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!
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.