Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 25 2013

Teacher education, (teacher/principal) choice, and an idealistic proposal for the future

There’s been a lot of talk about teacher education the past couple of years. In fact, everyone knows that the state of teacher education is in crisis. Of course, the definitions of these crises are antithetical depending on who you ask. More frustratingly, they are both reasonable. My goal in this post is to outline why I’m sympathetic to both camps, and how I think both ideas can be reconciled moving forward (assuming of course that I had more than zero sway in educational policy).

1. One school of thought sees teaching as a profession: a service that requires such complex work that a deep knowledge base, autonomy, and self-driven reflection is necessary for success,  not so different from medicine and law. This complex work comes from a normative view that teaching is meant to instill not just basic literacy, arithmetic, and various other skills, but also social and emotional growth, confidence, civic judgement, critical awareness, and problem-solving (to a diverse array of students with different backgrounds, needs, and interests). Because this work is so uncertain, so difficult to see evidence of minute-by-minute, and so dependent on cultural context and the teacher’s style, they believe that teachers must have the autonomy to use their professional judgement to deliver this precise and complex work. Blunt tools like standardized test scores and value-added growth models are not capable of capturing teachers’ actual skill reliably, and the politics of school organizations can often prevent principals and administrators from making such judgments effectively as well.

How can we ensure quality then? Just like in medicine, the focus of accountability should happen at the front end. Developing the skill and ethic necessary to be granted such professional autonomy requires years of theoretical and content learning, on-the-job training/residency, and mentorship. But there are many practical problems to sustaining this model, primarily regarding the legitimacy ed schools are granted by the public. First, these teaching programs, ideally, will not spit out graduates who are focused on just achieving high standardized test scores. Beyond the discussion of teaching highlighted in the paragraph above, graduates will also ideally teach in schools in which they are needed, even if some of those may be chronically underperforming (which could effect teacher data). Second, the per-capita number of ed schools is staggering compared to other countries, and therefore the admissions qualifications of enrollees are quite low. Third, because these institutions are skeptical of most kinds of data used to evaluate teachers, they do not prioritize collecting such data for their teachers. Fourth, there is no consensus in the academic and policy community about what kind of knowledge base and pedagogical training all teachers ought to have (though many scholars are admirably attempting this project). Finally, there is still an educational crisis, as most of the public is generally unsatisfied with how  Americans are educated and how much it costs, especially concerning low-income and minority communities. Blame can easily then fall on ed schools. For these five reasons, whenever these schools get evaluated by the public (using whatever “objective” or subjective criteria), they often appear as failures, rightly or wrongly. As a result, new, less expensive alternative certification programs are popping up with a totally different philosophy, and gaining much of the public support.

2. This second set of alternative certification providers vary in philosophy, but most of them have this in common: They recruit top students and believe that practical courses in management, lesson planning, assessments, and basic content knowledge (more standards oriented), taught by practitioners, coupled with forms of on-the-job training (co-teaching, tutoring, summer school, residency, etc.) and some form of performance outcomes (some combination of teaching rubrics, standardized test scores, improvement of studies on growth assessments like NWEA and Scantron Performance Series) are more likely to produce effective teachers than highly theoretical, professor-taught university programs. This is where the similarities end. Some of these programs aim to produce lifelong teachers (teacher residencies), some require a year of on-the-job training (residencies + MATCH), some require co-teaching for a year (many schools partnered with Relay), and some require just a month of training  and allow placement in virtually any school (oh hey TFA!).

Of course, many who are sympathetic to these alternative certifications look out at the (much more vast) number of traditional ed schools who have little empirical evidence to show for their success and think crisis. Traditional ed schools see programs like TFA putting ignorant 22 year olds in a classroom after a month of training, or accredited graduate schools of education like Relay that lack actual professors, or teacher residencies like MATCH that micro-manage the very strict behavioral approaches teachers can use, and think crisis!

Who’s right?

They both are, of course. This is true in a number of ways. In terms of “crisis”, it is certainly a problem that we have so many graduate schools of education with clearly variable quality and little accountability. The worst chunk of them no doubt cost tens of thousands of dollars for students who don’t have the knowledge to avoid them, and will likely not leave with the skills necessary to teach. That is unfair to the teachers and their eventual students. On the other hand,  this fact does not discount the initial discussion on the nature of the teaching profession. The rise of programs that do not give teachers the theoretical foundation, knowledge base, and training to perform their high-level task effectively could very well prevent them from successfully building the less tangible skills that are so difficult to measure. Worse, the surplus of these kinds of teachers legitimizes the decisions by both charter and public schools to invest in teacher-proof, scripted, curricula, rather than meaningful development and training (hey, the’ll leave in a couple years anyway). This is path dependency at its scariest.

They are both also right because of the visions of education they each represent. The alternative certification advocates point to the achievement success of schools that utilize their graduates (I am most impressed by Uncommon’s example) even though they have a more centralized, rigid structure, comparing it to the graduatation rates, test scores, and college access of district schools. If more schools could replicate uncommon’s success, many educational inequities will be at least partially mitigated. The professionalizers point instead to the success of nations that have built a professional teaching force (Finland, Canada, South korea, Singapore, Japan) and the effect this has had on international comparisons that emphasize critical thinking (PISA). Why try to reinvent the wheel when we have so many models of national, not just district, success?

How can these two views be reconciled?

It takes a profoundly dogmatic fool to totally discount (not just critique) the positive effects of either top charters like uncommon, or top countries like Finland and South Korea. If this were forty years ago I’d say we ought to model Finland, but at the moment we have a crumbling (on the whole, with exceptions) infrastructure of traditional ed schools and a burgeoning (but not necessarily successful) infrastructure of alternative certifications. We ought not to throw out the lessons we’ve learned from some of the best alternative certification programs, and we certainly should not give up on the aim of rebuilding the teaching profession. But I think both can happen it once, and in support of each other.

The key, I believe, is choice. Not school choice, but teacher choice, and principal choice. Recent graduates who want to go straight to Relay or Teach For America should be free to (if they get in), noting that they will neither be the best equipped day one, nor the most appealing candidates to principals. Principals (and teachers at schools) should also get to decide who they want to hire. They shouldn’t be forced by city districts either to hire a certain number of TfA corps members or teachers with the most work experience. They should hire teachers that are the best fit for their school culture. At uncommon that will often mean a malleable first year teacher who is ready to receive their extensive on the job training and work 80 hours a week. For a more progressive district school that will mean a veteran teacher with a strong theoretical training in pedagogy and vast experience delivering such lessons.

What this idea would require:

1. The accreditation of all ed schools (or organization) who want it, so long as they publish and make available online detailed aggregate data that includes not just outcome measurements of their teachers, but coursework, principal satisfaction (perhaps on a range of criteria from professionalism to behavior management), fellow teacher satisfaction (for perhaps the same criteria),  years at school, reason for leaving, debt incurred, acceptance rate, etc. Again, ideally schools will make hiring decisions based in part on the kinds of teachers a particular ed school produces. If a school mobilizes around guided reading, they should know which teachers were trained in balanced literacy.

2. Enhanced school autonomy regarding hiring decisions. This is huge, and something that I think both sides of the ed reform debate are sympathetic to, even if its so far from happening in reality and so often lost in other kinds of debates. No school should have to hire a TFA corps member against their will, no school should have to hire a stubborn 30 year veteran teacher who lacks a sound training against their will.

Why this idea might help:

1. It will allow different philosophies of teacher education to flourish over time, so long as schools of a particular philosophy can produce teachers who are ready  to seek out, get hired by, and to contribute well to their schools of choice.

2. It will give principals way more information that will help them make productive hiring decisions and ensure that they can build a pedagogically and philosophically aligned school.

3. It will help to foster relationships between universities and schools that share educational philosophies that could result in more/better research, professional development, and innovation.

4. It will make it easier for the vast majority of non-charter schools stand up for exactly what they believe in, and pick out teachers who will contribute to, rather than subtract from their culture. While charter schools have already been able to take advantage of this by training teachers themselves through institute or relay or MATCH, now district schools could follow along, but with a very different approach.

5. Successful programs will spread or erode based on the teachers they produce, not their test scores, political connections, credentialing abilities, etc.

6. Parents will see more clear alternatives to “no excuses” charter schools (since, let’s face it, charters and choice are pretty much here to stay). It won’t be charter v district blob of unaccountability, but no excuses mentality v constructivist mentality v responsive classroom mentality v career-oriented mentality, etc.

Thoughts, anyone? I feel like its so easy to criticize these days, it’s worth it to throw a utopian idea on the table and see if it spurs any good debate.

4 Responses

  1. PhillyFamous

    Wow. This article brings up a really important topic. I’m surprised there’s not more activity on this posting because it is EXTREMELY relevant to the state of teaching in this country. I agree with your assertions and I would like to see a time where principals and other school administrators have more hiring power. However, I have a more cynical view of the possibility of making this a reality.

    At the end of the day, teachers who ‘graduate’ from either alternative or traditional tracks only want one thing…A JOB. Providing principals with more autonomy on hiring decisions disrupts the ability of teaching programs to provide their graduates with jobs. I am a senior ed major and I will graduate with my certification in Social Studies. I live on the East Cost in the tri-state area and I am well aware of the lack of positions available for me once I graduate. Just look at the state of public schools in east cost metropolitan cities! I applied and got into TFA mainly for that one reason. Yes I had always known I wanted to teach in students from a lower income community and yes I wanted to be surrounded by like minded people who share my passions. But I needed a job and TFA almost guarantees you one because of the way that you explained. If you change the rules, alternative track programs collapse. People apply to those programs not for the training, but for the guarantee of a job. I truly believe that schools like Uncommon would almost always choose a fresh graduate from a traditional ed program over an alternative tracked graduate. Schools like that don’t care about whether or not you suddenly wanted to change your career. They want people who are willing to grind, hustle, and commit to having their students achieve, even if that means working 60 hour weeks. Schools like Uncommon and KIPP just don’t want that 30 year old veteran who comes with expectations. Expanding the hiring power of principals would spell the end of alternative track programs. They rely on their contracts with schools that set quotas.

  2. PhillyFamous

    At the end of the day, schools like KIPP and Uncommon just want malleable educators. They want teachers who they can stretch and bend. Why wouldn’t they opt for a fresh faced graduate from a 3-4 year ed program over a TFA graduate. It makes no sense! The only thing stopping them is the contracts that alternative tracked programs have with school districts. If I was a principal at a school like KIPP, why wouldn’t I want to only hire young fresh traditional teachers. They cost the same as someone from TFA. And they are just as desperate to get a job!

  3. yoteach

    Thanks for your response! Your point is an interesting one. While I think your right that large contracts/quotas/promises contribute to the placement of alternatively certified teachers, especially for TFA, I’m not convinced as you are that principals would choose exclusively traditionally trained teachers, and even if this were the case, that this would be a bad thing.

    a. KIPP/UNCOMMON and many other charter schools created/influenced many teacher-prep programs so that they could pick teachers who are more likely to succeed in their model. If they were happy with traditionally prepared teachers, they wouldn’t have needed to do this.
    b. All independent charter schools who partner with TFA by definition have local control and still hire TFA corps members.
    c. At least charter school principals tend to have autonomy over who they let go after a year. In general, I personally haven’t seen a trend of this happening at a hire rate for TFA corps members than others.

    Also, I think there is a consensus that on average, there isn’t much difference between alternative and traditionally certified teachers. Now, some ed schools may average above TFA, but they tend to be balanced by very weak ed schools. TFA and alternative certified teachers, most agree, are less likely to be horrible, less likely to be great, and more likely to be malleable, which to many principals is a better bet than a traditionally prepared teacher who is more likely to already have a vision for how they want to teach irrespective of placement.

    Finally, if you are right, and principals would exclusively hire traditionally certified teachers if they had the choice, then I’m of the opinion that alternative certifications deserve to be weeded out. Either way, I would love to know the extent to which principals have choices in TFA hirings.

  4. PhillyFamous

    Thanks for your response. I didn’t think on the fact that ed schools are all different. I will graduate from an ed school that is located in a rough spot of Philadelphia, and graduates there are very prepared to work in lower income areas because they have field experience in low income schools. I guess it would be different from people who go to ed schools in higher income areas. It’s just a very interesting topic for discussion. I just read an article that talked about the difficulty Harvard has to recruit students for its ed program even though a large number of its graduates apply and get into TFA. I just see this as becoming a very slippery slope for the education training field as a whole. I don’t want to see the increasing status and prestige of alternative certification programs completely invalidate the 3-4 years of work an ed student has done.

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