About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Part Three. Responding to the Federal Department of Education's Proposal to Rank Teacher Education Programs: "The Language of the Reports on Teacher Education and the Effect on Teaching" (Reposted from 1/22/14)

The federal Department of Education is proposing a set of regulations for teacher education programs. There are about six weeks left for the public to comment on these proposals. You can read the Department’s November 25, 2014 press release here.

Some of the proposed regulations are reasonable (graduates giving feedback to their teacher education programs) and some are terribly wrongheaded, repeating the disastrous kind of thinking that shaped No Child Left Behind: for example, teacher ed programs would be evaluated based on the test scores of the children taught by the programs’ graduates. There are logical and conceptual problems as well as technical ones with this proposal, as I argued in Part One of these posts.

I am reposting the last of three pieces I wrote in late 2013 and early 2014 on teaching and teacher education. They are relevant to the current discussion of teacher education and to the proposed regulations from the federal Department of Education.

One note. Since I originally wrote this post, which contains a critique of the report issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality, NCTQ has issued a second report, which I have not yet studied closely. My assessment of the first report still stands.


            College and university-based teacher education programs vary considerably by size, region, student body, nature and focus of curriculum, talent of instructional staff, status within home institution, balance of coursework and practice, relation with local district, and more. Some are excellent, some are good and experimenting with ways to get better, some are weak in some respects but decent in others, some are marginal and poorly run. The language of the current criticism of teacher ed, at least the most public language, doesn’t allow for this variability. Nor does the dismissive rhetorical stance of the most vocal critics, the tone and attitude running through their language. The bottom-line message: Teacher education is a disaster.

            I understand the use of heated language to get the public’s and policy makers’ attention; in that regard it is rhetorically effective. And I can also understand—and certainly have felt—the exasperation with the slow pace of change that can lead to such language. But, as I’ve argued before about the rhetoric of school reform generally, a sweeping language of failure narrows the understanding we have of a problem and leads to solutions that create problems of their own.

            Let me provide examples from the two reports I’ve cited in my previous posts.

The Language and Rhetorical Frame of the Reports

            The 2005 report by Arthur Levine, Educating School Teachers, provides an example of the way an amped-up language of failure misrepresents the current state of teacher education. In the preface to the full report, Levine writes that though he was recently the president of Columbia University’s Teachers’ College, Educating School Teachers is not a “defense” of teacher ed programs, nor is it the “attack” that critics hoped for: “The aim is to let the data speak for themselves and to allow the chips to fall where they may.” This is an admirable position, but the rhetorical frame and language Levine chooses undercut his goal. Here is a sampling of the section titles: “The Pursuit of Irrelevance,” “Inadequate Preparation,” “A Curriculum in Disarray,” “A Disconnected Faculty.” Sounds awful, right?

            When you read these sections, however, what you often find is that the institutional, demographic, and survey data Levine draws on reveals the kinds of negative findings that would support the language of failure about 30 to 50 percent of the time. The other 50 to 70 percent of the data get much less attention and analysis. In a nine-paragraph subsection of “A Disconnected Faculty,” for example, there is one sentence that quotes a positive comment about teacher ed faculty’s connection to the schools, and at the end of the discussion a brief mention of the four model programs described in the conclusion of the report. Yet the survey data presented in the subsection reveals that 30 to 45 percent of teacher ed alumni agree that “faculty are not sufficiently involved with local schools.” The other 55 to 70 percent of more positive alumni responses and comments are barely acknowledged. The Executive Summary, which is the document all but the most thorough journalists read—if anything beyond the press release is read at all—makes no mention of the distribution of the data.

            Arthur Levine is a major figure in higher education scholarship and policy—I’ve admired and used his research on the history of the undergraduate curriculum—so one wonders what is going on with this reporting of data. I don’t know Dr. Levine, so this is conjecture, but I suspect that he set out to grab the attention of his colleagues nationwide and jolt them into action. Though he recommends closing down a number of teacher ed programs, he is not writing a brief for alternative credentialing programs “which offer far less preparation prior to entering a classroom.” Educating School Teachers is a jeremiad, an angry cry to fellow higher education scholars and administrators to change in order to thrive. Unfortunately, the rhetorical purpose of the report, I think, leads to, almost commits one to, a one-sided representation of data, and it ends up providing powerful ammunition for those who have goals quite different from Levine’s. As we’ve seen in K-12 policy, the language of failure takes on a life of its own.

            There is no need to speculate about the stance of Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, for since her days as a senior policy analyst at the Abell Foundation in Baltimore, she has been a fierce critic of teacher education and an advocate for alternative credentialing programs. (Consider the title of a report she wrote in 2001: Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality.) If Arthur Levine’s report is a jeremiad, NCTQ’s is a polemic that in a rhetorically effective way draws on the conventions of the research report.

            Much has been written about the problems with this report, particularly about the significant limitations of its analysis, built primarily on one kind of information: syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials. Because of NCTQ’s well-known animus toward teacher ed programs, only a small number of programs willfully complied with requests for this information, so the Center filed open-records requests, litigated where it could, searched the Internet, queried students and districts, and so on—setting up a contentious dynamic that suffuses Teacher Prep Review. At several points, the authors appeal directly to readers to pressure their institutions to comply with NCTQ. The gloves are off.

            The authors of Teacher Prep Review make the case for the legitimacy of their analysis through a language of science. They stress the rigor of their procedures, the many steps involved, the use of a technical panel and an audit panel—and the report is thick with tables and charts, further communicating technical sophistication. But as I’ve argued in previous posts in this series, a study can be technically sound but limited. Some ed school administrators have complained that they have informed NCTQ about errors in the Center’s analysis, but to no avail. Still, let’s assume that the analysts at NCTQ were methodical and detailed in their examination of the materials they had. The problem is that what they had provides a narrow slice of what comprises a teacher’s education. Good science is good not only at the technical level, but at the conceptual level as well—and the technical and conceptual deeply intertwine. It is at the conceptual level—the level of understanding of teaching and teacher education and how one might study them—that Teacher Prep Review falls short.

            Without observing and interviewing new teachers to get a sense of the fuller scope of their educational experience, we can’t know what they did or didn’t learn about, to use the report’s examples, teaching reading or managing a classroom. (Teacher Prep Review has sidebar quotations—all negative—from five teachers and two principals. These quotations could be from a survey, but there is no presentation of the results of that survey, and I could find no mention of it in the methodology section.) We are dealing here with the basic issue of epistemology, how we come to know something. A related and fundamental issue is our assumptions about what the something is. I’ll have more to say about this shortly, but for now, let me pose a question: Would a reader of Teacher Prep Review—or, for that matter, the authors of the document—want any entity that matters to them (their business or professional institution, their church, their kids’ school) evaluated by one criterion only, by one kind of information?

            The second conceptual issue to consider is the fact that the authors have a strong point of view about what should and shouldn’t be taught in teacher education—and how content should be taught. In the case of Ms. Walsh, that point of view predates the production of this report. It is certainly the authors’ right to have a strong perspective, but it needs to be acknowledged as a potential source of bias, for it influences their research and the rhetorical frame in which they present that research. Rather than being an objective report on the current state of teacher education in the United States, Teacher Prep Review becomes an argument for a particular kind of teacher education and, de facto, for a particular definition of teaching.

            The authors characterize the entire field of teacher education as eschewing training and practical advice, and instead favoring a curriculum oriented toward exploration of novice teachers’ “prejudices…related to race, class, language and culture” and the development of the “professional identities of teachers.” Though this characterization is sweeping, the authors note that what they’ve done is find “programs throughout the country bucking the reigning ethos and actually training their candidates in crucial skills.” They view the publication of Teacher Prep Review as a “turning point,” for “the consumers of teacher preparation—aspiring teachers and districts—at last have the information they need to choose what programs to patronize. Collectively, their choices will shift the market toward programs that make training a priority.”

            As I’ve been writing throughout this series, my intention is not to defend traditional teacher ed programs as a whole. Some of the issues raised by NCTQ—early reading, classroom management, preparation for Common Core Standards—are significant ones, and it is surely the case that some programs do better with them than others. But what concerns me is the flawed model, the incomplete template being offered as to how we might explore these issues. Of equal concern is the cloaking of ideology in the objectivist language of science.

            There is an important passage toward the end of the methodology section of Teacher Prep Review where the authors list the limitations of their work: “It is not the intention of Teacher Prep Review to substitute for high-quality, on-the-ground inspections as one might expect an accrediting body or government authority to perform…We restrict our evaluation to only program elements that can be reliably and validly assessed by readily obtained program documents.” This is an accurate statement of limitations that the authors violate on a grand scale, for they use their self-confessed limited analysis to condemn hundreds of programs—with the stated intention of driving them out of business. Hundreds of other programs are labeled “weak,” and “someone who wants to become a teacher would be better off investing time and tuition dollars elsewhere.” Rather than a restricted evaluation, Teacher Prep Review becomes an activist polemic.

The Potential Effect on Teaching

            I want to bring these posts on teacher education to a close by returning to my initial discussion of teaching, what it is, and how it might be affected by the current criticisms of and proposals for teacher ed.

            Though I am concerned about the possible negative consequences of the way the criticism is delivered by the high-profile critics, I want to make clear that they raise some important issues for the education of teachers in traditional or alternative programs and, therefore, for the students these teachers will encounter. It should be noted that people within ed schools have been raising these issues as well. Does a particular program offer courses that are relevant to the work novice teachers will soon be doing? Does that program strike the right balance between coursework and work in the field, and are the two connected in a generative way? And does the program have a systematic way to follow up on its graduates and incorporate what it finds back into its course of study? The National Academy of Education recently released a report, Evaluation of Teacher Preparation Programs, that provides detailed guidelines on conducting an evaluation that could answer these and other relevant questions.

            One could grant my concerns about the critics but argue that they (and the alternative programs some of them lead) provide a necessary counterweight to the lapses or excesses of traditional teacher education. Fair enough. My worry though is that the correction they provide takes us too far in a reverse direction, replicating a troubling pattern in American education of pendulum swings from one pole to its opposite. One potential swing that I address in a previous post is the emphasis on practice with a discounting of coursework in the history and philosophy of education, theories of learning and child development, and the like.

A variation of this polar swing is a focus on teaching skills and techniques over more philosophical and social-cultural topics. This tendency is illustrated in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, a distillation of forty-nine techniques, from bringing a classroom to order, to asking questions, to correcting bad behavior. Teach Like a Champion is endorsed by some of the major players in the alternative credentialing movement, and Lemov was a member of the National Council on Teacher Quality’s technical panel. The book’s value lies in the detail with which Lemov describes the techniques, down to counting the seconds saved by phrasing a question one way rather than another. Though I would want to modify some of the techniques and augment the behavior management approach that informs them, I think Teach Like a Champion is a useful and thought-provoking taxonomy (Lemov’s word) of pedagogical techniques for classroom practice. The problem with the book to my mind is that it reaches beyond its taxonomy to become a philosophical and definitional statement. Lemov ends up equating good teaching with technique. “Artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons…achieve greatness only by their attention to the details of their technique…This focus on technique and its constant refinement is also the path to excellence for teachers.” Furthermore, the techniques, Lemov claims, have a direct causal link to achievement and “put students on the path to college.”

            Techniques are vitally important, but don’t work in isolation. The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but is dependent on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught and knowledge of how children typically respond to it, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, the alternative explanations, illustrations, metaphors and analogies that might help them. A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, will be influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them. The touchstone of school reform for over a decade has been the need for high expectations for all students. If we’re serious about addressing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” then there has to be room in teacher education for novice teachers to investigate and reflect on the limiting beliefs about cognition and ability that they, that all of us, inhale in the cultural air we breathe.

            To be sure, the quality of teacher ed courses on the sociology of schooling, on culture, on linguistic diversity, and the like vary widely, from the imaginative and dynamic to the routine and disconnected. What I am arguing for is the place in teacher preparation, traditional or alternative, for sociological and cultural topics and for the occasion for philosophical reflection on this complex value-laden work new teachers are undertaking. To teach well requires, among other skills and bodies of knowledge, the intellectual tools to understand who your students are, where they live, the history that precedes them and shapes them. Put another way, will we help teachers develop the acumen to analyze what might be going on when their techniques, no matter how refined, don’t work?

            Kate Walsh of NCTQ and like-minded critics pose an either/or question: Would parents rather beginning teachers have a class in teaching skills or classroom management or take a class on sociological or cultural topics? Imagine a different question in similar form: Would you rather have your child in a classroom that is well-managed or a classroom that conveys an understanding of your child and that fosters his or her engagement in learning? My guess is that most parents of any demographic category would say they want all these qualities, for in the good classroom all are interrelated.


            The current incarnation of school reform has been with us for over a decade, and not only its detractors but its supporters as well acknowledge its unintended consequences. The recent criticism of schools of education emerges from the same reform principles and techniques, and I’ve tried to tease out in my three posts some of the potential unintended consequences for teaching and teacher education that could result from this criticism.

            There is a boldness to the criticism and an entrepreneurial can-do spirit to the high-profile alternative credentialing efforts that is appealing to Americans. The goal is to improve our schools, close the achievement gap, and restore opportunity and mobility. Powerful and laudable. But the criticism has flaws in it that should instill in us a little caution, not to forego improvement of teacher education and develop new ways to provide it, but rather to help us move forward on surer footing. The criticism sometimes includes big claims based on hasty cross-cultural or cross-institutional comparisons, on statistics that are picked out of larger, more varied data sets, and on causal claims that are not empirically supported. A language of science (“research based,” “evidence based”) suffuses the criticism, but, at times, is not warranted by the facts or analytic procedures underlying the language. Though some of the critics claim to be above ideology, basic assumptions about learning, motivation, and the goals of education drive their arguments—assumptions that might well have merit, but need to be clearly articulated and investigated.

            Finally, all I’m asking is that we be a little more discerning in language and claims and not repeat past mistakes or stumble into new ones as we educate our next generation of America’s teachers.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Part Two. Responding to the Federal Department of Education's Proposal to Rank Teacher Education Programs: "Teaching, Admissions Standards, and Closing Programs" (Reposted from 1/6/14)

The federal Department of Education is proposing a set of regulations for teacher education programs. There is a 60-day period for the public to comment on these proposals. You can read the Department’s November 25, 2014 press release here.

Some of the proposed regulations are reasonable (graduates giving feedback to their teacher education programs) and some are terribly wrongheaded, repeating the disastrous kind of thinking that shaped No Child Left Behind: for example, teacher ed programs would be evaluated based on the test scores of the children taught by the programs’ graduates. There are logical and conceptual problems as well as technical ones with this proposal, as I argued in Part One of these posts.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to continue to repost the three pieces I wrote in late 2013 and early 2014 on teaching and teacher education. They are relevant to the current discussion of teacher education and to the proposed regulations from the federal Department of Education.

Here is the second.


There are many different types of effective teaching and many roads to get there. Travelling across the United States to document good public school classrooms for Possible Lives, I saw solid to extraordinary teachers of many stripes: shy and outgoing; desks in rows and desks all over the place; some were low-key and methodical, and some were energetic and spontaneous; some swore by one way of organizing their curricula and classrooms that others would find unworkable; some spoke a fair amount, others turned the floor continually back over to their students.

            Yet within the variability, there were qualities they all shared. They had command of the material they taught. They created safe and respectful classrooms. They had a deep belief in the ability of their students and held high expectations for them. They required their students to think and think hard and worked to engage students in each others’ thinking. The richness came in the variety of ways they realized these qualities—an important point, given the push by some for increasingly regulated curriculum and pedagogy.

Part of the variation, of course, was a result of where these teachers went to college. But the variation also came from influential teachers they had earlier in their own schooling. The way they taught was also influenced by their personalities and by their values and background: by family or religion or positive or negative experiences in school; by the experience of race or ethnicity, social class, gender, or sexual orientation; by political and social commitments; by the love of a subject. An important quality of a teacher education program, traditional or alternative, is how well it is able to draw on and develop these characteristics. You won’t see this quality mentioned in any of the high-profile reports on teacher education.

With a few exceptions, the teachers in Possible Lives came from modest middle-class to working-class backgrounds. (This tends to be true for teachers as a whole.) A fair number went through local or regional teacher ed programs—the kinds of programs that have been targeted in teacher ed critiques. Because of finances or family expectations or cultural norms, some of the teachers I observed had few other options.

One compelling reason behind the rise of alternative credentialing programs is to draw into the teaching force a wider sweep of people from a range of backgrounds—particularly people who might not otherwise have gone into teaching. This is all to the good. But at the same time there’s this expansive impulse in the discussion and debates around teacher ed, there is also a restrictive counter-force: calls to raise admissions standards into teacher education and recommendations to limit or close particular kinds of teacher ed programs. Let me consider each in turn.

Raising Standards

The general complaint here is that traditional teacher education candidates, on average, come from the lower ranks of their class and score below the national average on SAT and GRE exams. There is more variation here than the average suggests, however: some local colleges take many of their applicants, and some universities are quite selective. Also secondary-level candidates tend to have higher grade point averages and test scores than their elementary-level peers. Still it is of course true that we want to do everything possible to draw people with strong educations into teaching. Teaching is intellectual work, as I noted earlier, and I think that one thing that has limited the profession is that teaching—especially at the elementary level—is not typically defined that way. Teachers need a good general education, and, hugely important, I think, they need to be interested in education, gain pleasure from learning and thinking about learning. For those who will teach a particular subject, they need to be well educated in that field.

So, to be clear, knowledge matters. I have seen too many instances of teachers providing superficial or downright incorrect comments on student papers or stumbling through a science or math lesson on material they clearly don’t understand. But knowing something, as fundamental as that is, is half the story; knowing how to teach it—“pedagogical content knowledge,” in psychologist Lee Shulman’s famous phrase—is equally important. We have a history in the United States of defining teaching primarily in terms of process and technique or in terms of subject matter knowledge. Of the many fruitless dichotomies that bedevil education, this is among the most unproductive.

One of my concerns about the contemporary teacher ed debates is that knowledge—as represented by undergraduate major and GPA—is held in some circles as the touchstone of teaching excellence. Certainly a big part of Teach For America’s appeal is the undergraduate pedigree of its interns. And it seems to be the hope of some alternative programs that if we just get more “smart” people—smart defined by academic background, GPA, test scores—into teaching, we will have gone a long way toward solving the “teacher quality” issue. But an undergraduate at our most prestigious colleges and universities can go through four intense years of literature or chemistry and never once be confronted with the question: How would I teach this?

A while back, I spent time doing research in a top-ranked medical school. To a person, the students had through-the-roof academic credentials and did exceedingly well in their first two years of science courses. Talk about smart! The striking thing was that a fair number of them had real difficulty as they moved toward patient care. Not only were they socially inept—distant, awkward—but also diagnostically maladroit, partly because they couldn’t communicate with their patients and partly because of the difference between knowing physiology and using it to diagnose and help cure another human being. In response to this not uncommon state of affairs, medical schools across the country have been modifying supervision; instituting courses in communication, patient care, “doctoring,” and the art of medicine; and changing their recruiting and admissions policies to widen the net, gaining some students who might not have the same astronomical GPAs, but possess other qualities that contribute to being a good doctor.

I think we need to be cautious about conflating academic achievement with the ability to teach. The two are intimately related, but not one and the same.

There is a further issue, and that is the diversity of the teaching force. What happens to our talent pool as we tighten restrictions on who gets into teacher education programs? Who might get left out? Some of the young people who are most passionate about teaching in low-income communities come from those communities, and therefore have probably not had either the in-school or out-of-school resources that contribute to strong post-secondary achievement—particularly for certain majors. This scenario does not hold true for all students coming out of low-income schools, but for enough to concern us here. Passion alone does not warrant entry into the teaching profession by any means. If our candidates still need to further develop their academic knowledge and skills in certain areas, then they must do so before or during their teacher ed program—and the program needs to hold them accountable. But to systematically exclude them in a country so beset by structural inequalities is to bar from the classroom a group of people most familiar with the barriers low-income students face and deeply committed to helping those students get a better education than they did.

One last point. Another argument in the air for raising admissions is that a higher entrance bar will enhance the status of the teaching profession. Countries such as Finland are invoked where teachers face tough entrance criteria and enjoy solid professional status. These kinds of claims, and the invoking of other countries to support them, reveal one of the problems in the teacher ed debates: a tendency to make simplified causal connections and cross-cultural comparisons. Reading the sociological scholarship on the development of professions reveals what a complex process professionalization is—influenced by cultural traditions, politics and economics, gender and racial dynamics, the role of advocacy organizations and powerful leaders, and more. And the way these factors played out for teaching over the last century in the United States and Finland are pretty different.

Raising teacher ed entrance requirements in our country might have some effect on occupational prestige, but it would be one of many factors determining status, more potent ones being salary, gender bias, and degree of occupational autonomy. There may well be good reasons for a particular teacher education program or group of programs to raise its admissions standards, but that decision would need to be made after careful analysis of potential benefits and liabilities for its region and not on simplistic sociological abstractions.

Closing Teacher Education Programs

            Though programs in all types of colleges and universities come in for criticism in the major teacher education reports, those housed in less prestigious institutions that produce over fifty percent of our teachers—regional state universities, small public and non-selective private colleges—take a hard hit.

Consider two reports that got a good deal of media attention: Arthur Levine’s 2005Educating School Teachers (mentioned in my first post) and Teacher Prep Review, released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Though both reports single out a (quite small) number of good programs—and those programs range in type and size—the overall assessment they present is devastating.

The Levine report recommends closing poor programs, many of which, he believes, are in those state universities and non-selective colleges. In turn, the programs that should be expanded are located in research universities. (This same advocacy for research university programs runs through other, earlier reports, such as that by the 1980s Holmes Group.)

The National Council on Teacher Quality was able to rate 1,200 programs, and it placed about 15% of them so low as to warrant a “consumer alert.” Many of the 15 percent, though not all, are the same kinds of programs Levine criticizes. The authors of the NCTQ report hope that the warning will lead prospective teachers to vote with their feet and go to other schools (and school administrators to look elsewhere for new hires), thus forcing the targeted schools to improve or go out of business.

It is not at all my purpose here to defend poor programs, or even to dispute the possibility that, on average, sub-par programs might be found more in one category of institution than another. But I do want to raise several concerns.

There’s an assumption in some of the reports—clearly stated in the one from NCTQ—that students interested in a teaching career are free agents, able to make the classical economists’ rational choice about benefits and losses, and act accordingly. They are able to go to the school that will provide the greatest payoff. But, as I noted earlier, some students are not in a financial or personal position to make such a choice. The local teacher ed program is their only option. Reading these reports, one gets the sense that the authors are at a great social distance from the lives of such students.

Some of the reports also operate at a real distance from the colleges and universities they criticize. What struck me about several of the small out-of-the-way programs I visited during my travel for Possible Lives was how embedded they were in their communities, how well the faculty understood the kids in the schools, the local history, the social and economic pressures on the region. Some of the faculty themselves went to local, non-elite colleges or universities, they didn’t publish in scholarly journals, they didn’t have the bonafides of their contemporaries in snazzier institutions. But they were smart and skillful, and they provided substantial support to the novice teachers in their charge: mentoring them, meeting with them after hours, observing them teach.

These were two good programs, and I bring them up not to generalize from them, but to illustrate a point about analysis from a distance. The National Council on Teacher Quality report could not get to the qualities I sketched. It is built primarily on analysis of course descriptions and syllabi. These will provide course philosophy and purpose in an abbreviated form, reading lists and topics, assignments, grading criteria, and the like. Little more. The Levine report utilized a much more comprehensive methodology: surveys of principals and education school administrators, faculty, and alumni; site visits to twenty-eight ed schools; and statistical analysis of data on program graduates and the students in the schools where they teach. The site visits focused on institutional structure, governance, and demographics, but I was not able to tell from the report if the visits also got to the more experiential level that I raise here.

The Levine report, as substantial as it was, raised other concerns about policy recommendations for categories of institutions. Let me provide one example, for it represents a kind of reasoning we see all too often in current education debates.

Levine commissioned a study to compare the reading and math scores of students by the type of teacher ed program their teachers attended. The statistically significant results demonstrated that students who were taught by teachers who attended research universities showed one-and-one-half weeks more growth in math than students taught by teachers who attended the aforementioned less-selective institutions. “Over the course of 12 years of schooling,” Levine writes, “this amounts to four and a half months” of growth. A result like this gets shortened in debate and opinion pieces to damning evidence that a whole slew of teacher ed programs produce poorly trained teachers. Let’s consider this result, and the reasoning that leads from it to a significant policy recommendation.

It’s important to remember that, though ambitious, this is a single study that would need to be replicated. Furthermore, the difference of one-and-one-half weeks of growth over a school year is in fact a small difference or “effect size,” and it gains statistical significance because of the large numbers of students and teachers in the sample. Effect size is a basic issue in such analyses: one can run a technically flawless analysis with a large sample size and get a statistically significant result, but the important question is whether that result matters enough to lead to a decision to act—in this instance to build a case for closing or scaling back a group of teacher ed programs.

There is also a logical problem at the heart of this example. Levine extrapolates from a single one-year study and projects out over 12 years. (Let’s put aside for a moment my contention that the effect size here is not alarming—nor, following Levine, is four-and-one-half months over a 12 year period.) For the score differential found in one year to maintain itself over 12 years requires that all other factors in the lives of the children and their schools remain the same: that the students maintain the same level of motivation, don’t get sick, don’t experience family disruption. That teachers are equally immune from life’s perturbations, and when that is not the case, they are quickly replaced. That the school-level leadership doesn’t change; that new policies aren’t enacted; that funding remains stable; that the community isn’t hit with economic hardship; and so on. The 12-year extrapolation assumes an “other things being equal” statistical model in a world where very little remains equal. Such extrapolations make for dramatic statements, but they are not conceptually sound and should not be part of the logic of a policy recommendation that would have serious consequences for many regions of the country.

As with any institution, there is a range of quality in teacher education programs, and some are beset by the kinds of problems Levine and others identify: poor leadership, a fragmented curriculum, inadequate opportunity for students to engage in classroom practice. If in fact more troubled programs exist in the category of institution that produces over one-half of our teachers, then one would think that an important educational and social agenda would be to focus on ways to help them improve where possible and not to advocate for their abandonment and closure.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Responding to the Federal Department of Education’s Proposal to Rank Teacher Education Programs: “Thoughts on Educating Teachers When Teacher Education Is Under Attack” (Reposted from 12/12/13)

The federal Department of Education is proposing a set of regulations for teacher education programs. There is a 60-day period for the public to comment on these proposals. You can read the Department’s November 25, 2014 press release here.

Some of the proposed regulations are reasonable (graduates giving feedback to their teacher education programs) and some are terribly wrongheaded, repeating the disastrous kind of thinking that shaped No Child Left Behind: for example, teacher ed programs would be evaluated based on the test scores of the children taught by the programs’ graduates. There are logical and conceptual problems as well as technical ones with this proposal, as I will argue in my upcoming posts.

Over the next five weeks or so, I am going to repost three pieces I wrote in late 2013 and early 2014 on teaching and teacher education. They are relevant to the current discussion of teacher education and to the proposed regulations from the federal Department of Education.

Here is the first.


Smack in the middle of the fiery debates about teacher education is the troublesome fact that we lack a fitting and consensual definition of teaching itself. In his blistering 2005 report on teacher education programs, former president of Teachers College, Arthur Levine, noted the “schism [in] teacher education between those who believe teaching is a profession like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner, and those who think teaching is a craft like journalism, which is learned principally on the job.” Levine may well be capturing a significant ideological or rhetorical distinction in the current debates about how to educate teachers, but the distinction illustrates our problem, for teaching has elements of both profession and craft, as Levine defines them—and even that fusion of the two terms doesn’t fully capture a teacher’s work.

            Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others. This takes us to the heart of what teaching is, and why defining it primarily as a craft, or a knowledge profession, or any other stock category is inadequate. I’m not sure there is any other work quite like it.

            The teacher sets out to explain what a protein or metaphor is, or how to balance the terms in an algebraic equation, or the sociological dynamics of prejudice, but to do so needs to be thinking about how to explain these things: what illustrations, what analogies, what alternative explanations when the first one fails? This instruction is done not only to convey particular knowledge about metaphors or algebraic equations, but also to get students to understand and think about these topics. This involves hefty cognitive activity, as any parent knows from his or her experiences of explaining things to kids, but the teacher is doing it with a room full of young people—which brings a significant performative dimension to the task.

Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s. Simultaneously, you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers. How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on—but it is an ever-present part of the work they do.

As is the case with any of the helping professions, teaching is value-laden work. Society has a host of expectations about what education should be. And, though prospective teachers may be attracted to the work for lifestyle reasons (schedule, benefits), many want to teach because they are drawn to helping young people grow, or are passionate about a subject, or want to contribute to the creation of a just world. They commit to do this work in institutions, so they have to figure out how to navigate the institution’s demands, balancing their beliefs with institutional strictures. And either in their day-to-day-encounters with students or in their role as institutional beings they will face difficult decisions, ethical conundra, be, at times, pushed to the limit of their psychological and spiritual resources.

So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces in our culture. I don’t see this representation of teaching in any of the major reports or national debates on teacher education. That is one big reason, I think, why our discussions of teacher quality and teacher evaluation tend to be reductive, and why the assault on teacher education programs—even for those of us who desire big improvements—feels rigid and one-dimensional.

There are a number of ideas in the air about teacher education: what’s wrong with college and university programs, what alternative programs should do, and the qualifications of those entering the teaching force. These ideas come from federal and local governments, from reports and advocacy groups, and from the opinion pages of our major newspapers. Some of these ideas, though they may be well-intentioned, run the risk of reducing teaching to knowledge delivery or technical craft. I want to consider these ideas in this and subsequent posts.

Balancing Course Work and Practice

            Preparing people to teach, as I just described it, is a tall order, for at its best it requires an effective blend of acquiring knowledge, opportunities to practice what’s learned, and reflection on that practice. Most kinds of complex work in our society—from law enforcement to surgery to fashion design—require this blend and typically begin with some form of classroom-based instruction, though the length of that instruction can vary considerably.

A major source of the criticism education programs have drawn over the years—both from within and outside of its ranks—has to do with the sequencing of the elements of this blend and the emphasis given to each. To be sure, faculty vested interests, institutional inertia, and plain old ineptitude can affect the curriculum—and recent critical reports have focused on these sins—but there are also intellectually legitimate differences of opinion about sequencing and emphasis. (A classic educational question is how much preliminary instruction you provide before setting someone loose on a task, from using a power tool to writing a poem.) There are ethical considerations as well—when is the right time to move a novice out into a real setting, even with supervision? These questions can be found not only in ed schools but also in police academies, medical schools, and fashion programs across the country. The current criticism makes it sound like teacher ed programs are one big static mess, but the fact is that a number of them have been working and reworking their curriculum, trying to get the right balance for their students and their region. I saw this experimenting going on twenty years ago in several small, semi-rural colleges I visited, and I see it today in large universities such as UCLA, where I teach.

            A statistic that you’ll hear in this discussion of coursework and practice is drawn from the Levine report I mentioned earlier. Fifty-eight percent of teacher ed alumni on average reported that their programs prepared them “very” or “moderately” well for the classroom; forty percent of principals thought their teachers were prepared. These are not great numbers, though I do want to say more about such surveys in a later post. But for now, let’s agree that many young teachers could be getting better direct experience with students and the complexities of running a classroom—something alternative programs promise.

            I think, though, we need to be clear-eyed about something: Even when programs provide substantial opportunity for pre-professional practice, the transition to autonomy and full responsibility is difficult, even daunting. Since the medical school is often held up as a model of educating for practice, consider the fact that there is a decent-sized research literature on how hard young physicians find the transition from medical school to their first year of residency. There are common reports of depression, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, and struggles to convert what one has learned into practice. And unlike teachers, the residents have on-call support from team members and supervising physicians. It is also the case—thinking back to those unsatisfied principals—that supervising physicians frequently express dissatisfaction about the preparation of their residents. My point here is not to discount the need for more hands-on classroom experience—not at all—but to urge a little humility about how difficult the transition from student to autonomous professional can be.

            One thing that concerns me about the current debates is a tendency on the part of some advocates for alternative teacher education to downplay or dismiss teacher ed coursework. I certainly don’t want to defend this course work en mass. I went through a teacher education program—an early alternative one—and know how lightweight or irrelevant some courses can be. They certainly don’t reflect the richness of teaching. But we have to be careful to not strip away what the worthwhile courses contain: bodies of knowledge about everything from learning, to culture, to the very definition of what it means to be educated.

It’s not that prospective teachers should master, let’s say, texts by Piaget, Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner, or commit to memory the results of a long history of experiments on the transfer of training from one domain to another. Rather it’s that studying and discussing and writing about all this, if done well, helps young teachers deepen their understanding of cognition and learning, provides a way to think about the lessons they’ll teach, the assignments they’ll give, the many, many moments when their students will say or do something that vexes them.

            To be sure, prospective and practicing teachers can acquire knowledge about cognition and learning in settings other than formal teacher ed courses, settings closer to and integrated with their work in the classroom. (Though colleges and universities house people who have a command of the educational literature.) Whether in a standard program or an alternative setting, the challenge is to forge substantial connection between—to stick with our example—a tradition of research on learning and helping the young people before you learn. To separate the literature on learning from classrooms is to condemn it to irrelevance. But to minimize the importance of that literature is to minimize the conceptual content of teaching, and we have a troubling, century-old institutional case study in Vocational Education of what can happen when the conceptual and theoretical dimension of work is diminished. Education is reduced to narrow, entry-level job training.

Determining Effectiveness: Techniques, Best Practices, and Test Scores

            Another criticism of teacher ed programs is that they do not demonstrate the effectiveness of their graduates in improving student achievement—with achievement typically defined as an increase in standardized test scores, currently in reading and math. Many alternative credentialing programs claim that they can or will be able to demonstrate effectiveness in this way.

            There’s a legitimate and important question in this criticism: Is a training institution doing a good job of preparing students for their work and careers? One way teacher ed programs answer this question is through pass rates on licensing exams. Some programs also survey their graduates, and some have connections with their districts or target schools and receive formal or informal feedback from them. But overall, teacher ed programs could do a much better job of getting information on their graduates—and some people within teacher ed have long been calling for better data collection. In a mild defense of teacher ed, let me note that building better data systems and mechanisms for more detailed feedback is not easy and is expensive, especially for large metropolitan programs whose graduates might disperse far and wide. As a point of comparison, most medical schools don’t do any better: They tend to rely on pass rates on licensing exams and satisfaction surveys of their graduates.

            The evaluation mechanism that many critics advocate—judging a program’s effectiveness by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates—seems like a fairly straightforward proposition, but, in fact, presents a host of conceptual and design problems. To be honest, I’m a little surprised that it’s being promoted with such gusto, given recent history. Recall the multiple problems that arose with NCLB’s use of standardized tests to define achievement and determine a school’s or district’s effectiveness, and there are the more recent debates about the technical complications in assessing teacher effectiveness through value-added measures. It bespeaks of either social amnesia or technocratic enchantment that we would rush to a model driven by the standardized test score and, to boot, insert one more complex variable into the chain of efficacy: now we have a putative causal chain that goes from the student test score to the teacher to the teacher’s training institution. Imagine judging business schools by the amount of money their graduates generate for their employers. Consider the variables: There are the individual characteristics and behaviors of the graduates, not only personality traits, but also events that can affect their careers—marriage, family disruption, illness. Then there are all the variables related to the place of employment: the nature of the business, its economic status and organizational health, the relationships among co-workers. As well, social and economic conditions beyond the business affect it, and thus the performance of its employees. As is too often the case with contemporary school reform, what seems simple and straightforward is anything but. Teacher education programs, traditional or alternative, need to adopt models of evaluation that rely on multiple measures and that account for the complex nature of teaching and the varied institutions where teachers work. Otherwise we’ll put in place a strong incentive for teacher ed programs to reduce teaching to test prep.

            There is another significant component to this call for demonstrating effectiveness: Do teacher ed programs instruct prospective teachers in “research-based” teaching techniques and “best practices.” These terms have become part of our reform vocabulary. And, again, who can disagree that we should be passing onto young teachers the best of what we know how to do? The problem is that “research-based” and “best practices” are often defined in narrow ways.
            “Research-based” means the demonstration that a particular practice is shown to increase a standardized test score—the gold standard being a randomized control trial in which a treatment group of randomly selected students receives the best practice and a control group does not. Other models of research and study, in the eyes of the more technocratically oriented reformers, are of much less value. But there are other systematic ways that we come to know the truth or legitimacy of something, as is evidenced in pursuits as different as astronomy or moral philosophy. And even if we adopt the critics’ definition of research, we have to contend with the fact that a randomized control trial—or its second cousin, the quasi-experimental design that does not involve random assignment to treatment or control—are elaborate and expensive to conduct. And given the way they work, we might, if we’re lucky, get an effect, but it typically will be a small one (practice x results in a point or two advantage on a standardized test), and it gains statistical significance because of the large numbers of students involved in the study. The further wrinkle is that a second (expensive and elaborate) study might yield different results. So we end up spending a ton of money to get little yield, money that would be better spent helping teachers improve their knowledge of subject matter and various ways to teach it and assess whether students are learning it.

            The other related problem is a tendency in policy and reform documents to present best practices as though they were factory-tested electronics components, applicable off the shelf to a wide range of settings and circumstances. There is a mechanistic and acontextual cast to all this that is at odds with the definition of teaching I offered earlier.

            The best practices approach is also being promulgated in medicine, but with a telling difference. A particular practice is recommended for particular conditions (a certain drug and treatment regimen for type II diabetes, let’s say), but the physician is required to consider the context (the particulars of the patient’s case and his or her life circumstances) and make a judgment as to whether to use or modify the best practice. In education, the focus seems to be on training the teacher to implement the best practice exactly as the developer intended—so we have talk of “fidelity” of implementation. Context and judgment are downplayed.

            It is probably the case that in particular alternative teacher certification programs, the work on the ground is more nuanced and creative than the sense one gets from documents and pronouncements from advocacy groups and talking heads. But I do worry about a policy nexus of test scores, a focus on technique, and a rigid notion of best practices that leads to a definition of teaching and teacher education that is thin on creativity and judgment, human relation and values.

            Recently I visited two adjacent classrooms in a school serving a low-income population. Both teachers were in the middle of a math lesson, and while both teachers were excellent, they couldn’t have been more different, at least on that day. In the first room, the teacher had a series of related problems on the board and was guiding her students through them in systematic fashion. She would present one problem, put her index and middle finger to her lips indicating she wanted the class to say the technical term for an element of the problem, then had the students discuss the problem amongst themselves. After a minute or two, she rang a little bell, and the children looked forward, and she called on them. All the while, she was touching a child on the head or shoulder, checking in on another, connecting something said earlier to a comment made now. Then on to a new problem, a rhythmic flow of activities, the teacher moving like a choral conductor.  

            In the room next door, the teacher had his students sort themselves into groups by the answer they gave to a problem posed in the last class: “Which number is greater, +5 or -5?” He told them to take a few minutes to think of two reasons why they gave that answer. Once in groups, the teacher engaged the students in discussion, asking why they chose the answer they did, asking follow up questions, referring one student to another. At the break, some of the students went to recess still talking about the problem. If the first teacher reminds me of a conductor, this one brings to mind the facilitator of a seminar. Two different approaches, but masterfully executed, caring, thoughtful, intellectually rich. By every sign I could see, the students in both rooms seemed engaged. We need teacher education programs, wherever they are housed, that help people develop into these kinds of teachers.

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