Teacher Education in the New Economy

This week, I am spending some time with my colleagues who comprise the Teacher Education Collective. This past year, we have been working together to address critical issues in teacher education. We met previously in January, which I wrote about here, and we are meeting up again.

Teacher Ed Collective 2 (1)

Clockwise, from top left: Jamy Stillman, Mariana Souto-Manning, Lauren Anderson, Matt Diemer, Dorinda Carter Andrews, Thomas Philip, Manka Varghese, and me

As a part of our agenda, I asked if we could read and discuss Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s book, Lower Ed. Her book examines the expansion of for-profit higher education in the 21st century. (You can read an excerpt here.)

Among other things that make this book a valuable read for anybody who cares about education and inequality, Tressie does a phenomenal job of characterizing the social and economic forces that have served to accelerate the growth of for-profit colleges.

As I read the book, I was struck by how these same forces have operated in slightly different ways on teacher education to facilitate the proliferation of alternative licensure programs –– and even the complete abandonment of teacher credentialing in states like Utah –– and the concomitant devaluation of university-based teacher education.

Here are some ways I see Tressie’s analysis explaining what we see in teacher education.

The Education Gospel

Tressie draws on Grubb and Lazerson’s idea of the Education Gospel, the collective faith that education is “moral, personally edifying, collectively beneficial, and a worthwhile investment no matter the cost, either individual societal.” Teacher education has always had a funny relationship to that Gospel. On the one hand, teachers are clergypeople in the church of education. On the other hand, teacher education has always had a shadowed status in relation to universities, in part, because of their vocational mission.

So teachers kind of benefit from our faith in education because they serve it (thus the halo around being a teacher and the tendency for teacher narratives to smack of saviorism). At the same time, their own education is put in doubt for being of lesser value than higher status professions like law or medicine.

In other words, the Education Gospel, because it disavows the relationship between education and jobs, leaves room for tremendous skepticism about the value of university-based teacher education. That skepticism has been exploited and amplified in the last few decades, making way for the market imperative.

The Market Imperative

Tressie spends time addressing how the idea of higher education as a “marketplace” has become naturalized in discussions about traditional non-profit and for-profit institutions. Under this rubric, for-profit institutions have been praised for being “nimble” and “responsive” to consumer demands.

This is also the case with K-12 schools. The market imperative has become a go-to rationale for many “disruptive” innovations in public education, like vouchers and school choice.

The market imperative assumes that the best forms of practice –– whether they are charter schools or teacher preparation programs –– will rise to the top in response to market pressures.

The common sense appeal of the market imperative erases other possible solutions to endemic educational problems. For instance, the market imperative underlies credential expansion (“alternative certification,” or “alt cert”) by leveraging the skepticism about university teacher education without addressing the status quo inequalities in schools. The market imperative can be seen in policy press toward easier teaching credentials (or no credentials) in lieu of better working conditions for teachers. Likewise, when calls for professionalization are met with training for short term teacher labor in charter networks, that is the market imperative at work. Finally, we see the market imperative when we ask for educational justice and, instead, we get ‘missionary tourism for elites’ before they go onto their real careers.

Dependence on Inequality to their Survival

One of the most devastating conclusions Tressie draws in her analysis is for-profit higher education’s deep reliance on social and economic inequality for its own survival.

I suspect many of the alternative credentialing pathways in teacher education likewise depend on continuing inequality to justify their place in the marketplace. What if, tomorrow, the economic deprivation of minoritized communities was redressed? What if students and educators were given adequate resources within schools –– no more GoFundMe’s for classroom supplies? What if teachers working in urban settings earned legitimate middle class salaries? What if they were provided with adequate buildings and instructional materials? What if the communities they served had a full range of social services and high quality health care? What would it do to the narrative on which organizations like Teach for America or RELAY are based? If these organizations’ narratives depend on the economic and social deprivation of the communities they serve, that signals that they rely on social inequality to justify their existence.

Labor Conditions in the New Economy

Tressie lays out the labor conditions in the New Economy. These include:

 

  • Job mobility: Unlike earlier generations, workers can expect to change jobs many times over the course of a career.
  • Labor flexibility: The economy is increasing its reliance on temporary labor.
  • Declining internal labor markets: Employers no longer see it as their role to re-train workers, leaving workers themselves with the costs of both time and money to maintain their skills.
  • Risk shift: Workers are shouldering more responsibility for their job training, healthcare and retirement.

 

She also describes the astronomical increases in debt-burden of college graduates since the 2000s.

These same conditions have impacted teacher education. By assuming more debt for undergraduate education, continuing on in higher education for a teaching credential becomes an irrational choice. Why would a college graduate assume even more debt for a credential that can be obtained for little to no financial burden, especially if it requires staying out of the labor market even longer, when fast track options allow them to work quickly for the same wages?

Teaching used to be a means for social mobility as a secure middle class profession, since it was less subject to fluctuations in the economy and came with strong benefits, especially in unionized states. Stagnation in teacher wages has no longer made that the case. It has become, especially in high priced urban centers, economically tenable primarily for single childless people.


The proliferation of alt cert pathways has been explained, using market logic, as a failure of university-based teacher education. Within the context of the New Economy, it becomes clearer that it is equally reasonable to view it as a response to shifting social and labor conditions.

 

 

 

 

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Don’t ask if it’s “good” without adding “for whom?”

Once upon a time, a friend and I were talking about a math teacher our daughters shared. She said, “You know, his lessons weren’t so exciting, but at least he’s got the content knowledge, so the kids could work it out.”

I grew quiet, and an awkward pause ensued.
This had not been my daughter’s experience at all.

My friend’s daughter is the quintessential math kid, the kind you can provide with some math content, and she will eagerly work through it. She loves patterns and puzzles, sticks with new things until she gleans key insights, with or without a teacher. She is a bright and thoughtful kid, and any teacher would be glad to have her in class.

My kid? The social world is her main interest in school. Honestly, she is a fabulous little social scientist, drawing me sociograms of the lunch tables to explain the different friend groups, designing “crush scales” to help her friends quantify the extent of their infatuations, providing me with details of the social markers of popularity at her school. She finds school fascinating, but the school curriculum does not always engage her. Her academic interests depend largely on her relationship with a given teacher.

With the math teacher in question, she had a strong strike against her. She is a doodler, and this same math teacher was squarely anti-doodle.

mr math man

In a parent conference, he told me that he viewed her doodling as a lack of seriousness. I tried to push back and help him see her more clearly, to little avail. In the end, the same perceptiveness that led my kid to understand the subtle workings of her school’s social dynamics led her to the conclusion that this teacher did not think very highly of her as a potential learner in his class. Not surprisingly, her engagement reflected that.

The differences between my friend’s and my experiences with the same teacher has me thinking about how limited we are when we talk about the quality of education. Often our discourse focuses on whether things are “good” ––  whether it is teachers, classes, or schools –– as if it is an essential property of the thing.  In this case, my friend would probably say that this teacher was “good enough,” because that was true –– for her daughter. As you may surmise, I would say otherwise.

Our impoverished way of sorting the educational world into good/not good has consequences for the systems we have created. I would go so far as to say that it contributes to inequality. Many middle class parents are probably familiar with the conversations about “good schools.” Parents seldom actually go and visit the schools, but there are signifiers that stand in for goodness, many of which are problematic: test scores (which correlate to parent income and education), student populations that skew White/Asian/affluent. As the consensus grows about where “goodness” lies, in our crazy U.S. system, property values respond accordingly, reinforcing the demographic factors that underlie those assessments.

The thing is, I go to a lot of schools. I have been to schools that are deemed “good” by powerful parents and have found myself distressed at the socio-emotional climate or underwhelmed by the substance of the academics. I have been to schools that are deemed “bad” and have conversely been bowled over by the widespread care and wowed by thoughtful teaching and learning.

Our discourse around “goodness” in education cuts off the essential qualifier –– for whom? In doing so, it reinforces goodness as inextricable and erases important questions about whose learning is being supported.