What does ‘quality teacher’ mean anyway?

September 12, 2013
blackboard

In the big push for “quality teachers,” the question about what that means gets short shrift. Here’s a piece on the subject by Mike Rose, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of several books. His most recent works are “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, and “Public Education Under Siege,” which he co-edited with Michael B. Katz.

By Mike Rose

Go to YouTube and type in “Harriett Ball.”  You’ll find three or four short clips on this wonderful Houston teacher, including a tribute (she died in 2011) from KIPP charter school founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin.  It seems that in 1992, when the young Feinberg and Levin—fresh Teach For America recruits—landed in Houston, ready, in Feinberg’s words, “to change the world by lunchtime,” they didn’t have an easy go of it.  As Feinberg put it, he lost control of his class by lunchtime and didn’t regain it until Christmas.

Harriett Ball was teaching down the hall, and Feinberg and Levin found her, and had the good sense to latch on to her.  Of Levin, Ms. Ball said, “He was hungry.”  This short film is a sweet tribute, clearly heart-felt.  “She was one of the most remarkable teachers I ever met,” observes Levin.  The duo named the charter school they went on to found, the Knowledge Is Power Program, drawing on a line from one of her chants about the power of reading.  Today KIPP is the nation’s largest network of charter schools.

This tribute sparks for me so many issues related to contemporary school reform: from the nature of teaching and the many qualities it takes to do it well to the incessant drumbeat of criticism directed at teachers and the institutions that educate them.  Harriet Ball is remembered for inspiring Feinberg and Levin to start KIPP, and for the songs and chants she devised to help her students learn the metric system, state capitals, and a lot else.  But if you view those clips of Ms. Ball and read what you can find written about her when she died, you get the sense of so much more: of someone with a keen intelligence about children, pedagogical creativity, humor, an in-her-bones understanding of race and social class, a deep commitment to those students in her charge and belief in their ability, and the kind of authority that emerges from all the above.  In general, education policy and mainstream reform do not address these qualities.  This is an unfortunate irony, given KIPP’s iconic status in school reform circles.

One of the themes you will hear from various mainstream education reformers is that there is a “talent gap” in the teaching profession, that we need a better quality of students to go into teaching, and that education programs need to be more selective.  Of course I, and everybody I know in education, wants to recruit talented, hard-working young people into the profession, and I certainly have a list of things I’d like to see happen in teacher education—and in some education programs these are happening: a better blending of research and practice on how people learn, for example, or better methods of guidance and supervision as novice teachers move into classrooms.

What is worrisome is that in the drive for improvement, reformers can narrowly define “quality” as, for example, the pedigree of a prospective teacher’s undergraduate institution, or the selectivity of that teacher’s education program.  We need to throw a wide net in recruiting teachers, tapping a range of backgrounds and talents.  Those who advocate alternative teacher recruitment and training programs also want to cast a wide net, though their goal is often to recruit people from other professions and from business and management backgrounds.  This is certainly worth doing, but if you also want to draw in young people from low-income households, or who are the first in their families to attend college, or who represent a broad range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, then you need to draw from a broad range of institutions.

Which takes me back to Harriet Ball.  The obituaries mentioned that she got her degree from Huston-Tillotson University, a small Historically Black College in Austin, Texas.  The website for Huston-Tillotson notes that in 2010, the university had a 90% acceptance rate—the lack of selectivity bemoaned by critics of our teaching force and of the schools that produce them.  But in fact a lot of very good teachers come from such institutions.  A while back, I went through two books that profile first-rate teaching: my “Possible Lives” and Karen Chenowith’s “How It’s Being Done.”  I also looked at the Council of Chief State School Officer’s National Teacher of the Year Program.  Only a handful of these top-flight teachers got their bachelors degrees from elite private institutions or from flagship public universities.  A number hailed from state universities.  And a considerable number came from small, local colleges with teacher education programs.  More recently, David Kirp found a similar pattern in the admirable district he chronicles in “Improbable Scholars.

One of the things that I witnessed as I traveled across the country to write Possible Lives was the significant role played by local small colleges in semi-rural and rural areas—in some cases, the colleges were tiny satellite campuses of a state college or university hundreds of miles away.  These schools had to be open to their communities to survive.  In turn, these institutions were often the only avenue available for locals to attend college and enter teaching.  Finances, family obligations, cultural norms—all sorts of factors made it nearly impossible for them to go away to college.  Similar factors sometimes come into play in urban settings where more choice appears possible, but might in fact not be.

Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality—an organization critical of teacher education programs—issued a report that, as its president said, was produced to reveal the “widespread malpractice” of such programs.  In a nutshell, the council’s analysts relied primarily on syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials from 1200 undergraduate and graduate programs and rated these programs on a scale of 0 to 4.  The analysis, therefore, was built mostly on one kind of information—that which could be gleaned from documents—and was further limited by the fact that many schools chose not to participate, given the Center’s anti-ed school orientation.  So the analysts, I presume, had to use what they could find on the Internet and other sources.  In the end, they were not able to rate a number of programs on all their categories, but did issue only four top ratings out of the 1200 and, on the other end, gave over 150 programs a zero rating and marked them with a “consumer alert” warning.  This alert, according to the council president, would caution prospective students about attending these programs and warn district administrators about hiring the programs’ graduates.  The programs, therefore, would have to change or be driven out of business.

There is so much to say about the conceptual and methodological problems with this report, and fortunately a lot of it has been said, as an Internet search reveals.  Of course, if a program is terrible, it should be put on notice, but one thing I kept thinking about as I read through the report was the arrogance in assuming that some analyst in Washington, D.C.—the location of the center—could pass damning judgment on a program in, for example, East Tennessee or Central Oklahoma or Northern California without ever visiting it, interviewing faculty, students, and district administrators, or observing graduates of its program as they teach.

Among its many flaws, the center’s report represents the kind of narrowness in defining teaching and teacher education that concerned me earlier.

How about this? What if all the philanthropies that supported the questionable report from the Council on Teacher Quality contributed an equal amount to a less partisan organization to study excellent teachers who come from modest backgrounds and attend their local (often less selective) colleges?  How did they get so good?  What did they bring with them and what did their programs nurture?  How can we recruit more like them?  And while we’re at it, let’s throw a few bucks of that philanthropic funding their way, for many find it hard to make ends meet, yet regularly spend their own money to make wondrous things happen in their classrooms.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · September 11, 2013