Is teacher education a disaster?

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One of the biggest debates in public education today is over how to best educate student teachers for the rigors of the classroom. This is the third and final part of a series on the subject by scholar Mike Rose, who is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of  books that include Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education and Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. A revised and expanded version of his latest book, Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us“, is due out in February.

You can find the first of the three parts of the series, titled “Why educating the educators is complex,” by clicking here, and the second part, “What’s right — and very wrong — with the teacher education debate,” here. Here’s the third:

 

By Mike Rose

College and university-based teacher education programs vary considerably by size, region, student body, nature and focus of curriculum, talent of instructional staff, status within home institution, balance of coursework and practice, relation with local district, and more. Some are excellent, some are good and experimenting with ways to get better, some are weak in some respects but decent in others, some are marginal and poorly run. The language of the current criticism of teacher ed, at least the most public language, doesn’t allow for this variability. Nor does the dismissive rhetorical stance of the most vocal critics, the tone and attitude running through their language. The bottom-line message: Teacher education is a disaster.

I understand the use of heated language to get the public’s and policy makers’ attention; in that regard it is rhetorically effective. And I can also understand—and certainly have felt—the exasperation with the slow pace of change that can lead to such language. But, as I’ve argued before about the rhetoric of school reform generally, a sweeping language of failure narrows the understanding we have of a problem and leads to solutions that create problems of their own.

Let me provide examples from the two reports I’ve cited in my previous posts.

 

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The Language and Rhetorical Frame of the Reports

The 2005 report by Arthur Levine, “Educating School Teachers,” provides an example of the way an amped-up language of failure misrepresents the current state of teacher education. In the preface to the full report, Levine writes that though he was recently the president of Columbia University’s Teachers’ College, Educating School Teachers is not a “defense” of teacher ed programs, nor is it the “attack” that critics hoped for: “The aim is to let the data speak for themselves and to allow the chips to fall where they may.” This is an admirable position, but the rhetorical frame and language Levine chooses undercut his goal. Here is a sampling of the section titles: “The Pursuit of Irrelevance,” “Inadequate Preparation,” “A Curriculum in Disarray,” “A Disconnected Faculty.” Sounds awful, right?

When you read these sections, however, what you often find is that the institutional, demographic, and survey data Levine draws on reveals the kinds of negative findings that would support the language of failure about 30 to 50 percent of the time. The other 50 to 70 percent of the data get much less attention and analysis. In a nine-paragraph subsection of “A Disconnected Faculty,” for example, there is one sentence that quotes a positive comment about teacher ed faculty’s connection to the schools, and at the end of the discussion a brief mention of the four model programs described in the conclusion of the report. Yet the survey data presented in the subsection reveals that 30 to 45 percent of teacher ed alumni agree that “faculty are not sufficiently involved with local schools.” The other 55 to 70 percent of more positive alumni responses and comments are barely acknowledged. The Executive Summary, which is the document all but the most thorough journalists read—if anything beyond the press release is read at all—makes no mention of the distribution of the data.

Arthur Levine is a major figure in higher education scholarship and policy—I’ve admired and used his research on the history of the undergraduate curriculum—so one wonders what is going on with this reporting of data. I don’t know Dr. Levine, so this is conjecture, but I suspect that he set out to grab the attention of his colleagues nationwide and jolt them into action. Though he recommends closing down a number of teacher ed programs, he is not writing a brief for alternative credentialing programs “which offer far less preparation prior to entering a classroom.” Educating School Teachers is a jeremiad, an angry cry to fellow higher education scholars and administrators to change in order to thrive. Unfortunately, the rhetorical purpose of the report, I think, leads to, almost commits one to, a one-sided representation of data, and it ends up providing powerful ammunition for those who have goals quite different from Levine’s. As we’ve seen in K-12 policy, the language of failure takes on a life of its own.

There is no need to speculate about the stance of Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, for since her days as a senior policy analyst at the Abell Foundation in Baltimore, she has been a fierce critic of teacher education and an advocate for alternative credentialing programs. (Consider the title of a report she wrote in 2001: Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality.) If Arthur Levine’s report is a jeremiad, NCTQ’s is a polemic that in a rhetorically effective way draws on the conventions of the research report.

Much has been written about the problems with this report, particularly about the significant limitations of its analysis, built primarily on one kind of information: syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials. Because of NCTQ’s well-known animus toward teacher ed programs, only a small number of programs willfully complied with requests for this information, so the Center filed open-records requests, litigated where it could, searched the Internet, queried students and districts, and so on—setting up a contentious dynamic that suffuses “Teacher Prep Review.” At several points, the authors appeal directly to readers to pressure their institutions to comply with NCTQ. The gloves are off.

The authors of Teacher Prep Review make the case for the legitimacy of their analysis through a language of science. They stress the rigor of their procedures, the many steps involved, the use of a technical panel and an audit panel—and the report is thick with tables and charts, further communicating technical sophistication. But as I’ve argued in previous posts in this series, a study can be technically sound but limited. Some ed school administrators have complained that they have informed NCTQ about errors in the Center’s analysis, but to no avail. Still, let’s assume that the analysts at NCTQ were methodical and detailed in their examination of the materials they had. The problem is that what they had provides a narrow slice of what comprises a teacher’s education. Good science is good not only at the technical level, but at the conceptual level as well—and the technical and conceptual deeply intertwine. It is at the conceptual level—the level of understanding of teaching and teacher education and how one might study them—that “Teacher Prep Review” falls short.

Without observing and interviewing new teachers to get a sense of the fuller scope of their educational experience, we can’t know what they did or didn’t learn about, to use the report’s examples, teaching reading or managing a classroom. (“Teacher Prep Review” has sidebar quotations—all negative—from five teachers and two principals. These quotations could be from a survey, but there is no presentation of the results of that survey, and I could find no mention of it in the methodology section.) We are dealing here with the basic issue of epistemology, how we come to know something. A related and fundamental issue is our assumptions about what the something is. I’ll have more to say about this shortly, but for now, let me pose a question: Would a reader of “Teacher Prep Review”—or, for that matter, the authors of the document—want any entity that matters to them (their business or professional institution, their church, their kids’ school) evaluated by one criterion only, by one kind of information?

The second conceptual issue to consider is the fact that the authors have a strong point of view about what should and shouldn’t be taught in teacher education—and how content should be taught. In the case of Ms. Walsh, that point of view predates the production of this report. It is certainly the authors’ right to have a strong perspective, but it needs to be acknowledged as a potential source of bias, for it influences their research and the rhetorical frame in which they present that research. Rather than being an objective report on the current state of teacher education in the United States, “Teacher Prep Review” becomes an argument for a particular kind of teacher education and, de facto, for a particular definition of teaching.

The authors characterize the entire field of teacher education as eschewing training and practical advice, and instead favoring a curriculum oriented toward exploration of novice teachers’ “prejudices…related to race, class, language and culture” and the development of the “professional identities of teachers.” Though this characterization is sweeping, the authors note that what they’ve done is find “programs throughout the country bucking the reigning ethos and actually training their candidates in crucial skills.” They view the publication of “Teacher Prep Review” as a “turning point,” for “the consumers of teacher preparation—aspiring teachers and districts—at last have the information they need to choose what programs to patronize. Collectively, their choices will shift the market toward programs that make training a priority.”

As I’ve been writing throughout this series, my intention is not to defend traditional teacher ed programs as a whole. Some of the issues raised by NCTQ—early reading, classroom management, preparation for Common Core Standards—are significant ones, and it is surely the case that some programs do better with them than others. But what concerns me is the flawed model, the incomplete template being offered as to how we might explore these issues. Of equal concern is the cloaking of ideology in the objectivist language of science.

There is an important passage toward the end of the methodology section of “Teacher Prep Review” where the authors list the limitations of their work: “It is not the intention of “Teacher Prep Review” to substitute for high-quality, on-the-ground inspections as one might expect an accrediting body or government authority to perform…We restrict our evaluation to only program elements that can be reliably and validly assessed by readily obtained program documents.” This is an accurate statement of limitations that the authors violate on a grand scale, for they use their self-confessed limited analysis to condemn hundreds of programs—with the stated intention of driving them out of business. Hundreds of other programs are labeled “weak,” and “someone who wants to become a teacher would be better off investing time and tuition dollars elsewhere.” Rather than a restricted evaluation, “Teacher Prep Review” becomes an activist polemic.

 

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The Potential Effect on Teaching

I want to bring these posts on teacher education to a close by returning to my initial discussion of teaching, what it is, and how it might be affected by the current criticisms of and proposals for teacher ed.

Though I am concerned about the possible negative consequences of the way the criticism is delivered by the high-profile critics, I want to make clear that they raise some important issues for the education of teachers in traditional or alternative programs and, therefore, for the students these teachers will encounter. It should be noted that people within ed schools have been raising these issues as well. Does a particular program offer courses that are relevant to the work novice teachers will soon be doing? Does that program strike the right balance between coursework and work in the field, and are the two connected in a generative way? And does the program have a systematic way to follow up on its graduates and incorporate what it finds back into its course of study? The National Academy of Education recently released a report, “Evaluation of Teacher Preparation Programs,” that provides detailed guidelines on conducting an evaluation that could answer these and other relevant questions.

One could grant my concerns about the critics but argue that they (and the alternative programs some of them lead) provide a necessary counterweight to the lapses or excesses of traditional teacher education. Fair enough. My worry though is that the correction they provide takes us too far in a reverse direction, replicating a troubling pattern in American education of pendulum swings from one pole to its opposite. One potential swing that I address in a previous post is the emphasis on practice with a discounting of coursework in the history and philosophy of education, theories of learning and child development, and the like.

A variation of this polar swing is a focus on teaching skills and techniques over more philosophical and social-cultural topics. This tendency is illustrated in Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion,” a distillation of 49 techniques, from bringing a classroom to order, to asking questions, to correcting bad behavior. “Teach Like a Champion” is endorsed by some of the major players in the alternative credentialing movement, and Lemov was a member of the National Council on Teacher Quality’s technical panel. The book’s value lies in the detail with which Lemov describes the techniques, down to counting the seconds saved by phrasing a question one way rather than another. Though I would want to modify some of the techniques and augment the behavior management approach that informs them, I think “Teach Like a Champion” is a useful and thought-provoking taxonomy (Lemov’s word) of pedagogical techniques for classroom practice. The problem with the book to my mind is that it reaches beyond its taxonomy to become a philosophical and definitional statement. Lemov ends up equating good teaching with technique. “Artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons…achieve greatness only by their attention to the details of their technique…This focus on technique and its constant refinement is also the path to excellence for teachers.” Furthermore, the techniques, Lemov claims, have a direct causal link to achievement and “put students on the path to college.”

Techniques are vitally important, but don’t work in isolation. The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but is dependent on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught and knowledge of how children typically respond to it, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, the alternative explanations, illustrations, metaphors and analogies that might help them. A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, will be influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them. The touchstone of school reform for over a decade has been the need for high expectations for all students. If we’re serious about addressing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” then there has to be room in teacher education for novice teachers to investigate and reflect on the limiting beliefs about cognition and ability that they, that all of us, inhale in the cultural air we breathe.

To be sure, the quality of teacher ed courses on the sociology of schooling, on culture, on linguistic diversity, and the like vary widely, from the imaginative and dynamic to the routine and disconnected. What I am arguing for is the place in teacher preparation, traditional or alternative, for sociological and cultural topics and for the occasion for philosophical reflection on this complex value-laden work new teachers are undertaking. To teach well requires, among other skills and bodies of knowledge, the intellectual tools to understand who your students are, where they live, the history that precedes them and shapes them. Put another way, will we help teachers develop the acumen to analyze what might be going on when their techniques, no matter how refined, don’t work?

Kate Walsh of NCTQ and like-minded critics pose an either/or question: Would parents rather beginning teachers have a class in teaching skills or classroom management or take a class on sociological or cultural topics? Imagine a different question in similar form: Would you rather have your child in a classroom that is well-managed or a classroom that conveys an understanding of your child and that fosters his or her engagement in learning? My guess is that most parents of any demographic category would say they want all these qualities, for in the good classroom all are interrelated.

There is one more issue that emerges in the teacher ed debates that is worrisome: the relation of poverty to academic achievement. Let me again go to “Teach Like a Champion” for an illustration. In the introduction, Lemov reflects on the teachers he’s observed to develop the taxonomy of techniques: “These outstanding teachers routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” The passage illustrates a tendency among some teacher ed critics that we see in larger school reform debates: to pose schooling as the solution to poverty, the intervention that will work where other interventions fail. Here again we have the re-inscribing of a binary: school versus social programs. (There is also an affirmation of technocratic solutions—in this case, technique-driven teaching—to social problems.)

About 15 pages later, however, Lemov offers a moving anecdote that serves as a reminder of the ugly staying power of inequality. He is telling the story of a former student of his, “the bright and passionate son of a single mother with limited English” who made the remarkable journey to Williams College. At college, though, the student’s problems with writing dogged him and were reflected in a professor’s unfavorable response to a paper he wrote on Zora Neale Hurston. Lemov tells this story to stress the importance of teaching students standard written English. But in my eyes, having worked in university programs that serve students like this one—and having been such a student myself—this story represents the intractability of inequality, that after the best teaching Lemov and his colleagues could provide, this young man still needed assistance at further points along the way. One hopes that Williams had the wisdom to provide it. The student will also need people who understand what he must be feeling, the crushing disappointment, possibly anger, and the deep cut to his confidence. Schools like Lemov’s might be able to affect an achievement gap, the scores on district or state standardized tests, but not necessarily single-handedly erase the achievement gap, which requires sustained help of many kinds, including programs that Lemov dismisses as “hand-wringing.”

 

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 The current incarnation of school reform has been with us for over a decade, and not only its detractors but its supporters as well acknowledge its unintended consequences. The recent criticism of schools of education emerges from the same reform principles and techniques, and I’ve tried to tease out in my three posts some of the potential unintended consequences for teaching and teacher education that could result from this criticism.

There is a boldness to the criticism and an entrepreneurial can-do spirit to the high-profile alternative credentialing efforts that is appealing to Americans. The goal is to improve our schools, close the achievement gap, and restore opportunity and mobility. Powerful and laudable. But the criticism has flaws in it that should instill in us a little caution, not to forego improvement of teacher education and develop new ways to provide it, but rather to help us move forward on surer footing. The criticism sometimes includes big claims based on hasty cross-cultural or cross-institutional comparisons, on statistics that are picked out of larger, more varied data sets, and on causal claims that are not empirically supported. A language of science (“research based,” “evidence based”) suffuses the criticism, but, at times, is not warranted by the facts or analytic procedures underlying the language. Though some of the critics claim to be above ideology, basic assumptions about learning, motivation, and the goals of education drive their arguments—assumptions that might well have merit, but need to be clearly articulated and investigated.

Finally, all I’m asking is that we be a little more discerning in language and claims and not repeat past mistakes or stumble into new ones as we educate our next generation of America’s teachers.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 13