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Two Thoughts on Education This Week: On Teacher Quality Reform

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The End of Ed Schools — and Professional Development?: When it comes to training teachers and improving their skills, this is clear:  The nation spends a lot on it ($7…


The End of Ed Schools — and Professional Development?: 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.

Why House Republicans May Not Be So Good for the NEA and AFT After All: Soon-to-be House Education and Labor Committee Chairman John Kline’s opposition to the accountability elements of the No Child Left Behind Act have certainly garnered headlines. But one aspect of his agenda that hasn’t given much attention is his general opposition to near-lifetime employment for teachers in the form of tenure. While Kline is certainly arguing for a return to local control, he is also supportive of President Barack Obama’s efforts to reform teacher quality. So one could expect one part of Obama’s blueprint for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act — requiring the use of student test scores and other data in teacher evaluations — to actually pass the House in the form of a separate bill. This step would begin clearing the way for states to move in the direction that Colorado has taken and end teacher tenure altogether.

This does create a conundrum for congressional Republicans such as Kline, which have railed against expansive federal policy especially in education. But as I have pointed out last month in The American Spectator, Republicans have been rather flexible in their opposition to strong federal education policy. From launching the committee that wrote the pioneering school reform report A Nation at Risk, to creating the now-defunct D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, to the passage of No Child itself, Republicans are no more interested in small government except when it suits. This is also true now: Kline likely opposes AYP because it exposes the failings of suburban districts such as the ones in his congressional district. Requiring the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, on the other hand, only hits teachers and their NEA and AFT representatives (the latter of which will not like the idea of losing bodies, the very source of their revenue).

More importantly, Kline and other congressional Republicans will get pressure from reform-minded GOP governors, who appreciate the cover No Child and other federal laws give them cover for taking on reforms of their liking. Teacher quality is already on the mind of one possible (but unlikely) presidential aspirant, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels; Kline will listen and behave accordingly. At the same time, weakening the NEA and AFT is something that would play well to movement conservatives and others who generally oppose unions — and also find favor with centrist Democrat and progressive reformers who have equal disdain for the unions.

There are also other aspects of the NEA and AFT agenda — including items that have little to do with education policy — that will be affected by a House Republican majority. The Employee Free Choice Act, whose consideration had stalled under House Democrat leadership, will whither and die under GOP control. Also unlikely to be considered: Any efforts to spur a federal bailout of woefully insolvent public defined-benefit pensions — including even more-underfunded pensions for teachers. There could end up being an investigation of union-managed health insurance funds such as the now-insolvent fund managed by the NEA’s Indiana affiliate, opening up a new can of worms. And don’t expect another Edujobs-style effort to stem teacher layoffs; Kline opposed the $10 billion effort the last time around and considering his more-powerful position, the Obama administration won’t even bother.

Essentially the NEA and AFT may be somewhat happy with the presence of Kline — and that’s only if he can somehow weaken AYP.

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