Within the past decade, a few things have become clear about the effectiveness of university schools of education in recruiting and training aspiring teachers. None of the facts are pretty. The first? That most ed schools do a shoddy job of recruiting aspiring teachers for the subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial leadership abilities, and empathy for all children regardless of background needed for success in helping students achieve lifelong success. The second: Even fewer provide the high-quality training — especially in reading and math instruction — aspiring teachers to be successful in classrooms; just 11 of 71 ed schools surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2006 taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction, evidence that has been since proven over and over again by other studies. And three: That most ed schools fail to provide their aspiring teachers with high-quality experiences in actual classrooms in order to help them get ready for succeed in classrooms once they are hired.
So it isn’t shocking that NCTQ’s latest report reveals another weakness of traditional ed schools on the preparation front: Training teachers in managing the classroom, one of the four keys to providing children cultures of genius in which they can thrive educationally, economically, and socially, as well as reduce the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions that lead to kids dropping out of school and into despair. Once again, NCTQ’s report is another reminder of the need to develop and expand alternative models of teacher training.
The good news is that 97 percent of the 79 ed schools and other teacher training programs surveyed by NCTQ provided aspiring teachers with some form of classroom management training. The bad news? Few provided this training in a comprehensive or systematic way that helped aspiring teachers be successful in schools. On average, the ed school programs surveyed provided just eight classes — or a mere 40 percent of the classes for a single course — devoted to classroom management regardless of whether aspiring teachers were working with elementary school students or at the middle- and high school levels. A mere 16 percent of ed school programs surveyed devoted most of a single course to any one of the five aspects of classroom management.
Only ten percent of ed programs specifically require aspiring teachers to put the approaches to management they learned to use in real live classrooms with children, while another 24 percent presumably require such activities. Considering that nearly all teachers are solo practitioners with few opportunities for collaboration with colleagues, the lack of practice that makes perfect means that aspiring instructors will end up forgetting whatever they learned once they enter classrooms. Of the ed schools that do require real-world practice, few of them provide observations and feedback aspiring teachers need to improve their work.
Meanwhile the curricula on classroom managed provided to aspiring teachers was mostly subpar. Few covered all five of the key aspects of managing classrooms — establishing rules for classroom behavior, developing daily routines, providing students with specific praise, disciplining kids when needed, and fostering student engagement in learning — needed to build cultures of genius. Just 16 percent of ed schools focused on all five aspects of classroom management. Most focused on what can be the more-punitive aspects of maintaining orderly classrooms than on those that are more-nurturing. Seventy-four percent of schools surveyed failed to address how teachers can praise children for their successful work while 46 percent failed to work with aspiring teachers on how to keep children engaged in learning; most ed schools did focus on establishing rules, routines, and misbehavior.
This overemphasis in ed schools on establishing order instead of nurturing children is particularly problematic because far poor classroom management by teachers is often the first step in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that send children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds as well as those condemned to the nation’s special ed ghettos — onto the path to dropping out of school and dropping into despair. Seventeen percent of black children were suspended once in 2009-2010, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, while 13 percent of kids in special ed ghettos and others considered to be disabled were excluded from school days at least once in the year.
Certainly low quality of instruction and curricula, especially in addressing the needs of kids struggling with literacy is one culprit. So are perceptions among many teachers that black and minority kids. But the lack of comprehensive classroom management training is also a problem. A teacher who doesn’t know how to manage a classroom of children — a group not known for always be well-disciplined in the first place — will struggle mightily in helping them master their subjects; they will use harshest discipline to do (a poor job) to deal with misbehaving children when better approaches that helps tame them and keeps them on the path to graduation. And when that teacher is also a laggard in other aspects of their instruction, the lack of strong classroom management skills exacerbates the damage their already doing to the achievement of the kids in their care.
NCTQ’s suggestions for improving how ed schools provide classroom management training are worth considering. Ed schools should immediately develop comprehensive coursework on keeping nurturing, orderly classrooms that is coordinated throughout their teacher training programs. Ed schools should also gather feedback from alumni and the school operators that hire them. Even providing video and live streams of high-quality teachers managing classrooms would be smart to do. But to be honest, these recommendations are no different from ones NCTQ and other teacher quality reform advocates have pushed ed schools and the organizations that represent them (including the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education) for most of the last decade. And they will fall on deaf ears.
Save for a few notable exceptions including University of Virginia and St. Mary’s College (both of which have been cited by NCTQ in this report), traditional ed schools will not do anything to change their reputations as being the places where collegians go to get easy As (and inflated grade point averages). After all, the schools and the universities that operate them, benefit greatly from the $7 billion spent annually by aspiring teachers and taxpayers to sustain their operations. Ed schools will not sack ed school professors more-interested in filling the heads of aspiring teachers with unproven theories on how to teach children — or in some cases, on the claptrap of Paulo Freire, whose pedagogy has almost nothing to do with education — than on training them how to help kids memorize, retain and build upon knowledge. Such moves would require ed school deans to finally acknowledge that what truly matters most in teacher training are the lessons gleaned from high-quality teachers working in classrooms. And as seen over the past two years as ed schools and AACTE battled fiercely with NCTQ over its review of teacher prep programs it put together with U.S. News & World Report, ed schools won’t willingly accept any recommendations for overhauling their operations — especially when other players in American public education, including state teacher certification agencies and teachers’ union affiliates, willingly give the schools cover.
School reformers have begun realizing the need to abandon ed schools as sources of high-quality talents for their classrooms. It is why a group of charter school operators, including Uncommon Schools, have launched Relay GSE, and why MATCH has launched its own ed school division. It is also why Teach For America, Urban Teacher Residency United, and Teach Plus, who stand outside of the ed school world, have become the teacher training programs of choice for talented collegians who want to work in classrooms. Expanding the array of alternative teacher training programs makes far better sense than continuing to hope that traditional ed schools will get their acts together.
NCTQ’s latest report on teacher classroom management is one that reformers aspiring to launch their own teacher training programs should read; they should take its recommendations to heart. And ed school deans should do so as well — or else go out of business.
No matter what you think of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, one has to admit that she is certainly clever. After all, until last year, when a series of missteps by the union’s New York City local and its compatriots in other cities (along with Dropout Nation revelations of the union’s real views on Parent Trigger laws and Parent Power in general), Weingarten had managed to portray the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union as being more willing to embrace reform than the rival National Education Association. Even with these failures, Weingarten still remains a better-known figure among education traditionalists with real policymaking clout (and, inexplicably, more-respected despite her disingenuousness) than her slightly more-intellectually honest NEA counterpart, Dennis Van Roekel.
So it wasn’t surprising that media and policy types, including a few in education policy circles, lapped up Weingarten’s suggestion last week at the Aspen Festival of Ideas that one way to improve the image of teachers (and address the low quality of the nation’s teaching corps) is to administer an exam of knowledge (and in theory, competence) similar to that administered to the nation’s lawyers. It certainly convinced those not on the education beat such as Steve Clemons, the politics and foreign affairs guy for the Atlantic Monthly, who suggested that “Weingarten may be on to something that helps change the impression that many have of the quality of today’s teachers and teacher unions. For those who don’t know how teachers actually get into the classroom, it sounds like such a great idea because such an exam would, in theory, improve the quality of teaching by restricting who gets into classrooms.
But like so many of Weingarten’s ideas, it doesn’t pass the smell test, and not just because this is an idea that has been bandied about for decades. For one, teachers themselves aren’t held in any low esteem. If one actually looks at Phi Delta Kappa’s annual survey, most folks actually think highly of teachers. The profession is certainly plagued by both the perception and reality of its lack of sophistication (which is one reason why the profession struggles to attract talented collegians), the views among poor and minority families that teachers and other adults in education think little of them (which ends up being more the case than most education traditionalists want to admit), and the growing awareness of how traditional teacher compensation policies (including near-lifetime employment granted through tenure) keep laggard instructors in classroom. But teachers are still viewed as folks who are engaged in what most think is a noble effort to help all kids learn, a perception that has been elevated thanks to the work of the alternative teacher training outfits such as Teach for America and Urban Teacher Residency United, for which traditionalists like Weingarten hold disdain.
It’s not the perception of teachers that has taken a hit. It’s that of the AFT and the NEA, which have been rightly derided for doing little more than defending a failed vision of American public education. Like so many traditionalists, Weingarten conflates public regard for teachers’ unions with that of the teachers who are often forced into membership (and to pay dues) by state laws the two unions fight bitterly to keep in place. Weingarten should stop engaging in this intellectually dishonest posturing and transform the AFT into a professional association worthy of its members.
Secondly, Weingarten fails to admit that there are competency and licensing exams already in place, including the PRAXIS battery of exams administered by the Educational Testing Service, and exams offered by the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium that includes the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. Teachers certainly take plenty of tests. An instructor in Indiana, for example, may have to take four or more exams, depending on the subjects they are teaching and whether they are teaching in pre-kindergarten, elementary or secondary school settings; a teacher will take even more tests just to gain National Board recognition (and additional dollars in salary).
Why would Weingarten fail to mention those tests? Because teacher certification in general — and teacher certification test, in particular — have been a bust. For one, the tests have been far too easy for aspiring teachers to pass, essentially allowing all but the least subject-matter competent to walk into classrooms. This is because state teacher licensing agencies separate from education departments that set teacher training standards tend to be wildly inconsistent in their cut-score setting. Ninety-six percent of aspiring teachers passed their competency exams, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Given that the tests also don’t demonstrate what teachers must actually do in the classroom (and, save for National Board certification, don’t lead to any increases in pay), one can understand why teachers are even less in love with Weingarten’s proposal than yours truly.
More importantly, even if the tests had any rigor, decades of research has concluded that there is weak or no correlation between teacher testing (and the credentials received upon passing them) and the ability of those teachers to improve student achievement; as University of Washington researcher Dan Goldhaber noted in his study of North Carolina’s teacher testing efforts, the tests don’t take away ” the need for districts to be selective when hiring teachers” and for districts and states to ”consider policies designed to shape their labor forces once they have had the chance to observe the effects of teachers in the classroom.”
All of this gets to the heart of the biggest problem with Weingarten’s suggestion: The reality that we must overhaul how we recruit, train, manage, and compensate teachers in order to improve the quality of instruction for all children.
The nation’s university schools of education do a terrible job of recruiting aspiring teachers for those things that matter most in a high-quality teacher: Strong subject-matter competency; empathy for all children (especially those from backgrounds different from themselves); and the entrepreneurial self-starter ability to manage classrooms and school cultures on their own. As University of Missouri researcher Cory Koedel noted in a study released last year, grade point averages for ed school students are greatly inflated compared to the g.p.a.’s of peers in tougher subjects such as math, science, and even the humanities; given that half of teachers never make it into classrooms, it is clear that ed schools are likely venues for collegians seeking an easy “A” instead of a training ground for teachers to do well in classrooms. The fact that the ed schools do a terrible job of training aspiring teachers once they are admitted, with professors focused more on theories of instruction instead of on how to actually teach kids in real classrooms, is also a problem. As the National Council on Teacher Quality has shown ad nauseam, ed schools often do a shoddy job of preparing teachers in the science of reading and mathematics; the schools also do a subpar job in providing those aspiring instructors with the kind of clinical in the field experiences that can make wring out a high-quality teacher from one who should find another career path.
Once low-quality teachers get out of ed schools and into classrooms, there is little way to get them out. Thanks to rules in all but a few states that allow teachers to gain near-lifetime employment through tenure, and teacher evaluation systems in 27 states that don’t require the use of objective student test performance data in measuring teacher quality, a laggard teacher can stay on the job for four decades or longer (and ruin the futures of at least 604 children unfortunate to be assigned to them). The traditional degree- and seniority-based pay scales, based on notions of what connotes quality that have long ago been disproved by data, keeps laggards attracted to guaranteed salaries and benefits regardless of performance on the job, while driving out high-quality colleagues who don’t get the recognition they deserve (and must put up with cultures of mediocrity and failure fostered by the presence of such colleagues). All of this is aided and abetted by abysmal school leaders, who aren’t equipped to hand up coats at Ruth’s Chris, much less manage and evaluate teachers.
This super-cluster of failure is incubated by the very policies and practices Weingarten and the AFT (along with Van Roekel and the NEA) continue to defend, and not just through opposition to the use of student test score data in evaluating teachers. The AFT alone gave $33,319 in its 2010-2011 school year to the National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education, the group charged with validating the quality of ed school offerings. The NEA has long been allied with NCATE, subsidizing it to the tune of $2.3 million in largesse over the past seven years alone. And although the AFT and NEA have convened panels on revamping teacher training (and, in the case of Weingarten, even made the smart suggestion of embracing the apprenticeship model used in high-skilled blue collar trades), the two unions have done little to actually effect any change. As seen with the NEA’s own year-long effort to determine if Teach For America was some sort of union-busting front, both unions are unwilling to embrace new ways of training teachers.
Weingarten should stop with the whole bar exams for teachers chatter and focus more on revamping how we recruit, train, and evaluate teachers.
This starts by forcing ed schools and other teacher preparation programs to recruit talented young men and women based on their subject-matter competence, empathy for all children, and entrepreneurial ability. Teaching guru Martin Haberman’s method of teacher selection, in which aspiring teachers are observed working with children from backgrounds different from their own, would work (alongside using student surveys that can show how kids actually react to those candidates); looking at those who have demonstrated leadership and entrepreneurial ability in other settings, a key selection criterion for admission into Teach For America, should be embraced by every ed school program.
It also means forcing ed schools to overhaul their own curricula to focus solely on proven methods to teach in various subjects instead of on pedagogy; they should also ditch ed school professors who have no classroom training experience and hire good-to-great teachers who actually have done the work. Supporting the development of new alternative teacher training programs and new ed schools operated by districts and charter school operators such as the Relay Graduate School, would also make sense.
Finally, it’s time to fully support the use of student performance and test score growth data in evaluating teacher performance. This is one that will be harder for Weingarten to do given the opposition among her colleagues in AFT leadership. But this is what Weingarten must do if she really wants to be more than a clever strategist for preserving the AFT’s waning influence. Abandoning the defense of tenure, which does little for either good-to-great teachers within her rank-and-file, and more importantly, for children in classrooms, must also be on the union’s agenda.
If Weingarten is truly serious about improving the quality of teaching in the nation’s schools — and providing all kids with high-quality teachers — she can start by abandoning this teacher bar exam talk. And embrace systemic reform instead.
On the New Year’s first Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle takes a look at two new studies on teacher quality and explain why we can no longer depend on classroom observations in evaluating and managing performance. More than ever, objective data — especially value-added analysis of student performance — is critical to helping good-to-great teachers and the children in their care.
You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast Network, Zune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.
When it comes to math, American public education does an even poorer job on this than it does on reading. Math curricula is often subpar and the instruction is even worse. As Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha pointed out last year in his series on overhauling classroom instruction, teachers seem to think that “reading… is an aptitude” while “math is an attitude.” One reason lies with the poor quality of math instruction in our nation’s university schools of education. Two out of 63 ed school elementary math programs surveyed by the National Council of Teacher Quality met or exceeded standards for training math teachers; just 13 percent of 77 education schools surveyed by NCTQ three years ago had high quality math programs. As a result, even efforts to develop rigorous curriculum and underlying standards for math instruction may fail in classrooms because far too many teachers, especially at the elementary level, just don’t know how to do the work. Making elementary school instruction more specialized (and thus allowing students to be taught by specialists in math) will help in the long run. But until then, we must address the math instruction problem in schools today.
This moment is so important for math instruction the more than 40 states that have adopted Common Core standards. We are on the eve of significantly ramping up its implementation. I’m looking forward to the Standards for Mathematical Practice. I have a lot to say about these eight mandates, which are repeated on each page of the Common Core content standards in each grade. They appear as a floating reminder that math instruction is not (only) about memorization and regurgitation, but about deep understanding, proof and argumentation, focused exploration and interpretation.
But I’m convinced that the Standards for Mathematical Practice are doomed to fail in most schools. Why? Because it seems that most teachers and principals don’t understand a simple fact: to teach elementary school math well, you have to know elementary school math really well. And most people simply don’t understand much when it comes to elementary school math.
I don’t know what teacher preparation programs are doing out there when it comes to math instruction. But from my experience in hiring teachers and my stint as an adjunct in one program, my guess is that if there is a math course in most of them it consists of something like, “Here’s the Harcourt Brace textbook. Here’s the Saxon textbook. Here’s the Scott Foresman textbook. Here are some tricks for teaching long division.”
One of the beautiful babies in the bathwater of teacher preparation is the program I went through at Bank Street College. At Bank Street, my math mentor taught me that children need to struggle with mathematical concepts, and teachers need to guide them through that struggle with strategic questioning that builds understanding, always with the next math concept in mind. Children also should know why they are learning math concepts and facts, and have an authentic contextual basis for their study. You can’t simply give the answer or else a child won’t think it through.
But, the easiest thing for a teacher to do is to give the answer, and demand that the kids memorize it. After all, that’s what Scott Foresman tells you to do. Teaching math progressively is far from the fluffy, no-facts, fuzzy math of popular culture. If done correctly, it’s a far more rigorous and intellectually demanding exercise than traditional math instruction on the part of the teacher.
But many math teachers lack math knowledge and competency. It isn’t addressed in common core. And there is no concern for this problem from graduate programs for this problem. What are we to do?
As always, in times of crisis, I turn to books for advice. (Real books, written by authors, not textbooks written by committees, that is.) I’m not talking about how-to books, manuals of how to teach mathematics. I’ll take plenty of time to explore those in a future post, including books by Marilyn Burns and Cathy Fosnot among others. I’m talking about books that inspire or make clear the importance of loving and learning more about math.
Luckily there are a few friendly books out there that do a good job of either laying bare the crisis of math deficits or of explicating just why it’s so beneficial to understand math. Here are some of them. And feel free to recommend more. (And please, don’t say, “The McGraw Hill series has some great looking times tables in it.”):
Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos: Paulos wrote this tract around 25 years ago but its message is still relevant. While there is tremendous shame associated with illiteracy, society still finds it acceptable to be innumerate. And the consequences for that portion of our society that can’t read a stock table or tell an increasing rate of oil production in a foreign power from a drop in GDP from one quarter to the next extend far beyond the realm of whether 2 + 2 is always equal to 4.
How Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years by Peter Rudman: Rudman is not quite a feminist, and you have to avert your eyes at some of the turns of phrase, but he brilliantly catalogs the timeline of the use of mathematical concepts beginning with our hunter gatherer days. Two powerful ideas I took away from this book are that (a) the development of mathematical knowledge in our concept mirrors the development of these concepts in individual children (that’s self-similar like a fractal, although he doesn’t use those words; you will if you love math as much as I do) and (b) there really is a reason why we should explore our base-10 system and other bases with children as we study math. I hadn’t understood it before, but after reading this book every time I look at a clock I think about it.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter: As I’m kind of slogging through it right now (because it’s dense, not because it isn’t interesting), this tome is not nearly as accessible a read as the two books above. It didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for nothin’—the author calls it a “metaphorical fugue” inspired by Lewis Carroll, and that’s pretty much what it is, tracing the history of mathematical thinking about patterns and puzzles, their relation to paradoxes, music and computers. Imagine Willy Wonka wrote an autobiography but his obsession was puzzles, not chocolate.
One of the ongoing discussions in the battle over reforming American public education is the future of the nation’s university schools of education, which train most of the nation’s new teachers. With their failures to improve the quality of teacher training, unwillingness to tighten up their recruiting of aspiring teachers, inability to adapt to the growing need for teaching to be perceived as a sophisticated and attractive profession for talented collegians, and unwillingness to play their part in stemming the nation’s education crisis, one wonders whether they deserve to continue to exist. As Linda Darling-Hammond has pointed out, ed school training is in the same state as medical school training was before Abraham Flexnor’s groundbreaking efforts in the early 20th century forced their revamp. The emergence of Teach for America and other alternative teacher training programs not tethered to ed schools has also provided new competition to the ed school crowd. And while some reformers — including Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality — argue that ed schools still have value, even they declare that ed schools need to change.
In this Best of Dropout Nation, culled from a Three Thoughts column that ran in November 2011, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains why ed schools (along with current approaches to professional development) may be heading to history’s ashbin. Read, consider, and offer your own thoughts.
When it comes to training teachers and improving their skills, this is clear: The nation spends a lot on it ($7 billion alone on training aspiring teachers); there are a lot of ed schools involved in handling this work (1,200 of them); professional development can be profitable for the players who provide it (including consultants like “culture of poverty” promulgator Ruby Payne, and ed schools); and the results are atrocious. Forget the low quality of instruction in our nation’s schools and a dropout crisis which saps the futures of 1.3 million kids every year: Teachers, administrators and policymakers alike don’t even think the training is of any value.
The critical reason is that teacher training and professional development is garbage in, garbage out and garbage in-between. Former Teachers College President Arthur Levine pointed out in a 2006 study that 54 percent of the nation’s teachers are taught at colleges with low admission requirements. Once aspiring teachers are admitted, they’re not likely to get the training they need to get the job done. As the National Council on Teacher Quality noted in its recent study, just one in five of the 53 ed schools it surveyed in Illinois adequately trained their students in reading instruction, and only five schools had strong, rigorous undergraduate elementary school instruction. Many ed school professors think they don’t have an obligation to actually ensure that teachers have strong subject knowledge competency or skill in instructional methods (much less actually have entrepreneurial drive, strong leadership ability and care for all kids); they would rather focus on theories of learning that involve some vague notions about schools as democracies instead of teaching teachers how to teach. The fact that Jason Kamras’, John Taylor Gattos and Jaime Escalantes emerge from the muck and mire is more a testament to their fortitude than to the ed schools from which they graduated.
Meanwhile the professional development is well, abysmal. Just 132 of 1,200 professional development programs surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education focused on reading, math and science; only nine actually met federal What Works Clearinghouse standards for quality and outcomes. Meanwhile there is little evidence that site-based professional development teams — in which teams of teachers meet to brainstorm and learn from one another — works either. Which makes sense: If America’s teacher corps is largely mediocre, then all you have happening is laggard teachers learning from other laggards. Meanwhile the one area of professional development that doesn’t really get called that — graduate and post-graduate training by ed schools — essentially functions as a way for teachers to take advantage of degree-based pay scales. If the ed school did a poor job of training teachers at the undergrad level, then it won’t do such a hot job in post-grad.
So should we save ed schools or professional development. The organization that is supposed to ensure that teacher training is of high quality, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, declared this week in its report that ed schools must move to a “clinical practice” model that emphasizes mentoring by experienced teachers. As reported by Education Week in its special report on professional development, there are new and novel efforts going on to improve post-graduate teacher training. This is all nice. But it may be too little too late.
For example, the NCATE study suggests that ed schools should work with traditional school districts — especially urban systems — to develop training programs that actually match their needs. Ed schools have called for this for years to no avail. Some have already begun to move on from ed schools, working with outfits such as Urban Teacher Residency United and The New Teacher Project to form their own training programs. Suburban and rural districts, who struggle with the same issues, could begin doing so as well. Just imagine if consortia of districts or even, say, states such as California, Nevada and Arizona teamed up with a Teach For America to do mass-scale teacher training? One could also imagine groups of high-quality teachers developing apprenticeship programs of their own independent of teachers unions, districts and ed schools, taking aspiring teachers under their wing and having them work in classrooms; this throwback to the old guild concept would certainly work better than the high-cost system in place today. Such efforts, along with private-sector run teacher training courses, could be the wave of the future.
Sure, as NCTQ President Kate Walsh points out, ed schools train more than 90 percent of all new teachers. But at this point, there are only a few ed schools — notably Teachers College — that deserve the name. If the rest were shut down and replaced with alternative certification programs, American public education wouldn’t be any worse for wear. In fact, we may actually get better teachers and better schools. As for the professional development? What is needed is something better than the status quo.
Your editor would like to say that the National Education Association’s recent suggestions for overhauling traditional teacher training and compensation will actually lead the union to take meaningful action. After all, the plan, on its face, isn’t exactly objectionable. Requiring aspiring teachers to work for a year in classrooms under the watchful eye of a high-quality master teacher would certainly do plenty to improve teacher training; it also dovetails with recommendations made earlier this year by National Council on Teacher Quality and also demands the nation’s university schools of education to step up their game in giving their trainees real world experience.
The union’s recommendation for creating new teaching career paths — including positions such as master teachers — also makes sense. While such ideas have been bandied about for the past decade, it is still worth pursuing as part of the much-needed overhaul of traditional teacher compensation. And its pronounced support for largely abandoning reverse-seniority layoff rules is a real and important concession for which the union should be applauded.
The NEA’s recommendations are worth considering. But there are problems.
For one, the NEA plan’s emphasis on using peer review in evaluating teachers may be a modest improvement over the useless systems of scheduled observations that are now in place throughout the country. But peer review is only good at addressing observable aspects of teaching such as managing classrooms and lesson plans. It cannot address the more-important unobservable aspects of teaching: the ability to improve student achievement over time. Peer review also doesn’t move away from the subjective biases of the reviewers. What one group of teachers may think is high-quality teaching may not actually be so once one looks at test score data; it also assumes that teachers know exactly what to look for themselves, a stretch given that teaching, as currently structured in most districts, is a solo activity in which instructors have plenty of autonomy.
The NEA’s recommendation that aspiring teachers should pass a test that examines their skills in areas such as classroom management also seems to make sense at first — until one realizes that the better solution is to improve the quality of aspiring teachers admitted into ed schools in the first place. As teaching guru Martin Haberman has pointed out, this can be done rather easily. Simply seeing how an aspiring teacher interacts with a child of a different socioeconomic background would weed out those who have no capacity to empathize with children. Embracing Teach For America’s approach of looking for candidates with strong entrepreneurial drive — the ability to be self-starters who can face down challenges — would also make sense. And simply looking at the subject-matter competency of an aspiring teacher before letting them into ed school programs would weed out plenty of men and women who would be better off in other fields. None of these suggestions, by the way, have made their way onto the NEA’s list of reforms.
Meanwhile the NEA’s recommendations for new teaching career paths neglects the need for other changes. As Dropout Nation pointed out in September, the actual work of teaching remains in the same state as the medical profession was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As doctors in those periods were expected to be jacks of all trades instead of being allowed to become dedicated specialists working efficiently in hospitals and practices, teachers — especially those at the elementary school level — are expected to be general practitioners when it makes more sense for them (and for schools) to become master specialists in aspects of student learning. But as Los Angeles Times revealed last year in its value-added analysis of elementary teachers working in the L.A. Unified School District (and as noted in Dropout Nation‘s own report on Shirley Avenue Elementary in suburban Reseda), few teachers are strong in both teaching reading and math; most are either strong or barely treading water in one of the two subjects. Recommending additional specialization, something that researchers Brian A. Jacob and Jonah Rockoff largely recommend in a Brookings Institution report released in September, is something that the NEA and its teacher quality panel should have done.
All that said, at least the NEA’s plan is a starting point. Whether or not it even gets mentioned by the union beyond some of national President Dennis Van Roekel’s talking points is a different story. Why? Because the biggest obstacle to the NEA advocating for these plans is the union itself.
As with so much with the NEA when it comes to teacher quality, the union has generally been all talk and even less substance. As Dropout Nation has noted over the past couple of months, the NEA helped kibosh the one provision within the now-moribund Harkin-Enzi plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act that was its saving grace: Requiring states to use student test score data in teacher and principal evaluations. The union’s longstanding opposition to overhauling traditional teacher performance management — including the use of value-added assessment of test score data in evaluating teacher performance — along with its defense of last hired-first fired provisions its recommendations now decry pretty much show that the union talks out of both sides of its proverbial mouth.
Meanwhile the NEA hasn’t exactly shown that it is abandoning the ed school lobby that helped foster this state of affairs in teacher training in the first place. Since 2005-2006, the union has handed off $2.3 million to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which is charged with elevating standards for ed school training, and has been a generous supporter of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (which represents the interests of ed schools). The NEA has also spent plenty on supporting the very ed school professors who are a culprit for why America’s teachers are so poorly trained. Essentially, the union hasn’t used its vast financial resources to either reward the ed school crowd for reforming their recruiting and training efforts — and has been less interested in punishing them for their failures.
Then there’s the union’s self-preservation problem. Talking about overhauling teacher training and compensation makes the NEA look good, but actually pushing for such reforms would actually hurt the union’s bottom line. After all, if the NEA truly embraced its own reforms and supported even more-progressive efforts (including more-rigorous evaluations based on student performance and ending tenure), it would mean fewer aspiring teachers coming into the ed schools, fewer teacher trainees entering classrooms, and, given that just one percent of teachers regardless of seniority are currently dismissed, more teachers (regardless of experience) losing their jobs. This isn’t tenable for a union which has lobbied for more teachers and smaller class sizes for the past four decades — and definitely not tolerable for a union that has made near-lifetime employment and seniority privileges a critical component of teacher compensation.
More importantly, if the NEA actively pushed for even these largely cosmetic reforms, it would have to tacitly admit that its old-school model of employee-management relations — which it, along with the American Federation of Teachers, borrowed from the industrial trade unions — no longer makes sense. This is especially true because we are in a time in which the success of teachers in improving student achievement can be easily measured, and in which evidence shows that the very traditional teacher compensation systems the NEA defends are both ineffective in spurring student achievement, and worthless in attracting aspiring teacher to — and keeping them in — the profession. The fact the NEA still supports rewarding teachers for being certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in spite of the growing evidence that such certification doesn’t equal improved student outcomes (and doesn’t bring more high-quality teachers to urban classrooms) still shows that the union remains hidebound to failed past practices.
This isn’t to say that the NEA can’t, at some point, embrace systemic reform in a meaningful way. But doing so would require the union to abandon traditional public education practices that have sustained its business and philosophy. This, along with embracing systemic reforms in other aspects of education, would also force the union to abandon the interests of their most-influential of their rank-and-file base: Baby Boomers each of whom average a salary of at least $54,400 a year (and more if they have advanced degrees), near-lifetime employment, defined-benefit pensions that can pay out as much as $2 million over a lifetime, and nearly-free healthcare both during working careers and into retirement. These members, including NEA leaders such as Van Roekel, are loathe to lose the benefits and privileges for which they have long worked. And as a result, the union can’t really be a force for the kind of changes that will help all children succeed in school and in life.
The consequences of this unwillingness to go hard on systemic reform are borne by American public education as a whole — and not just the kids who are stuck in failure mills with laggard teachers. Younger, more reform-minded teachers who now make up the majority of NEA rank-and-file members, are hamstrung by practices that put low-quality teachers on the same footing as high-quality counterparts, deny them the kind of rewards and recognition they rightfully deserve for improving student achievement. and create cultures of mediocrity in which good-to-great work and innovative efforts are likely to be ostracized less-talented colleagues. It also makes it harder to bring talented collegians into the profession. After all, why would a talented math student go into what is perceived to be an unsophisticated low-paying profession when sectors such as tech (and even high-paying blue-collar jobs) offer reap greater financial and reputational rewards?
Ultimately, the NEA will have to walk the proverbial talk in order to win anyone over. And do more than offer some useful talking points for Van Roekel’s next greetings.