis in public education. Because a teacher’s work environment is a student’s learning environment. They missed that.”  She spoke with me directly, and I learned that the survey has 31,342 respondents who answered the 80 questions online over a period of only 10 days at the end of April this year.  Ms. Brice Hyde explained that people had warned the team to only expect a few 1000 respondents given the general reach of such surveys, but the response rate was beyond anyone’s expectations.

Ms. Brice Hyde also confirmed that the survey results are not statistically weighted, and that the survey was solicited by a general call to AFT members rather than by statistical sampling.  As such, the results are only a beginning examination of the issue rather than a finished statistical analysis.  However, she confirmed that the raw data is currently being studied by qualified, university-based, researchers who are determining what can be validly inferred, so the process of learning from the survey will continue.

The survey itself was born from genuine grassroots discussions among members of the BAT group about conditions in the workplace, increase in teacher stress, and the very serious consequences many members have felt personally or seen among their colleagues, including recent suicides.  Contact with the AFT led to a conference call meeting with President Randi Weingarten, who Ms. Brice Hyde described as deeply impacted by the stories brought to the meeting and who immediately offered the teachers support to construct and disseminate the survey. President Weingarten, who spoke to me in a separate call, explained the impact of the phone conversation: “The level of need was so intense, and the level of disenfranchisement (of classroom teachers) was just so intense.”

Once the results were in and clear patterns in the responses were evident, the AFT lobbying team convinced Senator Booker of New Jersey and Senator Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title 2 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to examine workplace stress for teachers.  President Weingarten was enthusiastic about both the collaboration with the BAT group and with its impact. “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

The published survey results provide some stark highlights of what respondents believe to be the status of their profession and their working conditions.  While 89% strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about their profession when they began their careers, only 15% could strongly agree now with another 38% somewhat agreeing.  A staggering 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were “treated with respect” by elected officials, and 77% felt similarly about the media.  On the other hand, only 24% of respondents said the same thing about their students and their students’ parents, a result that reflects the annual KDP/Gallup poll which consistently shows that parents with children in public school hold those schools in high regard.

73% of teachers in the survey said they often find their workplace stressful, citing factors such as new initiatives being adopted without adequate support or professional development, negative portrayals of teachers and teaching in the media, uncertain job expectations, salary, and lack of participation in decision making as major sources of that stress.  Further, teachers said that mandated curricula, large class sizes, standardized testing, and lack of support for student discipline were daily sources of stress in the classroom.

Perhaps most alarming is the section reporting workplace bullying and health.  30% of all respondents reported having been bullied in the workplace, and 58% identified an administrator as a bully with 38% saying a coworker was a bully and 34% and 30% respectively identifying a student or a parent as a bully.  While 70% of respondents said their schools had a harassment and bullying in the workplace policy, only 42% said they got regular training on it.  45% of teachers in the survey did say they did not get adequate bathroom breaks, but it is possibly more disturbing to read that only half of teachers said their districts encourage them to use sick days when actually ill, and 26% said that in the past month their mental health was was not good for 9 or more days.

Jamy Brice Hyde informed me that the rest of the data set gave even more nuance to some of these problems.  Of the nearly one third of the respondents who had experienced harassment and bullying in the workplace, 64% believed it was not handled properly, and 38% of them did not report the experience to either a supervisor or a union representative.  84% said that they had not gotten union training on workplace harassment and bullying.  49% of the teachers responding said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point during their careers.

From the standpoint of professionalism, many of the responses should raise serious concerns as well.  Ms. Brice Hyde added that 45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.

While 86% of survey respondents said that their feelings about teaching have changed in the past 2-3 years, Ms. Brice Hyde is hopeful that the data gathered by the BAT/AFT collaboration will lead to positive changes.  “The biggest thing we came away from this with is how to get local unions to be better as first responders to our teachers in need,” she said, “And to get the federal government to do a scientific study of teacher work conditions.”  I can certainly see her point, and I think she also correct to say that the survey has happened now “because it is relevant.”  Over 30,000 teachers took the opportunity to make their feelings about their workplaces known in only a 10 day period, and the results have already led to legislative change with the ESEA amendment by Senators Booker and Bennet.

This moment is, indeed, crucial. Research supports that working conditions are a central feature in teachers’ decisions to leave either a school or the profession.  Helen Ladd of Duke University found that more than 1 in 4 teachers in America had fewer than five years of experience in 2008, and her research further demonstrates that when it comes to teacher effectiveness, experience counts.  Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers confirmed that working conditions is the number one reason why new teachers leave high poverty schools with no student factor even close in significance.  Recent research from the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that national new teacher attrition over 5 years may be 17% which is much lower than previous estimates, but there may be flaws in comparing the new data with older research.  While this data does come from actually tracking a cohort of new teachers, it stopped after the fourth year while previous research by Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania drew estimates through 5 years in the classroom, and his estimates included teachers in private schools as well as public schools.  Also, the NCES study began tracking its cohort of teachers just when the Great Recession hit, so it is possible the attrition of this group of teachers was kept artificially lower than historic averages.

The NCES data, however, also speaks to the need to address the workplace.  First year teachers with mentors were far more likely to be teaching in their second year than those without.  Teachers who are better compensated tended to stay in teaching longer.  Teachers who began teaching in high poverty schools were slightly more likely to leave the profession entirely, but the data did not address the teachers who leave high poverty schools for more affluent schools, a significant source of staff turnover at such schools who pay a high price for such turnover.

The Badass Teachers Association’s collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers’ has provided valuable insights into which workplace conditions most seriously impact teachers and result in high levels of stress.  Our nation’s policymakers have made unprecedented demands on teacher accountability.  It is past time to hold the policymakers accountable for giving teachers the support and environment most conducive to their students’ learning.

That is a real story worth national attention.

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Filed under Activism, Media, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

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

Newark, Please Meet the New Boss: Who Is The Old Boss’ Boss’ Old Boss

Controversial Newark, New Jersey Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson is out of a job only 4 months into her renewed contract, and after a tumultuous year implementing the “One Newark” school reform program, including mass student walk outs, a 4 day occupation of Anderson’s office, and repeated calls for her ouster by Mayor Ras Baraka.  “One Newark” was controversial from the start, and essentially “blew up” the idea of a traditional public school system by throwing open the entire district to school choice, expanding the charter school sector within the city, and placing fully public schools under “renewal plans” (in many cases requiring entire schools of teachers to reapply for their jobs) while maintaining state control of the district which has been in effect for 20 years.  The plan opened with significant chaos and uncertainty, and a year in, there are significant questions about the capability of One Newark to really deliver on its promises, and, since the “renewal” plans began in 2012, there is more evidence that the reforms have not yielded better achievement and have had discriminatory impact on faculty and staff.

One thing is not in question: Anderson had a particularly difficult relationship with both parental and political stakeholders.  She slated schools to close even though they were meeting their growth targets.  She abruptly stopped attending school board meetings in an effort to not face parents angry at the impacts of reforms on their children.  The summer enrollment process for parents to simply put their children’s names into the system to have a school selected was poorly thought out and insensitively implementedState lawmakers waited for a year for Anderson to finally show up to a committee meeting to discuss her performance as superintendent.  Even if One Newark were indisputably a net good for Newark Public Schools, the sheer incompetence displayed when doing a basic job of a superintendent, effectively communicating with and balancing the overlapping needs of all of the stakeholders in public education, should have long ago disqualified Anderson from her job.

Allow me to indulge in a moment of praise for the young activists of the Newark Students’ Union who have been Profiles in Courage this past year.  When many of the organizations run by adults have been far too quiet, these young people have stood up and demanded that the media and public at large pay attention to what has been thrust upon Newark’s children, families, and teachers in the name of reform.  Their protests have brought national attention to Newark, and almost certainly contributed to Anderson’s departure.

Sadly, that is the end of the good news.

The reason for that is that replacement for Anderson will be none other than former Commissioner of Education for the State of New Jersey, Christopher Cerf, who abruptly left his office to join his former New York City DOE boss, Joel Klein, at Rupert Murdoch’s education technology venture, Amplify.  The Newark education board, which has no direct control over the school system, passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the appointment of assistant superintendent Roger Leon, and is scheduled to meet with Assistant Commissioner Peter Shulman to discuss “next steps” for the district’s leadership.  So, if Cerf’s appointment goes through, it will mean that he will replace a superintendent he himself appointed, and he will report to former underlings in Trenton.  The new boss isn’t the same as the old boss.  The new boss is the old boss’ boss’ old boss.

It is not hard to understand why Cerf might be looking for new employment opportunities after little more than a year at Amplify.  The technology venture is struggling mightily with expensive contracts, breakable hardware, and buggy software. Anderson’s mounting problems and inability to lead may have provided him with an opportune moment to jump ship.  It is unclear how many people in the country would be willing to step into the mess that exists in the Newark Superintendent’s office, and Cerf will certainly bring an intimate knowledge of the plans to completely change public education in Newark.  After all, he, along with former Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, was central in using Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to set the process in motion, setting up an expensive consulting operation before he was appointed to Commissioner’s office.

So this bizarre situation, where the state’s former highest education official will now run a school district whose outgoing superintendent reported to the incoming superintendent’s former underlings, may, as hard as it is to believe, be even worse for Newark.  As New Jersey teacher and Rutgers graduate student, Mark Weber notes on his personal blog:

This is why the S-L (Star Ledger) is almost certain to run an editorial very soon lauding Cerf ([editor]Moran’s neighbor in the very reformy town of Montclair) as the perfect pick to lead Newark’s schools to new heights. Because he’ll do exactly the same things Anderson is doing right now — but he’ll do it with a smile. He won’t fly off the handle when people dare to mention his own kids. He’ll show up to school board meetings and nod and take notes and promise to take everyone’s views under advisement.

And then he’ll go do exactly what Cami Anderson was doing before. Why wouldn’t he? Just as recently as this past December, Cerf was singing Anderson’s praises, even as he was demonizing those who stood against her. – See more at: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2015/06/cerfs-up-in-newark-and-that-means-more.html#sthash.TvPD8ZhL.dpuf

Weber goes on to observe:

It’s also worth noting this same destructive idiocy was at play in Cerf’s policies later, when he ran the entire state’s education system. But this is how Cerf was trained. His (and Anderson’s) time at the NYCDOE under Joel Klein, coupled with his involvement in the Broad Superintendent’s Academy Book Club, formed his “creative disruption” mindset: use test scores to justify closing public schools and let privately governed charters take over. And if that’s not feasible, reconstitute the schools, generating as much instability as is possible.

This is precisely what has happened to Newark’s schools under Anderson. Even though there is no evidence that Newark’s charter schools are more effective or efficient, they have been given the green light to take an increasingly large share of the market. The district itself has been complicit in painting a false picture of the extent of their “success”; the district has also abetted their expansion as part of its One Newark plan, likely leading to even greater segregation within the district. – See more at: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2015/06/cerfs-up-in-newark-and-that-means-more.html#sthash.TvPD8ZhL.dpuf

So Christopher Cerf is cut entirely of the same cloth as Cami Anderson with precisely the same training in philosophy and education reform.  He is a strong proponent of a business oriented view to schooling as if our public schools were similar to old business models that have failed to compete against consumer innovation.  He has no problem inflicting entirely unproven changes upon the education of 10s of 1000s of children because he believes “creative disruption” is just as valid a means of innovation in education as it is in consumer electronics.  Apparently, it is okay if some students get the Apple Macintosh 128K education while others get the Coleco Adam.

What makes Cerf stand out is not his policy differences with Anderson (of which he has precisely none).  It is his political ability, connections, and powerful patrons, including Senator Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein.  There is no reason to believe that he will not plunge straight ahead with One Newark and turn Newark into the “charter school capital of the nation.” There is no reason to believe that anything more than lip service will be paid to local control from a new superintendent who formerly ran the state with total disregard for local control, especially in the districts controlled by the state and subjected to maximum disruption regardless of local concerns.  The only thing to expect is that Chris Cerf will be skilled at inflicting harm upon Newark for however long he is in that office.

So Newark, please meet the new boss — and watch your back.

cerf is coming

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Filed under Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Newark, Newark Students Union, One Newark, politics

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now.  President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades.  According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public.  Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.

Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here.  Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize  the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites.  It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts.  Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four).  So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it.  The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.

It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”.  According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”.  These terms are defined in the report as follows:

Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that?  Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:

K rubric

So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.

Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.”  I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students.  It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient.  In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”?  How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?

Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:

However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.

I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics.  In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:

A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)

Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this.  His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play.  In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development.  But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.

For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations.  The consequences have been negative.  While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.

Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, politics, 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

The New York Times or The Onion? “Is Your First Grader College Ready?”

Every now and again, a serious news outlet runs a story that requires multiple readings to tell that it is not someone trying deliberately to invoke Poe’s Law.  The internet axiom states that it is not possible to construct a satire of an extreme form of belief that will not be mistaken as sincere belief by a substantial portion of readers.  Poe’s Law is most often invoked to humorously highlight beliefs that are both fervently believed but so devoid of actual factual basis or a semblance of reasoning that they lampoon the person holding them.

Welcome to Poe’s Law: College and Career Readiness Edition.

“College and Career Readiness” is language that is plastered all over the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying standardized examinations offered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).  In essence, the expression means that every student in the country should be taught a curriculum that prepares him or her with the essential mathematics and literacy skills necessary to succeed in entry level college courses or to successfully complete entry level job training in presumably desirable careers.  Proponents of the Common Core State Standards assure us that the common standards provide a proper and attainable platform from which elementary and secondary teachers can educate students to that level, and proponents of the accompanying PARRC and SBAC examinations, frequently the same people, assure us that exams will help us know that every child is on track to be college and career ready — or not.  Regardless of your assessment of those claims and the foundation that underlies (or fails to underlie) them, that’s the promise for standards beginning in Kindergarten and yearly examinations beginning in third grade.

So enter the New York Times with an article asking, and this is not a headline stolen from The Onion, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?” detailing various programs and efforts to raise preparation for college with children as young as first grade:

What is college? To Madison Comer, a confident 6-year-old, it is a very big place. “It’s tall,” she explained, outlining the head of Tuffy, the North Carolina State mascot, with a gray crayon. “It’s like high school but it’s higher.”

Elizabeth Mangan, who plans to be a veterinarian because she loves her puppy, pointed out that she, too, would attend North Carolina State. “Me and Madison are going to the same college,” she said.

And what is college? “It’s someplace where you go to get your career.”

Billy Nalls, meanwhile, was drawing curving horns and jagged teeth on Rameses the Ram on a paper pennant representing the University of North Carolina. “I’m drawing him as angry,” he said. In college, Billy wants to learn to make a Transformer (“It’s like a robot that comes from Cybertron”). And what happens at college? “You get smarter and smarter every day.”

Let me say that some of what is discussed in the article is not precisely off base.  Proponents of these approaches are correct that many students who will eventually go to college grow up in homes with college educated parents and with an underlying assumption that college is just a normal part of growing up.  When both of your parents had post-secondary education and career paths requiring that education, it is simply a background assumption in your life that college is likely compared to growing up in entire zip codes were very few of the adults have studied beyond high school.  It is also true that many first generation college students face challenges to their success that are not common among families with a history of college education, and that they often require support beyond the traditional college “bridge” programs.

So what is almost satirical about some of the approaches described in the Times?

It is one thing to talk to first grade students about what they want to be when they grow up.  For students who are growing up without many community models of post-secondary education, I can see potential in the middle school activities described that emphasize recognizing what would be needed to accomplish their ambitions.  However, the early elementary discourse transforms from surprising to comical to frustrating in very short order.  Six year-olds are not simply talking about what they want to be as grown ups; they are naming specific schools and filling out mock applications for the bulletin board.  The first grade teacher is quoted discussing that it is not enough to ask children what they want to be: “We need to ask them, ‘How will you get there?’ Even if I am teaching preschool, the word ‘college’ has to be in there.”  The approach is not simply being applied in districts with high concentrations of disadvantage; the article quotes a college planner from Westchester County, New York who compares college preparation to becoming an Olympic skater whose training begins in earnest at age 6.

A 6 year old future Olympian, however, is capable of understanding that she loves skating and perhaps that she is unusually good at it and wishes to spend a lot of time doing it.  It might not be a stretch for that 6 year old to know that the world’s best skaters can get a gold medal and to want that.  Her ability to visualize the path from being 6 to an Olympic medal?  Not there.  And it is pretty much guaranteed that future college graduates, at the age of 6, are simply incapable of envisioning something so distant and abstract.  This is the kind of “program” you get when a vaguely attentive superintendent hears the constant repetition of “college and career readiness” in reform circles and hastily writes a memo.

What is also close to farcical in the described approaches is how ways that students “prepare for college applications” in wealthier communities that first grade mock applications and middle school campus visits miss.  Those children have access to community recreation and athletic leagues.  They have schools with library/media centers that are funded and staffed.  They have community and school based arts and music education.  They have summer camps. Their homes have books and toys suitable for free play.  Their schools are often new or extremely well maintained and upgraded. Very few of them are food insecure or at risk of homelessness.

Everything I have listed is directly connected to students becoming “college and career ready,” so while I can support consciously organizing very young children to play “grown up” and following that with earlier than typical planning for certain students, that does not even qualify as a quarter of a loaf if we do not discuss the kind of cultural capital activities that have nothing to do with pinning mock college applications on a first grade bulletin board. Are we willing to embed resources in beautifully designed community centers that replicate what suburban kids have at home?  Are we willing to fully fund school and community libraries and art and music programs?  Are we going to expand recreation and summer camp opportunities?  Will we rebuild crumbling school infrastructure in our urban and rural communities?  Will we embrace, rather than cut, our obligations to keep people from being hungry and homeless?

Meanwhile I have a suggestion that would do a lot more for the first graders described in the Times article than a “cut and paste worksheet” describing the steps to get into college.  Give every kid in that class a good set of plain Legos, some dolls, and other toys that promote unstructured, creative PLAY — let them negotiate and explore their SIX YEAR OLD MINDS.  There will be plenty of time to stress them out and confuse them in only two more years when they take their third grade PARCC or SBAC examinations:

Ginger graduated high school college and career ready, and she got into Harvard University.  Her parents make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid, and they are underwater on their mortgage.  At $60,000 a year for tuition, room, and board, and at 8% interest, calculate for how many years SALLIE MAE will OWN Ginger if she begins her career at Starbucks.  Then recalculate how that will change if Ginger’s loans are bought by a securities bundler after five years and sold as bonds.  Show all of your work.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, Media, schools

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

On My Twelfth Year of Common Core, David Coleman Gave to Me…

…a tightly written College English 1 essay.

And not a whole heck of a lot of anything else.

Three months ago, I wrote about the very narrow theoretical perspectives that appear to inform the Common Core Reading Literature standards from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and I followed it in October with an exploration of how the incentive systems written into the Race to the Top grant programs are likely to lock in a very narrow reading of the already narrow standards.  This entry takes a look at those same Reading Literature standards and posits what possibilities and pitfalls await young readers as the potentially learn reading via these standards.  This is speculative and highly dependent upon a certain degree of fealty to the Common Core State Standards project that is not precisely guaranteed.  However, in all of the discussions on the process and content of the CCSS English Language Arts standards, I’ve seen little that takes these standards and posits what they would mean in classroom implementation for teachers approaching literature instruction using them.

I want to open by stating that people I admire think that aspects of the CCSS ELA standards have potential, and it would be a mistake for any opponent or advocate to assert that the literacy acquisition standards are entirely with or without merit.  In any complex endeavor such as the adoption of common standards for the ELA, there will be conflicting views of the research and developmental appropriateness of the standards.  Regardless, the International Reading Association (IRA) has taken a stance of what I would call cautious optimism that, if implemented correctly, the CCSS ELA standards have strong potential especially in literacy acquisition, fluency, and vocabulary development.  Throughout the chapters in the linked book, authors offer hopeful visions of what teachers could accomplish with the standards, but also sound cautionary notes about the need for development, education, quality materials, and systems that do not narrow what teachers are doing.  P. David Pearson of the University of California at Berkeley notes:

Teacher prerogative and the comprehension model, two assumptions that are strongly represented in the standards and clearly based on research, will not, in my view, be implemented with a high degree of fidelity because the guidelines in the Publisher’s Criteria (Coleman & Pimintel, 2011) are likely to undermine the standards as they are written. Only if schools can resist these guidelines and stay true to the version of the standards in the original document do we have a hope of a high fidelity implementation of what we know about reading comprehension and about teacher learning within school change efforts.
He goes on to state that he still supports the standards because he believes they are an overall improvement because they are “the best game in town”, a hope that they can be used as a “living document” that can reflect best research knowledge, and his reading of the research literature on reading and comprehension supports that the standards are a “move in the right direction.”
I should note that I know Dr. Pearson personally, having studied with him in graduate school, and I have a deep admiration for his body of work and his perspective.  I also note that the qualifications he has made on his endorsement are striking to me because given the policy environment that surrounds CCSS most of his cautions, just like the cautions of his fellow authors for the IRA volume, are being plainly ignored in states that adopted CCSS alongside the high stakes testing and teacher evaluation models based upon them.  Further, while the questions of early literacy acquisition and text complexity are worthy of continued discussion, I remain convinced that the CCSS ELA standards on reading are so text-centric that questions of student engagement and the very purpose of a complete English Language Arts curriculum remain woefully underdeveloped as the nation moves into full implementation of the standards.
Blogger Peter Greene took the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, to task recently in a response to an essay entitled “Cultivating Wonder” where Coleman, who has never studied early or adolescent literacy and who has never taught in a secondary ELA classroom, posits the “proper” way that teachers can inspire students to engage deeply with texts with “good questions.”  Greene shrewdly notes that Coleman’s perspective on reading literature is so tightly confined to reading within the “four corners” of a page that he misses that Shakespeare’s lack of stage directions is a likely byproduct of the playwright being present at productions himself, and he misses aspects of Shakespeare’s story telling craft that are common across his plays.  Professor Nicholas Tampio of Fordham University goes further than Greene, postulating that Coleman’s approach to reading does not prepare students for college because his intense focus on what is just in the text limits students from being able to make insights within and across texts, and preparing them to be graded by software:

As a professor, of course I demand that my students provide evidence to support their arguments. Coleman’s pedagogical vision, however, does not prepare students for college. He discourages students from making connections between ideas, texts or events in the world — in a word, from thinking. Students are not encouraged to construct knowledge and understanding; they must simply be adept at repeating it.

His philosophy of education transfers across disciplines. After analyzing literary passages, he observes, “Similar work could be done for texts … in other areas such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.” Like a chef’s signature flavor, Coleman’s philosophy of education permeates the myriad programs that the College Board runs.

Computers can grade the responses generated from his philosophy of education. Students read a passage and then answer questions using terms from it, regardless of whether the text is about history, literature, physics or U.S. history. The Postal Service sorts letters using handwriting-recognition technology, and with a little tinkering, this kind of software could seemingly be used to score the SAT or AP exams.

Grading writing by computers is probably a long way off, but taken together, both Peter Greene and Professor Tampio’s critiques highlight that David Coleman’s reading perspective is narrowly confined to the “four corners” of the page of text which, when coupled with high stakes testing and teacher evaluations based on testing, will likely produce students responding narrowly, citing small segments of text, in ways that will fall into predictable patterns.

Looking at the CCSS 11-12th grade Reading Literature standards, we can see the boundedness that Peter Greene calls the “four corners of the page” because even in standard number 7 which deals with “multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem” the language of the standard draws readers immediately to evaluate “how each version interprets the source text” with no indication how it is that different actors, designers, and directors might come to various stagings of a play as representative of time, place, and audience; the analysis remains text bound.  The other anchor standards are similarly bound, with standard 1 calling on students to “Cite strong 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;” standard 2 stating students will “Determine two or more central themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text;” standard 3 requires students to “Analyze the impact of author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g. where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed);  standard 4 requires students “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful;”  standard 5 puts students to work to “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; and standard 6 says that students will “Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meany (e.g. satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).”

I do not have enormous difficulties with much of this.  The Reading Literature standards for the upper grades of high school outline a tightly textual approach to analysis that, if done well, could train college bound students in the kind of “text as puzzle” thinking that is often rewarded in introductory level college courses.  The standards require students to support their statements about the meaning of the text with “strong” evidence from the text, and they set students both to understand the tools of text that authors employ when writing and to speak and write analytically about those tools.  It seems very likely to me that a student armed with a mastery of these Reading Literature tools would be capable of crafting spoken and written arguments that would satisfy the grading criteria of many introductory college English courses.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) this remains a narrow vision of what an English Language Arts curriculum can be.  For example, the standards make frequent notice of Shakespeare, and Mr. Coleman’s “Cultivating Wonder” essay includes a pass at making students “wonder” at Hamlet, but can one truly imagine a English Language Arts classroom bounded by just the tools needed to write a competent college English essay?  It is not that those tools are unimportant, but given the Sword of Damocles hanging over teachers via assessment, can they expand their vision of powerful engagement with literature outside of those tools?  I have my doubts, and I have my doubts that David Coleman sees that engagement as important.

However, most English teachers I have known would agree that it is critically important.  Hamlet, for example, even for students in a college preparatory curriculum, is far more than a textual puzzle to be picked apart and analyzed to determine if Shakespeare believes that Hamlet has actually lost his mind or if the scholarly and dickering Hamlet is actually ill-suited to rule compared to the villainous but capable Claudius, the noble and active Laertes, or the militaristic and decisive Fortinbras.  It is a play worth reading and performing because it holds up an uncomfortable mirror to our own human failings, and it asks ourselves what we value in our most human of endeavors, seeking understanding of our place in the continuity of human experience.  And that is because the English Language Arts are much more than tools for advancement to the next phase of education or economic obtainment; they are an exploration of the richness and power of language, which ranks with religion and art as the most universally deployed tools for understanding ourselves.  William Shakespeare has not survived for four continuous centuries of reading and production because his works provide interesting textual puzzles for essays; he has surveyed because he remains one of the English language’s greatest instructors in the meaning of being human.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Coleman, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Also troubling is that the Common Core way of reading literature makes no express acknowledgement of what we know about sophisticated reading in adolescent literacy.  There is no mention of students reading intertexually, using what they know from other texts and applying it to create nuances in the meaning of what they are currently reading.  Nor can one tease out an understanding of the processes by which a student reads in order to make sense of how they will use the close reading perspective so privileged by the standards themselves.  Before a student can deploy the directives of the standards to create a piece of close reading analysis, that student will first need to read and comprehend, and as demonstrated in the Rosenblatt text I’ve linked to, that is a layered process that deploys an incredible number of resources both inside and outside of the text.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  it does not matter that the lesson is directed at citing “strong textual evidence” in order to substantiate a point about the text, if the lesson does not allow for the face that two different readers will be drawn to different points and different “strong textual evidence” depending upon factors that exist entirely outside of the text itself.

It is not that teachers and readers cannot acknowledge that reality within the confines of the standards; it is, however, something they will have to acknowledge entirely on their own because the Reading Literature standards provide no vision of a reading process.

If teachers were holding that perhaps this tightly contained vision of the ELA was restricted to upper secondary levels, it looks like that hope is in vain.  The first three Reading Literature standard looks like this in 8th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.1
Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
And like this in 5th grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.1
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.3
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
And like this in 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.3.2
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.
Even in Kindergarten, children who are not yet fluent are tasked with being little reading detectives:
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.2
With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.3
With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.
What is striking in this backwards engineered set of reading standards is not what is included, but what is excluded and how it remains excluded (and how it cannot help but remain excluded given that states agreed to add no more than 15% of their own material to the standards upon adoption).  I have no problem with Kindergarten students having reading discussions with teachers to practice recall and retelling.  I have no problem with 3rd graders asking questions that can demonstrate whether or not they comprehended what they read.  There is no harm in a 5th grader being asked to locate where in a text he or she developed a particular idea about the text or in an 8th grader honing that skill into a more formal tool.  None of these things harm children, and for those on a path to a four year liberal arts education, the end goal is defensible.
But what is left out absolutely harms them.
What is left out is an understanding of both reading as a process to be fostered and developed over the lifetime of a reader, and what is left out is also any reason for reading that strays from that eventual college English 1 essay and into the multitude of reasons why people read.  As written, these Reading Literature standards would make at least somewhat subversive a teacher who asked students to consider why certain features of the text attracted their attention, who asked students how a piece of reading made them feel initially, who asked students to place authors and literature in the context of place and time to see them as social commentary, who connected works of literature to other works of art, who asked students to connect the text to other pieces of literature except to delve into the author’s use of allegory, who explored the role of literature in the history and sociology of a culture…all of these can only be squeezed into the standards after the total fidelity to close textual reading has been duly observed.
And with the policy system that is currently in place, I fear many teachers will have no idea how to find the space for all of the other purposes for reading literature.  I can think of few tactics more likely to DISCOURAGE a lifelong relationship with reading outside of the classroom.
I’ll take my A on that essay now, Mr. Coleman.  Can I have my Tolkien back, please?

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Filed under Common Core, teaching

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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