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The concept Education Secretary Duncan has entirely missed

This June 7, 2010, file photo shows President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as they step off Air Force One at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich. Incoming chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. says his top education priority is fixing No Child Left Behind, the landmark Bush-era law. His goal? Get a bill signed by President Barack Obama early next year. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The U.S. Education Department recently released a draft set of regulations for colleges of education that would link some federal funding in part to how well the students of their graduates do on standardized test scores. It was no surprise that the department did this; it has been enamored with using standardized test scores as a chief “accountability” metric for years — despite warnings from assessment experts that it isn’t a valid or reliable method. Just how questionable this notion is is the topic of the following post by Sarah Blaine, a mother, former teacher and full-time practicing attorney in New Jersey who authors the parentingthecore blog. Blaine has written several popular posts that have been published on The Answer Sheet, including “Pearson’s wrong answer–and why it matters in the high-stakes testing era” and “You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.”

By Sarah Blaine

It’s hard to decide which of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s most questionable ideas is the worst but I think we have a winner. On November 25th, the New York Times published an article titled, “U.S. Wants Teacher Training Programs to Track How Graduates’ Students Perform.” Yes, you read that correctly. When an aspiring teacher graduates from his or her teacher education program, that program will be rated on how the aspiring teacher’s students perform, including on standardized tests. Programs that fail to generate higher student performance (never mind whether some are sending teachers to suburban classrooms full of privileged children while others are sending new teachers to the rural or urban trenches) will lose some federal funding if their graduates’ students fail to perform.

Now please bear with me. Out here in lawyer-land, there’s a slippery concept that every first-year law student must wrap her head around: it’s the idea of distinguishing between actual (or “but for”) causation and proximate (or “legal”) causation. Actual causation is any one of a vast link in the chain of events from the world was created to Harold was born to Harold injured me by hitting me, that, at some level, whether direct or attenuated, “caused” my injury. For instance, Harold couldn’t have hit me if he hadn’t been born, and Harold couldn’t have been born if his mother hadn’t been born, so therefore it is Harold’s grandmother’s fault that Harold hit me. So, if actual or “but for” causation was legally sufficient to hold someone responsible for an injury, I could try suing Harold’s grandmother as if Harold’s grandmother is somehow – in the eyes of the law – at fault for Harold’s decision to hit me.

Well, that’s preposterous, even by lawyer standards, right?

The law agrees with you: Harold’s grandmother is too far removed from the injury, and therefore cannot be held legally responsible for it.

So to commit a tort (legal wrong) against someone else, it isn’t sufficient that the wrong allegedly committed actually — at some attenuated level — caused the injured’s injury (i.e., that the injury would not have happened “but for” some cause). Instead, the wrong must also be proximally related to that injury: that is, there must be a close enough tie between the allegedly negligent or otherwise wrongful act and the injury that results. So while it would be silly to hold Harold’s grandmother legally responsible for Harold hitting me, it would not be similarly silly to hold Harold responsible for hitting me. Harold’s act was not only an actual or “but for” cause of my injury, it was also an act closely enough related to my injury to confer legally liability onto Harold. This is what we lawyers call proximate (or legal) causation: that is, proximate causation is an act that is a close enough cause of the injury that it’s fair — at a basic, fundamental level — to hold the person who committed that injurious act legally responsible (i.e., liable to pay damages or otherwise make reparations) for his act. [As an aside to my aside, if this sort of reasoning makes your head explode, law school probably isn’t a great option for you.]

Well, it appears that Arne Duncan would have failed his torts class. You see, Arne apparently didn’t get the memo regarding the distinction between actual causation and proximate causation. Instead, what Duncan proposes is to hold teacher prep programs responsible for the performance of their graduates’ K-12 students (and to punish them if their graduates’ students don’t measure up).

Never mind the myriad chains in the causation link between the program’s coursework and the performance of its graduates’ students (presumably on standardized tests). Duncan somehow thinks that he can proximally — fairly — link these kids’ performance not just to their teachers (a dicey proposition on its own), but to their teachers’ prep programs.

Apparently Duncan can magically tease out all other factors, such as where an alumna teaches, what her students’ home lives are like, how her students’ socio-economic status affects their academic performance, the level of her students’ intrinsic motivation, as well as any issues in the new alumna’s personal life that might affect her performance in the classroom, and, of course, the level of support provided to the new alumna as a new teacher by her department and administration.

As any first-year law student can tell you, Duncan’s proposal is preposterous, as the alumna’s student’s test results will be so far removed from her teaching program’s performance that ascribing proximate causation from the program to the children’s performance offends a reasonable person’s sense of justice. [Not to mention the perverse incentives this would create for teaching programs’ career advising centers – under this system, what teaching program would ever encourage a new teacher to take on a challenging teaching assignment?]

So what’s the rationale for Arne Duncan’s Preposterous Proposal? Here’s what he said:

“The last thing they want or need is an easy A. This is nothing short of a moral issue. All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

I graduated from a teacher prep program. I earned an M.A.T. (Master of Arts in Teaching) from the University of Maine, where my concentration was in teaching secondary school English. And Arne both is and isn’t wrong. There is no question that my M.A.T. program could have been a year of easy A’s for me. There was a lot of work, but it’s true, I didn’t really find the intellectual work of the classes themselves particularly challenging.

However, I made a decision — and I don’t think I was alone among teachers in making this decision — that if I was going to have the moral authority as a teacher to ask my students to work to the best of their ability, then I had to have had the experience of working to the best of my academic ability. So, I really worked my tail off in that program because I felt it was important for me to do so, not because the courses themselves really demanded that level of work. And yes, for whatever it’s worth, I graduated with a perfect GPA. But as I understand it, perfect GPAs are common in many graduate programs, not just education graduate programs – and the reasoning for this is not grade inflation. Rather, the idea is that by the time students are enrolled in graduate school, they are expected to master the material, so it makes sense that they would receive grades that reflect their mastery (law school with its tradition of requiring forced-curve grading is a rare exception).

That being said, I had a few terrific professors in my M.A.T. program (Ted Coladarci for Educational Psychology comes to mind) and I had my share of ho-hum to pretty awful professors there as well. (I won’t name names, but my personal “favorite” was the all-but-dissertation grad student who taught us nothing but then required us to write an end-of-course reflection paper about the transformative experiences we’d had in her course; a lot of alcohol enabled me to draft 57 lies in four pages).

But good, awful, and in-between, that 13-month teacher prep program also provided me with a strong grounding in the theoretical — and practical — components of running my own classroom. Our program started in mid-June (on my birthday, in fact), and after a summer of intense theory, from the first day public schools were in session that fall, we were in actual classrooms with actual students. At first we observed, met regularly with our mentor teachers, and began designing lessons to meet our students’ needs. As the fall semester progressed, we taught some lessons in our practicum classes. Then, in the spring semester, we student taught full time (we each had two 8 week placements) for the entire semester (our spring semester academic courses met in the late afternoons and evenings). That spring, I was responsible for teaching — under the guidance of and with the help of my mentor teachers — full rosters of students. After the spring semester ended, we returned to straight classroom work for the summer to round out our education coursework.

When I began my first teaching job the following fall, I was as well-prepared as I thought I could be, but I was also unprepared, because there is a huge gap between a student teacher, who benefits from the gravitas and classroom management accountability instilled in the students by her mentor teachers, and a brand new teacher who must, for the first time, create the gravitas and accountability necessary to effective classroom management on her own. It isn’t that my academic preparation was bad — it really wasn’t — it’s simply that there is a fundamental divide (even with the year of practicum and student teaching experience our program afforded us) between studying how to do something and actually doing that thing yourself.

After teaching for a couple of years, for a whole variety of reasons, I left the classroom, moved back to New Jersey to be close to family, and decided to apply to law school. I am here to tell you that my law degree provided me with far, far less practical experience than my M.A.T. degree. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how law school works, at a typical law school you take a standardized curriculum the first year. Pretty much every first year law student in this country studies Contracts, Torts, Property, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Legal Research & Writing in her first year of law school. During the following two years, law students take a variety of electives, although most law students make sure to take a few other basic classes during those years: i.e., Corporations, Evidence, and maybe Criminal Procedure.

In Legal Research & Writing a law student writes a few legal memoranda and a couple of legal briefs. In the entire year-long course, I think we finished four major pieces of writing (two memos, a summary judgment brief, and an appellate brief). What we don’t learn in law school is anything practical. We don’t learn how to draft the supporting papers for our motions, we don’t learn how to talk to adversaries on the phone, we don’t learn about negotiating scheduling orders and confidentially agreements, and we don’t learn how to interview clients. We certainly don’t learn how to review documents, create deposition outlines, or draft contracts. Anything practical we learn during our law school years we learn from our summer internships: I learned a fair amount interning for a Third Circuit Court of Appeals judge after my first year of law school, and even more as a second year summer associate at the large firm I joined upon graduation.

And for the record, as with my teaching program, I had some terrific law school professors (Claire Dickerson and Diana Sklar come to mind), and I had some pretty awful law school professors. Frankly, that was my experience from elementary school through the end of law school — some teachers were awesome for me, others, not so much.

When I left my M.A.T. program to begin my first year as a teacher running my own classroom, it took me a bit of time to get my sea legs as far as classroom management went, but my professional program had provided me with the tools to get there. When I graduated from law school (and I graduated with high honors, so the issue isn’t one of not being able to hack law school), finished studying for and taking the bar exam, and actually started my first job, I knew nothing about how to actually go about practicing law. More experienced attorneys had to walk me — step by step — through how to do everything from how to put together a motion to how to take a deposition.

Arne Duncan has entirely missed the point. No professional academic program can perfectly prepare you to hit the ground running in your career. Rather, professional expertise is something you develop over years of actually practicing your profession — and the further you progress in your career, the more you appreciate the theoretic base you learned in your academic preparation. I’m a far better lawyer in my tenth year of practice than I was in my first, and I imagine that if instead I was a 15-year teacher this year, I’d be a heck of a lot better at teaching than I was when I left the classroom after two years. That being said, there is no question that my M.A.T. program gave me the skills I needed to develop professional expertise, and frankly, it did a far better job of teaching practical skills I’d need in my classroom than law school did at teaching practical skills I’d need in the courtroom.

Duncan says:

“All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

Figuring out how to do the job by yourself is the key to developing from a student into a professional, whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer. At some point, every professional must make this transition, and all of the training in the world can’t substitute for the on-the-job experience that transforms a recent professional program graduate into a seasoned veteran. Actual professionals know this. It’s too bad Duncan didn’t get the memo.

So here’s my modest proposal: Arne Duncan has been secretary of education for six years, and in that role he is ultimately responsible for the educational progress of all U.S. students. According to the most recent PISA results, U.S. students’ scores haven’t improved on Duncan’s watch. Therefore, by Duncan’s own logic, I propose that we deprive his alma mater — Harvard University — of some federal funding for its current students because Duncan’s failure to improve U.S. PISA scores demonstrates that Harvard (which educated Duncan) is responsible for U.S. students’ flat scores on the PISA exam. If Duncan and Harvard don’t like the logic of my modest proposal, then Duncan should withdraw his proposed scheme for rating teacher preparation programs based on the educational outcomes of their alumni’s students, as my logic simply tracks his own.

Here are some other pieces that may interest you:

This. Means. War. Mom sends message to education commissioner

Pearson’s wrong answer–and why it matters in the high-stakes testing era” and “You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.” This post first appea