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.





Choice Systems and False Agency

I have been reeling for the past few months at the startling erosion of some of the taken-as-shared narratives about public education as the backbone of democracy. I realize that these often came as platitudes and, worse, double-speak, but as long as there was some semblance of a shared commitment for high quality public education, I felt I had something to work with.

The current U.S.Secretary of Education has taken astonishingly hateful positions on protecting students’ civil rights in her valorization of “choice” and “states rights.” Our shameful history of Jim Crow has established latter as a well-known cover for government-sponsored racism. But I want to poke a few holes in “choice” as well.

The following text comes from a paper I published in 2004 in a study of a high school that allowed students “choice” about whether to take a traditional or reform math curriculum. I have edited it for this post.

The traditional US high school curriculum has famously been compared to the stores of a shopping mall, with a broad array of educational choices that provide something for everyone. In making choices, students are asserting a sense of themselves, the kind of socially-rooted self-understandings and social positions that constitute identities. Indeed, by the time students are in high school, because these understandings and positions may have been reinforced by an array of social and interpersonal forces, personal choice may be less of a choice than it seems: by labeling it as such, choice systems effectively erase the social categories that have been associated with different kinds of school curricula.

In the case of mathematics, different courses are often associated with different types of students. Teachers’ talk about courses reveals their notions of students and mathematical ability, and these ideas get built into the organization of the curriculum. For instance, when teachers are mandated to eliminate remedial courses but feel the need to accommodate “slow” or “lazy” students, they may effectively workaround the mandate and create separate tracks for these students. Students, likewise, may occupy the curricular space of a school in ways that are similar to the ways they occupy physical spaces: they gravitate to places of comfort, where their social identities find company among cohorts of similar peers.

It is not surprising then that one of the most robust findings in studies of relationships between curricular organization and student achievement is that a rigorous common curriculum ––– which minimizes such choices on the part of students –– distributes achievement more equitably (Lee, Bryk, & Smith, 1994). A narrow academic curriculum coupled with a strong organizational push for students to enroll in challenging courses leads to more equitable learning in mathematics (Lee, Smith & Croninger, 1997), with students from groups historically disenfranchised from schooling being especially advantaged by such structures (Lee, Bryk, & Smith, 1993). This research signals the kinds of curricular organization that correlates to higher achievement, giving us a broad look at what seems to matter.

When students make “choices” about courses, this narrative represent a false sense of agency and autonomy. More accurately, choices reflect their assertions (or assignments by parents, counselors, or others who advise in these decisions) of identity: an “honors” student, a “pre-algebra” student. Choice, as a force that propels students through the curriculum,  is problematic: the supposed self-determination of course-selection is actually a mechanism for perpetuation of the status quo. By narrowing the array of courses, the social meaning of courses must correspondingly broaden. Rigorous academic courses are no longer the province of some students to the exclusion of others; they must expand to become habitable places for all students.

The same can be said for taking the logic of choice to a district level, only worse. Not only will “choice” provide a false narrative of agency and autonomy, these systems will thrive on families with insider information. I see it in my own children’s education, where parents wonder at each transition from elementary to middle school to high school, how to navigate the system. Choice systems privilege parents with resources, such as access to  insider knowledge and flexibility to drive children around town.

Good public schools matter. Providing all children access to a high quality education matters. When I hear choice, I hear opportunity hoarding and re-segregation.

I cannot stand by silently while we gut our best tools for democracy.


Public Education Matters for Democracy

I have struggled to find my place in my online communities as the political ground has so dramatically shifted in the past few months. The US Presidential election fostered a climate that counters so much of what I stand for as an educator and a citizen. My twitter feed has been taken over by politics as I watch so many institutions struggle to uphold our democracy, institutions designed to safeguard cherished ideals like free speech, the right to assemble, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am grateful to have spent the week between Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the Inauguration with a group of like-minded scholars at a Spencer-sponsored conference at UCLA. We share a commitment to preparing asset- and equity-oriented educators, so it was a great moment to figure out what that might mean in the years ahead.


Left to right: Manka Varghese, Matt Diemer, me, Lauren Anderson, Mariana Souto-Manning, Dorinda Carter Andrews, Thomas Philip, Jamy Stillman


Clockwise from left: Gloria Ladson-Billings, Mariana Souto-Manning, Lauren Anderson, Elizabeth Self, Thomas Philip, Matt Diemer, me, Alfredo Artiles, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Jamy Stillman, Josephine Pham, Dorinda Carter Andrews

It was a productive week for clarifying my values and commitments. We even wrote an editorial together arguing against Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education.

I think I will need to return to these commitments a lot over the coming years. For this reason, I am going to go back to basics and sharing those commitments with you.

To be sure, I have no illusions that the prior administration upheld my educational values. Market-based reforms have been a centerpiece of educational policy for the past several administrations. President Bush’s landmark legislation No Child Left Behind certainly advanced this agenda, but President Obama’s Race to the Top put it on steroids. By tying teaching and learning to narrow metrics, discourses of desirable educational outcomes became less about children’s growth, their humanity, and their potential as future citizens. On the whole, national goals for children’s learning slid to the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I believe in education as a public good. We live in a time and place where the ethos of individualism prevails. In this logic, if my kids are okay, everything is fine. In contrast, if we see education as a public good, our concerns must extend beyond our own children into our communities, states, and country. Whether we realize it or not, we have a vested interest in the solid education of all our citizens. To take an example that begins with  individual needs, I want the nurse administering my chemo to know the difference between .5 L and .05 L when pulling the dose. Beyond that basic skill, I also want him to be an empathetic person who can talk my family and I through our fear. There are countless situations where our personal interests depend on others’ competence and humanity.

Market-based reforms emphasize competition between institutions. This corrodes the ideal of schools as places that should be serving children and communities, contributing to their development and well-being. In a market-based framework, there are winners and losers, successes and failures. Despite meritocratic ideas, these winners and losers are not determined by raw talent but rather the status and resources of children and their families. I recognize that education has always been an unevenly distributed resource, especially in the U.S. I felt I could do my work as an advocate, because there were enough shared commitments to democratic ideals of opportunity. I am not so sure at this moment.

I believe that meaningful learning engages the whole person. It is not just knowing but also becoming. In my work, I study what it means to teach in ways that allow children become mathematicians. I also study what it means for teachers to become humanistic educators who engage with children’s experiences, build learning communities, and respond thoughtfully to children’s ideas.

Some children, however, are given more opportunities to become themselves than others. This starts with issues of language and culture, with some children’s home language and culture fitting into the social patterns of school, providing an important resource for their success there. Aside from such cultural capital, parents actual capital allows them to navigate the system in radically different ways. I have noticed a pattern in middle class parents’ rationale for sending their children to private schools. Most of the time, they are working to preserve their child’s competence. A child’s anxiety increases untenably in a test-prep focused school. A child’s difficulties with memorization lead to failing grades in a narrow curriculum. A child’s artistic strengths are not given adequate play in the school day. A child is inadequately challenged by a constantly changing cast of temp-work teachers.

I believe that strong community schools can anchor families and bring neighborhoods together around common concerns. Community schools, at their best, provide gathering places. They allow neighborhoods to feel like neighborhoods, with children getting to know the people around them. When there is a shared concern, community schools provide a space for people to come together around that concern. Dissolving community schools feels like another part of the effort to weaken the collective impact of people with shared interests.

In short, I believe that public education is central to meeting the ideals of our democracy. I know that a lot of work needs to be done to have it meet these ideals, but if we gut it completely, we will only be further behind on meeting the potential and promise of America.