Responding to Federal Oversight of Teacher Preparation Programs

Today is the last day to register reactions to the proposed federal policy on teacher preparation programs. The regulations would evaluate teacher preparation programs based on graduates’ value-added scores. If you want to register your opinions, please do so here. This is what I wrote.

I am writing to state my reasons against this proposed policy. It oversimplifies the work of teaching and punishes teachers who want to work in underresourced communities.

One definition of teaching is that it is “the deliberate cultivation of learning in others in distinctive teaching situations.” In other words, teaching involves recruiting other people in a teacher’s goals for *their* development — and with a unbelievably inequitable set of resources for doing so. Variations in class sizes, material resources, and bureaucratic burdens are all beyond the control of individual teachers yet are highly consequential to what is possible in the classroom.

To place the effectiveness of teaching solely within teachers themselves — without truly equitable funding for schools, without universal healthcare, without adequate supports like childcare for families living in poverty — places teachers in the center of blame for learning or not learning when there are many aspects of the teaching situation that are beyond their control.

We have already seen the unintended consequences of mass annual testing of students in the devaluation of untested subjects, the educational triage of re-teaching students on the cusp of proficiency, and other types of number gaming. I predict an unintended consequence of this proposed policy would be to discourage teachers from working in schools and communities who are already disenfranchised and underresourced. It is much easier to move students to “proficiency” cut points when Mom and Dad can afford supplemental tutoring. We already have a teacher maldistribution problem in this country, where the most qualified teachers work disproportionately with the best-resourced students. This policy only stands to exacerbate this problem.

The Calm of Experience

This is a story of my own learning as a teacher.

During my student teaching, I particularly struggled with a boy I will call Aidan. He was a gloomy 7th grader, a social isolate with no particular sense of humor who regularly antagonized other students.

One day, when I was patrolling the hallways between classes, Aidan rolled by a row of lockers on his Heely’s, elbowing several girls along the way. Because I did not have much empathy for the child to begin with, this incident angered me, perhaps more than it should have.

I brought him to the Head of School’s office, ready for him to get his just desserts. After I relayed what I had witnessed to Teacher Celia (her real name — she deserves all the praise I am about to give her), she turned to Aidan with a calm look on her face.

“Aidan, is what Teacher Lani* said accurate?”

Aidan looked at his lap and reluctantly nodded.

“Can you see what the problems are with what you just did?”

Aidan was quiet. She waited, watching him intently.

After a pause that was longer than anything my 21 year-old self would have had the patience to endure, he looked up at her sheepishly.

“Well, yeah.”

In the remainder of the interaction, Aidan admitted to his poor judgment in both wearing Heely’s at school and elbowing the girls. He and Teacher Celia agreed to the consequences.

I no longer recall what they worked out, since I was so dazzled by her calm, accepting presence. I remember that it seemed measured and fair, giving Aidan an opportunity to repair his relationship with his peers and learn from his mistake.

Why am I writing about this now?

I have two reasons.

First, we are in an era that thinks that just because you learn so much about teaching on the job, there are those who would simply put new teachers in the classroom without much student teaching or mentoring.

Watching Teacher Celia with Aidan helped me see that I needed to move past identifying with the elbowed girls and reacting to Aidan as an annoying boy. I needed to figure out how to be his teacher too. Teacher Celia’s poise and humanity in dealing with him became my go-to image when I dealt with a child who I struggled with. I did not spend a lot of time with administrators in my own career as a student, so seeing the right way to handle misbehavior was critical to my own development.

Second, I am concerned that we are normalizing teacher turnover so that the calm presence of experience has become a rarity in many schools. Estimates of teacher turnover in the first five years range from 30% to 50%, with the rates being even higher among TFA teachers (about 80% leave after 3 years). The burdens of turnover are high, impacting everything from achievement to the cost of staffing and retraining.

I think there is another cost to turnover that involves the social well-being of children. When I see the disciplinary statistics in schools, I wonder if the calm wisdom of experience exists on the most afflicted campuses. Aidan was lucky that Teacher Celia was the go-to for the consequences of his misbehavior and that his discipline was not left to me. She was measured, whereas I surely would have been more reactive. Likewise, in the second school I taught at, we had an administrator with the same matter-of-fact calm when dealing with behavior issues; I was always grateful when children in my class had last names that fell in the first third of the alphabet so we could sort things through with her. I could trust her to preserve the student’s and my own humanity and help us arrive at a reasonable solution.

I am not trying to romanticize experience or say that all veteran teachers share this wisdom. However, I do think it is easier to muster a calm perspective when dealing with students from the vantage point of experience. This calm is certainly a rarity in barely-mentored newbies. I believe that the first year of teaching is often so difficult, in part, due to the steep learning curve and constant novelty of high stakes situations. As experience accrues, these situations become more manageable and teachers’ reactivity diminishes. But if we continuously staff our schools with minimally mentored novices, we take away an important resource from children and their development.


* This student teaching placement was in a Quaker school, where teachers are called “Teacher [First Name]”, showing respect and familiarity.

The Echo Chamber Has Opened on NCTQ

The following quotes have been compiled by my colleague Ken Zeichner from the University of Washington. As he predicted in his interview with EduShyster, NCTQ’s sham rankings of teacher education would bounce through the echo chamber of both traditional and new media. Among the many methodological problems with the rankings, which look truly bizarre to those of us insider teacher education who know the quality of the graduates, is that faculty expertise is nowhere accounted for.

Despite these and other critiques, the rankings have been spread around as truth, a phenomenon Ken calls “knowledge ventriloquism.”

Ken quotes from NCTQ’s publicity materials to make his point about the way this is playing out.

Endorsements Continue to Flow in for NCTQ’s 2014 Teacher Preparation Review

Support is coming in from former U.S. Secretaries of Education:

“All of the nations’ children deserve teachers of the highest quality. We cannot ignore reports like NCTQ’s that call attention to our challenges in teacher preparation.”
–Dr. Rod Paige, Former U.S. Secretary of Education

“To ensure that every child in this country receives a quality education, teachers must be well-prepared to lead in their classrooms. Teaching institutions are critical to success. NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review serves as a source to districts and states by providing them with knowledge about how to strengthen recruitment, hiring, and training of teachers and arms aspiring teachers with the information they need to choose the most effective program for them.”
–Margaret Spellings, Former U.S. Secretary of Education; President, George W. Bush Presidential Center

Delaware joins 32 other states making measurable improvements to their teacher prep polices.

“Amongst educators in Delaware it’s no secret that teacher preparation programs are not completely aligned to the real demands of the profession. NCTQ is again issuing a report that grabs a hold of one of the elephants in the room–that the rigor and relevance of teacher prep is simply not where it needs to be.”
–Christopher Ruszkowski, Chief Officer, Teacher & Leader Effectiveness Unit, Delaware Department of Education

Over 105 District Superintendents have lined up behind our efforts to ensure that the teachers they hire are classroom-ready on day one.

“The National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Preparation Review provides an additional element of data to consider when recruiting highly skilled candidates for our rigorous selection process. Building this information over time will help inform improvement opportunities for teacher preparation programs.”
Ms. Barbara Deane-Williams, Superintendent, Greece Central School District (NY)

Over 90 Education advocacy organizations have endorsed NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review:

“Teachers are the single most important in-school factor contributing to student success. Accordingly, we must ensure that all teachers are adequately prepared to teach on day one,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review provides us with crucial information – not only for prospective teachers to pick high-performing programs, but also for programs to ensure that they’re meeting the needs of our students.”
Kati Haycock, President, Education Trust

“Expanding the pool of exceptional teachers who are prepared for the difficult work of leading our nation’s classrooms is in everyone’s interest. NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review keeps the pressure on all of us – the ‘public’ part of ‘public education – to get this right. This isn’t just about children, but about the future of the public education system that we need to thrive for future generations.”
Joe Williams, Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform

Editorial board support has begun:

“Even more importantly, though, we need to improve the quality of our teacher education programs themselves. There are some real standouts in New Jersey — including Montclair State, Rider, Rowan and Kean — but most still aren’t adequately preparing teachers for the classroom, according to a new study released yesterday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a non-profit group.

This reflects a national problem. Too many educational colleges in the U.S. let almost anyone in, and it’s the school children who end up suffering for it. For a lesson in reform, look at Finland. To stop the proliferation of diploma mills, the country shut down its education colleges in 1968 and reopened them in only the top eight most selective universities in the country.”
Star-Ledger Editorial Board, June 17, 2014 Editorial

Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World weighs in:

“In a handful of statehouses and universities across the country, a few farsighted Americans are finally pursuing what the world’s smartest countries have found to be the most efficient education reform ever tried. They are making it harder to become a teacher. Ever so slowly, these legislators and educators are beginning to treat the preparation of teachers the way we treat the training of surgeons and pilots—rendering it dramatically more selective, practical, and rigorous. All of which could transform not only the quality of teaching in America but the way the rest of us think about school and learning.

Over the past two years, according to a report out Tuesday from the National Council on Teacher Quality, 33 states have passed meaningful new oversight laws or regulations to elevate teacher education in ways that are much harder for universities to game or ignore.”
Amanda Ripley, June 17, 2014 Slate article

Teachers themselves voice the need for providing high-quality cooperating teachers to candidates, a key component of NCTQ’s Student Teaching Standard:

“Teacher candidates must be paired with a master teacher who is not only phenomenal with students but who has been trained to observe and coach new teachers. Teaching adults is not the same as teaching children and there are research-based practices that support adult education. Mentors should be skilled in this work to ensure that they are educating student teachers effectively and not simply look at them as interns helping out in a classroom.”
Erin Lane, 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts Teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum via HuffingtonPost article

Our 16 member Technical Panel, comprised of education experts, has signed a statement of support.

“Scrutiny of teacher preparation programs is important, from selection of candidates into the program all the way through student teaching. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teacher training is fundamental to making sure that new teachers have the skills they need on the first day they are entrusted with instruction in their own classrooms. I believe NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review represents an important step down the road to connecting the features of teacher training to the quality of our nation’s teachers.”
Dan Goldhaber, Director, Center for Education Data & Research, University of Washington-Bothell

The drumbeat calling for change has clearly been heard and we look forward to continuing the conversation and the work needed to make sure teachers are ready on day one.