Devaluing Teachers in the Age of Value-Added

We teach the children of the middle class, the wealthy and the poor,” explains Anthony Cody, continuing:

We teach the damaged and disabled, the whole and the gifted. We teach the immigrants and the dispossessed natives, the transients and even the incarcerated.

In years past we formed unions and professional organizations to get fair pay, so women would get the same pay as men. We got due process so we could not be fired at an administrator’s whim. We got pensions so we could retire after many years of service.

But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more. We cost too much. We expect our hard-won expertise to be recognized with respect and autonomy. We talk back at staff meetings, and object when we are told we must follow mindless scripts, and prepare for tests that have little value to our students.

During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public schools and the students they serve felt the weight of standards- and test-based accountability—a bureaucratic process that has wasted huge amounts of tax-payers’ money and incalculable time and energy assigning labels, rankings, and blame. The Reagan-era launching of accountability has lulled the U.S. into a sort of complacency that rests on maintaining a gaze on schools, students, and test data so that no one must look at the true source of educational failure: poverty and social inequity, including the lingering corrosive influences of racism, classism, and sexism.

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama eras—resting on intensified commitments to accountability such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT)—have continued that misguided gaze and battering, but during the past decade-plus, teachers have been added to the agenda.

As Cody notes above, however, simultaneously political leaders, the media, and the public claim that teachers are the most valuable part of any student’s learning (a factually untrue claim), but that high-poverty and minority students can be taught by those without any degree or experience in education (Teach for America) and that career teachers no longer deserve their profession—no tenure, no professional wages, no autonomy, no voice in what or how they teach.

And while the media and political leaders maintain these contradictory narratives and support these contradictory policies, value-added methods (VAM) of evaluating and compensating U.S. public teachers are being adopted, again simultaneously, as the research base repeatedly reveals that VAM is yet another flawed use of high-stake accountability and testing.

When Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff released (and re-released) reports claiming that teacher quality equates to significant earning power for students, the media and political leaders tripped over themselves to cite (and cite) those reports.

What do we know about the Chetty, et al., assertions?

From 2012:

[T]hose using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings. (Di Carlo)

These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate  the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.) (Baker)

And now, a thorough review concludes:

Can the quality of teachers be measured the way that a person’s weight or height is measured? Some economists have tried, but the “value-added” they have attempted to measure has proven elusive. The results have not been consistent over tests or over time. Nevertheless, a two-part report by Raj Chetty and his colleagues claims that higher value-added scores for teachers lead to greater economic success for their students later in life. This review of the methods of Chetty et al. focuses on their most important result: that teacher value-added affects income in adulthood. Five key problems with the research emerge. First, their own results show that the calculation of teacher value-added is unreliable. Second, their own research also generated a result that contradicts their main claim—but the report pushed that inconvenient result aside. Third, the trumpeted result is based on an erroneous calculation. Fourth, the report incorrectly assumes that the (miscalculated) result holds across students’ lifetimes despite the authors’ own research indicating otherwise. Fifth, the report cites studies as support for the authors’ methodology, even though they don’t provide that support. Despite widespread references to this study in policy circles, the shortcomings and shaky extrapolations make this report misleading and unreliable for determining educational policy.

Similar to the findings in Edward H. Haertel’s analysis of VAM, Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), the American Statistical Association has issued ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment, emphasizing:

Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers. This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.

The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling. Combining VAMs across multiple years decreases the standard error of VAM scores. Multiple years of data, however, do not help problems caused when a model systematically undervalues teachers who work in specific contexts or with specific types of students, since that systematic undervaluation would be present in every year of data.

Among DiCarlo, Baker, Haertel and the ASA, several key patterns emerge regarding VAM: (1) VAM remains an experimental statistical model, (2) VAM is unstable and significantly impacted by factors beyond a teacher’s control and beyond the scope of that statistical model to control, and (3) implementing VAM in high-stakes policies exaggerates the flaws of VAM.

The rhetoric about valuing teachers rings hollow more and more as teaching continues to be dismantled and teachers continue to be devalued by misguided commitments to VAM and other efforts to reduce teaching to a service industry.

VAM as reform policy, like NCLB, is sham-science being used to serve a corporate need for cheap and interchangeable labor. VAM, ironically, proves that evidence does not matter in education policy.

Like all workers in the U.S., we simply do not value teachers.

Political leaders, the media, and the public call for more tests for schools, teachers, and students, but they continue to fail themselves to acknowledge the mounting evidence against test-based accountability.

And thus, we don’t need numbers to prove what Cody states directly: “But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more.”

Are We (Finally) Ready to Face Teacher Education’s Race Problem?

The teacher quality and teacher education debates have been absent a fundamental acknowledgement of race in the same way that school quality and education reform have mostly ignored race.

Some are taking the recent Office of Civil Rights reports on inequitable discipline policies and access to quality teachers and courses as evidence that education reform may soon confront the race problem in education.

In Educating today’s kids requires different skills, Lewis W. Diuguid accomplishes two notable things: the piece is a rare mainstream media article getting education commentary right, and Diuguid confronts the race problem and the related deficit perspective problem that tarnish education policy and reform:

We’re repeatedly told of an achievement gap, with students of color trailing their white classmates. But that casts the blame on minority students, parents and teachers.

Central to the power of Diuguid’s commentary is that it is informed by the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Ladson-Billings referred to the gap as “an education debt.” She defines it in historical, economic, social, political and moral inequities affecting communities of color. The debt includes it being illegal to teach slaves followed by 100 years of unequal education for black children.

While the mainstream press and education reform agenda remain distracted by the whitewashed “achievement gap”—a metric not only identified by but created by standardized testing—many critical researchers and educators have called for examining the wider systemic inequities grounded in racism, classism, and sexism that create gaps reflected in and perpetuated by schools.

Ladson-Billings offers ways in which we must begin to examine racial inequities not only in discipline and academics in the schools, but also in the racial make-up of the teacher workforce and the barriers to candidates of color in current teacher education models.

For example, Ladson-Billings examines “the demographic and cultural mismatch that makes it difficult for teachers to be successful with K-12 students and makes it difficult for teacher educators to be successful with prospective teachers” (“Is the Team All Right?, p. 229):

Our teacher education programs are filled with White, middle-class, monolingual female students who will have the responsibility of teaching in school communities serving students who are culturally, linguistically, ethnically, racially, and economically different from them. Our teacher education literature is replete with this reality (see, e.g., Cochran-Smith, 1995; Grant & Secada, 1990; Ladson-Billings, 1999; Zeichner, 1992). However, much of the literature on diversity and teacher education is silent on the cultural homogeneity of the teacher education faculty. Teacher educators are overwhelmingly White (Grant & Gillette, 1987), and their positions as college- and university-level faculty place them much further away from the realities of urban classrooms and communities serving students and families of color. Despite verbal pronouncements about commitments to equity and diversity, many teacher educators never have to seriously act on these commitments because they are rarely in situations that make such a demand on them. (“Is the Team All Right?, p. 230)

Ladson-Billings identifies a parallel problem in teacher education and the teaching workforce that faces the wider U.S. society and its public institutions, such as public education: Race is either addressed in trivializing or marginalizing ways or not at all.

Just as the racial inequity in school-based discipline, teacher assignment, and course access must be exposed and reformed, teacher education has several race-related issues that Ladson-Billings and others have been raising for years:

  • The racial make-up of the teacher workforce.
  • The masking of addressing race in education and teacher education behind terminology such as “diversity.”
  • Isolating and stereotyping professors and scholars of color.
  • Perpetuating deficit perspectives about children of color:

Searches of the literature base indicate that when one uses the descriptor, “Black education,” one is directed to see, “culturally deprived” and “culturally disadvantaged.” Thus, the educational research literature, when it considers African American learners at all, has constructed all African American children, regardless of economic or social circumstance, within the deficit paradigm (Bettleheim, 1965; Bloom, Davis, & Hess, 1965; Ornstein & Viaro, 1968). (“Fighting for Our Lives,” p. 206)

  • A failure to fully engage with critical race theory as a powerful mechanism for addressing issue of race in education and teacher education.

Toward the end of his commentary, Diuguid highlights a key point from Ladson-Billings about deficit perspectives and children of color:

“This is a new way of thinking about culture and thinking about students,” she said. “Young people are not slackers.”

And from this, Diuguid explains Ladson-Billings remains hopeful.

Let’s hope, then, that Diuguid’s commentary is the beginning—like the Obama administration’s concerns about racial inequities in discipline—of something about which we can all be hopeful.

Ladson-Billings Articles Referenced [click HERE for access]

Is the Team All Right?: Diversity and Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, May/Jun2005, Vol. 56 Issue 3, pp. 229-234.

It’s Your World, I’m Just Trying to Explain It: Understanding Our Epistemological and Methodological Challenges. Qualitative Inquiry, February 2003, Vol. 9 Issue 1, pp. 5-12.

Fighting for Our Lives: Preparing Teachers To Teach African American Students. Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2000, Vol. 51(3). pp. 206-214.

The evolving role of critical race theory in educational scholarship. Race, Ethnicity & Education, March 2005, Vol. 8 Issue 1, pp. 115-119.

Just Showing Up: Supporting Early Literacy through Teachers’ Professional Communities (with Gomez, Mary Louise). Phi Delta Kappan, May 2001, Vol. 82 Issue 9, pp. 675-680.

For Related Reading

Smagorinsky on Authentic Teacher Evaluation

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

Conditions v. Outcomes: More on What’s Wrong with Teacher Education (and Accountability)? pt. 2

“We Brought It Upon Ourselves”: University-Based Teacher Education and the Emergence of Boot-Camp-Style Routes to Teacher Certification, Daniel Friedrich

Linguistics of White Racism: Racist discourse strategy in US politics, Kathryn McCafferty

Conditions v. Outcomes: More on What’s Wrong with Teacher Education (and Accountability)? pt. 2

After posting What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?, I received comments and responses that are fairly represented in the comments at the original post from Peter Smyth and psmagorinsky (Peter Smagorinsky). For full disclosure, these two Peters are acquaintances that I respect a great deal, and thus, take their comments quite seriously.

To Peter Smyth’s concern (voiced by a few others offering feedback), I can clarify that my original post is a rejection of certification and a call for the need for rich and deep education degrees; thus, my argument in no way endorses Teach for America or other alternative certification programs that inherently avoid and marginalize education degrees (which are in fact the antithesis of my argument).

Peter Smagorinsky’s comment—notably “At the same time, I think that if we are constructed as being against being accountable for our teaching, we not only lose the PR battle, we are dodging responsibility for the end result of our teacher education”—requires a bit more explanation so I ask that you allow me to offer a series of personal anecdotes to make my case.

The summer of 1975 was traumatic for me and my family since I was diagnosed with scoliosis, requiring my parents to pay for and me to wear an elaborate and expensive back brace. This ordeal lasted from my 9th through my 12th grades.

Setting aside the personal angst from wearing a large back brace during my gangly and painfully self-conscious teen years, I have detailed that this experience with scoliosis became the breeding ground for my extensive comic book collection as well as many hours and years spent teaching myself to draw.

Since the brace made sitting nearly impossible, I began to stand at the end of the long bar that separated my family’s kitchen and living room. There I at first traced my favorite comic book superheroes from my collection; soon I began drawing freehand. Eventually, I was drawing large portraits of entire comic book panels and dramatic scenes—first carefully creating the artwork in pencil and then inking the works reflecting the comic book process (I even did some coloring over the years, again mimicking the comic book industry).

Over about 5 or 6 years, I became a fairly accomplished artist, branching our beyond comic book artwork to realistic pencil drawings (often from photography). For the purposes of this blog post, I want to emphasize that at no point did I ever have any formal courses, no teacher of any kind related to being a visual artist.

I read and studied comic books, I researched how comic book art was created, and I bought a few art books, mostly large books of sketches to use as practice.

Overlapping my teenage years spent collecting comic books, teaching myself to draw, and contemplating a career as a comic book artist, I grew up on a golf course, where I worked (both in the club house as an assistant and at the pool as a lifeguard). I also spent many hours of my life hitting range balls (often 300 at a time) and playing 18-27 holes of golf many days each week.

Yes, I also contemplated the life of the professional golfer.

While in college, I secured an assistant pro job at a different golf course, where I spent a good deal of time talking with two professional golf instructors. These men gave golf lessons on the course driving range and sometimes on the course itself.

One golf pro had never had a career as a touring pro, and I was able to shoot scores similar to his. The other had briefly played on the tour in the Ben Hogan era, but his promise of a tour career was cut short by a car accident.

From talking with these two golf instructors and watching their work and their students, I recognized something incredibly important: Most of the people taking the lessons essentially stayed about the same in their ability to score on the golf course. The older golf instructor often said directly to me that he could teach anyone the proper grip and motions in a golf swing, but that beyond that, the outcomes of how any person played golf was really not something he could teach or control.

With learning to play golf, technique, physical aptitude, practice, and such were all intricately intertwined. Few people practiced or played as much golf as I did in those years, and I was never going to be a touring professional. Never. (Likely too, I was never going to be a professional comic book artist.)

About twenty years after those teen and early 20s years, I had become a public school English teacher; my life was steeped in reading and writing (now traceable to those comic books I was also reading voraciously along with science fiction).

A few years after receiving my EdD, I was fortunate to be the lead instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project in their summer institutes for teachers. In that first summer, a beginning teacher, Dawn Mitchell (who would go on to teach and work for SWP as well as adjunct where I now work in teacher education), and I began working on her efforts to write poetry. Dawn was a wonderful teacher, a gifted writer of prose, and an eager as well as frequent reader.

When I read her poem drafts, however, I felt she had not attained the same genre/form awareness about poetry that she displayed about prose.

I had been writing poetry since my freshman year of college, had published a fair number of poems (see “horea,” “Mary (sea of bitterness),” and “quilting”), and had been teaching high school students to write poetry for almost twenty years. Four of my high school students’ poems were included in one of my earliest articles in English Journal, in fact (see Ashley Mason and Leigh Hix here; Lauren Caldwell and Kris Harrill here).

The summer institute workshop format allowed Dawn and me an ideal opportunity for examining how to develop poetic sensibilities. And Dawn’s work as a poet soon rose to the fine level of her prose.

While Dawn was growing as a writer and poet, I too was learning to hone my craft not as a poet, but as a teacher of writing poetry—developing the ability to mine craft from reading poetry and helping writers transfer those craft lessons into their original work.

Of the many things I teach, I remain convinced teaching someone to write poetry is possibly my most refined skill.

That said, I cannot claim ever that I can produce a poet from that teaching as acts themselves that must be viewed as their own evidence of quality.

What does all this have to do with what’s wrong with teacher education, broadly, and Smagorinsky’s concern, narrowly?

First, teachers and formal teaching are important, but not necessary or easily defined, aspects of learning, especially as that learning manifests itself in some observable outcomes—as my learning to draw is but one example.

Thus, seeking to identify direct, isolated, and causational relationships among teachers, teaching, learning, and observable learning outcomes is simplistic and a fundamental misrepresentation of each of these.

No teacher can be involved when a learner produces outstanding outcomes. A poor teacher can be involved when a learner produces outstanding outcomes. And a brilliant teacher can be involved when a learner produces weak outcomes.


Because a teacher of anything has control only over the conditions of the learning experience—as my second and third example are offered as evidence.

Golf instructors and teachers of writing poetry can never promise skilled golfers or brilliant poets. Many other elements besides the teachers or the teaching are involved—and such is the case with all teaching and learning.

And therein lies my essential disagreement with continuing to focus on learner outcomes when seeking accountability for teachers and teaching.

How did I teach myself to draw? All of the conditions necessary were provided or occurred—incredibly supportive parents who bought the comic books and art supplies, my own unfortunate situation with scoliosis, my fortuitous discovery of a proclivity for visual art, and my own intrinsic motivation that fueled my hours and hours of practice. (By the way, I think I would have benefited greatly from a professional teacher, but the conditions in which I taught myself are evidence of how important conditions are in contrast to a teacher.)

In the larger picture, however, elite golfers, visual artists, and poets cannot be taught to be elite. A substantial number of unpredictable elements are involved, and direct teaching and teachers are important but not even necessary.

Learner outcomes are simply not credible artifacts for teacher or teaching quality.

Teacher education (and teaching accountability) must set aside that paradigm of accountability, and begin to focus on the conditions of teaching instead.

Admitting that teacher education cannot guarantee teacher quality from their programs is not a cop-out. It is the same as the golf instructor who despite his best efforts cannot guarantee golfer quality, the teacher of poetry who cannot guarantee a poet.

By continuing to pretend that teacher quality is the most important element in student learning, we are in fact devaluing and misrepresenting the importance of teachers and teaching.

Talk about the Passion

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

All across the upstate of South Carolina recently, yard signs have been appearing: Stop Common Core (see the one held in the photo below):

Stop Common Core from Stop Common Core in South Carolina

For those of us who have rejected the Common Core movement from the beginning, however, these signs are more a message about the “passionate intensity” of the worst and that “the best lack all conviction”:

A rally to Stop Common Core

The most fervent and vocal Common Core challengers, as the organization and signs above represent, are people making baseless claims: Common Core standards were written by Bill Ayers (they weren’t), Common Core standards are a communist plot by Obama (they are the product of the National Governors Association), and the list goes on—just search Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck on Common Core.

While the misinformed are galvanized and passionate in their efforts to stop Common Core, the vast majority of educators have committed themselves to doing as they are told—scrambling as best they can to implement Common Core.

The reasons to reject Common Core are important and relatively clear—reasons based in the research base that shows no correlation between the presence or quality of standards and student outcomes, that shows no correlation between standards and achieving equity, and that shows the enormous costs of implementing new standards and new high-stakes tests are unlikely to produce returns to justify those costs.

And the irony is that the uninformed and misinformed movement against Common Core—a rabid group that appears to see Common Core as a harbinger of the Apocalypse, worthy of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” or Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”—is evidence itself that “passionate intensity” trumps reason, research, expertise, and experience—notably when those armed with reason, research, expertise, and experience “lack all conviction.”

To paraphrase Einstein, the Common Core debate shows us that knowledge without passion is lame, passion without knowledge is blind.

For teachers, it is well past time to talk about the passion.

Combien de temps?

“Talk About The Passion”

R.E.M., Murmur

Empty prayer, empty mouths, combien reaction
Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world

Talk about the passion
Talk about the passion

Empty prayer, empty mouths, combien reaction
Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion
Combien, combien, combien de temps?

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Combien, combien, combien de temps?

Talk about the passion
Talk about the passion

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

I belong to two communities that are central to my life—educators and cyclists.

So when a cyclist and friend sent me an article on the importance of how cyclists conduct themselves as groups on the roads, I was struck by the opening quote included by the writer, Richard Fries:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  –Walt Kelly, Pogo

Immediately, the spirit of the article—many times motorist antagonism toward cyclists can be traced to cyclist behavior—resonated with me as someone who has been cycling seriously for about 30 years, including a great deal of time and effort spent posting and leading group rides. But the sentiment of this piece on group cycling also spoke to me as a teacher and teacher educator because when I ponder what is wrong with teacher education, I notice that the enemy is often us—teachers and teacher educators.

Gerardo M. Gonzalez, dean of the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington, examines the current state as well as the political and public perception of teacher education in Defining Teacher-Prep Accountability:

Much has been written and discussed of late about the debate over the best method of assessing teacher-preparation programs. As the dean of the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington, I understand that meaningful assessment of teacher preparation requires a multifaceted approach based on a robust research methodology and focused on program outcomes. A sound study, as researchers know, begins with a viable research question. The design and method of data collection then flow from that question. Moreover, the scientific validity of conclusions reached on the basis of the data depends on the ethical application of research principles and, where appropriate, validation of results through peer review and replication.

Two important aspects of Gonzalez’s commentary occur in the opening: He acknowledges the impact and influence of National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and then takes a firm stand against NCTQ’s reports and methodologies.

NCTQ’s reports have received essentially free passes by the mainstream press, but have been discredited in detail among researchers, educators, and bloggers. That dynamic is a powerful picture of the larger context of what is wrong with teacher education.

First, teacher education (like public schools and public school teachers) is not failing in the ways claimed by NCTQ—or other think tanks, political leaders and appointees, and the mainstream media.

Second, the noise created by NCTQ and others promoting misinformation masks the very real ways in which teacher education is failing (and, again, this parallels a similar pattern found in education reform more broadly; see An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform).

While I applaud Gonzalez and Indiana University for taking a politically unpopular but credible and evidence-based stance against NCTQ (too few in teacher education did take that stand), the last part of Gonzalez’s commentary reveals just what is wrong with teacher education.

In the outline offered by Gonzalez, accountability based on standards and outcomes is, once again, reinforced:

If I were to design a study to hold preparation programs accountable for their graduates’ performance, as the group Teach Plus Indianapolis has challenged me to do, I would start with the question of whether a given teacher-preparation program produces graduates who can work effectively in school classrooms to increase student learning and achieve other valued educational outcomes. Then, I would select or create appropriate measures of student learning and related educational outcomes, as well as ways to assess teacher effectiveness on the impact of those measures.

And therein lies the problem.

What’s wrong with teacher education? In brief, the problem with teacher education is the maze of bureaucracy that constitutes certification and accreditation.

And that maze of standards (and the perpetual changing of those standards) feeds a misguided overarching paradigm: accountability linked to outcomes.

In both education reform and teacher education, accountability is misguided and it causes more harm than good—notably because the traditional accountability paradigm seeks to hold one agent accountable for the outcomes of other agents, whether that be teachers accountable for student test scores or colleges/departments of education accountable for the student test scores of their candidates.

That accountability fails because the focus is on outcomes, and those outcomes are outside the control of the agent being held accountable.

Additionally, since that accountability is flawed, those agents being held accountable are reduced to documenting meticulously that they have served the standards as a defense against their inability to control the outcomes.

The result is dysfunctional because too much of both teacher educator’s and educator’s time is spent correlating their lessons and assessments with standards (and not enough time preparing by studying the content of their field and the needs of their students), and then wasting a tremendous amount of time completing the external mandates related to certification and accreditation.

Gonzalez mentions the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)—which ironically represents the fundamental flaw with the entire accreditation process since this organization is a new version of two earlier accreditation organizations. Accreditation (like certification) is a minefield of every-moving targets, a bureaucratic process for the sake of being bureaucratic. In fact, the only constant in the worlds of certification and accreditation is that both perpetually change—always in pursuit of the right (or next) standards.

CAEP will no better serve teacher education than Common Core will save K-12 public education. We have decades of evidence that these processes have never worked, and we have no evidence that anything different will happen this time around (except the new elements, such as VAM, are guaranteed to increase the harm).

Again, the failure of teacher education is in the bureaucracy of accountability, standards, and focusing on outcomes. The solution, then, would be for teacher education to embrace the foundational aspects of the disciplines.

I have stated this before, but it is worth repeating: Every moment I have spent achieving certification has been a waste of my time; every moment spent in rich and engaging education courses and programs has been infinitely valuable. For example, the road to certification as an undergraduate was disappointing (except for some excellent professors), and that contrasts strongly with my doctoral program (including no certification requirements), which was the single most important element in my path to being an educator.

As an undergraduate, I learn to be a bureaucrat; as a graduate student, I learned to be a scholar.

I think even the best among us in the field of education remain trapped in a low self-esteem mindset: we are afraid, because we know this is what other disciplines say about education, that we are in fact not a real field of study; therefore, we manufacture the most complex systems imaginable to make our field seem valuable, “rigorous,” professional. And thus:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  –Walt Kelly, Pogo

Certification and accreditation are mind-numbingly complicated, I fear, as a sort of low-self-esteem theater. The maze of standards, rubrics, data charts, and reports surely proves that we are a complex field, that we are working hard?

Two things about that are nonsense: (1) all the bureaucracy of certification and accreditation confirms the worst slurs against education as a field, and (2) the field of education is a rich and credible discipline, if only we’d trust that and embrace it.

So allow me to end with an anecdote.

As an 18-year teacher of high school English, I entered higher education and teacher education. Soon afterward, I asked if I could be spared to teach an occasional freshman composition course (my first love). Although the politics of an education professor (with an EdD, no less) teaching in the English department were more treacherous than I anticipated, I was finally allowed one section.

When I met with the English department chair to discuss the course, I asked to see a sample syllabus. The chair, at first, seemed puzzled, but he did shuffle through his desk and around his office until he found a couple.

One syllabus was the front of one page, and the other, the front and part of the back of one page.

My syllabus for the introductory education course I taught was 17 pages.

The field of education—including teacher education—I fear, is mired in bureaucracy because we do not trust ourselves; we do not trust ourselves in the way that the disciplines do in chemistry and English and history right on our campuses all across higher education.

We are our own worst enemies when we persist down the accountability road, demanding standards, rubrics, data charts, and the external review of bureaucratic agencies to whom we abdicate the responsibility of bestowing certification on candidates and accreditation on departments and colleges because we do not trust our field or ourselves.


“We Brought It Upon Ourselves”: University-Based Teacher Education and the Emergence of Boot-Camp-Style Routes to Teacher Certification, Daniel Friedrich

Teaching Students, Missionary Zeal, and the Cult of Personality

As a teacher educator, I now spend much of my spring visiting schools and observing my seniors who are learning to teach in extended field experiences (my university’s version of student teaching).

What I have learned over more than a decade of making these visits and providing new teachers productive feedback is that one aspect of becoming and being a teacher is a complex but clear combination of teacher persona/presence, teacher awareness of students, and teacher engagement with those students during the flow of instruction.

My most direct and simple way to share this with my teachers-to-be is to note that they appear to be teaching the lesson and not their students. I have seen this phenomenon as I walk the halls of my university where professors are prone to lecture, and have noted on some occasions, I fear that if all the students were to leave the class, the professor would simply continue to hold forth.

Central to this aspect of teaching for me is the problem with lesson planning as it contrasts with being prepared to teach. I have noticed that the traditional emphasis on lesson planning and the older god of behavioral objectives (how I was trained to teach) and the newer god of backward design (teaching with the assessment in mind) both fail many teachers by forcing so much investment in planning that teachers feel consciously and unconsciously obligated to implement the plan and assessments prepared regardless of what learning is taking place. (The last thirty years’ focus on high-stakes standards-based teaching has only intensified this problem of teacher time inappropriately invested in planning and aligning and not preparing the what and how of each day’s lesson based in part on all the lessons that have come before.)

The result is lesson plans and tests done to students with the outcomes often misleading and counter-educational (this rigid and mechanical process can raise test scores and mask that learning never occurred).

Plans, tests, and all sorts of prescriptions of learning and teaching are far less important, I believe, than teacher expertise (yes, a teacher must know everything about which she/he is to teach, and then almost everything else—this is the critical authoritative imperative) and teacher awareness of her/his teacher persona as well as engagement with students during the flow of instruction.

This in-class concern about teaching is a subset of a larger problem related to missionary zeal and the cult of personality.

Often when I am teaching graduate courses in education, veteran teachers will respond to questions about their teaching by simply saying “I teach four block” or “I use Marzano”—programs and education gurus.

While “missionary zeal” is often invoked about and as a positive aspect of Teach for America and its recruits, “missionary zeal” can be seen in nearly blind commitments to phonics instruction, group work, Nancie Atwell’s workshop method, literature circles, understanding by design, and a list too long to identify here and not bound to any end of the ideological spectrum.

I’ve written about this before, and while it is a personal anecdote, I argue this is representative of the problem.

My daughter worshipped her second-grade teacher and my wife taught at the primary school my daughter attended. One day my wife and my daughter’s teacher were talking, and that teacher noted that my daughter had been making really high grades on her spelling tests, until the class began some direct phonics instruction marking my daughter’s grades dropping.

When we teach a lesson, a plan, or a program, and when we become so narrowly focused on the cult of personality behind what we teach and how, students are often lost in that missionary zeal, often mis-served.

As a literacy educator for over thirty years, I watch and hear the exhausting grammar and phonics debates refuse to die. These debates are exhausting because they often rest on a false premise, the straw man—that there are teachers who are against teaching grammar and phonics (none exist, by the way)—and devolve into what is most wrong with teaching, the missionary zeal to teach a skill as if it is the ends desired.

Grammar and phonemic awareness are aspects of composing/writing and reading, but when we become bound and determined to teach grammar and phonics without regard to a student’s writing or reading as well as that student’s developing eagerness to write and read, we are no longer teaching students, but appeasing our petty agendas to prove that our way is right and someone else is wrong.

That, simply put, is not teaching.

Teaching must begin in the classroom with what students know, what students don’t know, and what students misunderstand, placing all of that in the context of what students are interested in and what students need.

Teachers then must be prepared to implement a wide array of strategies to foster the outcomes that fulfill those student interests and needs.

If teaching grammar directly and in isolated ways raises student test scores on isolated grammar tests, but students write rarely and many come to hate writing, we have slain the authentic need of students on the alter of teaching grammar for grammar’s sake.

If conducting literature circles creates a well managed classroom, but students come to hate reading and have almost no opportunities to read by choice, we have slain the authentic need of students on the alter of teaching literature circles for literature circles’ sake.

We teach students—not lesson plans, not skills, not programs, not to-the-test, not Common Core or any standards of the moment, not flipped classrooms, not Core Knowledge or cultural literacy, not the teaching bible of the day or the teaching guru of the moment.

We teach students.

Smagorinsky on Authentic Teacher Evaluation

At mid-nineteenth century, public schools were under attack by the Catholic church; Bishop John Hughes “described the public schools as a ‘dragon…devouring the hope of the country as well as religion’” (Jacoby, pp. 257-258). Throughout the twentieth century, the political and public messages were about the same: public education was a failure.

Ironically, the rhetorical math has never added up: U.S. prosperity and international competitiveness depend on world-class public schools + U.S. public schools are failures = the U.S. dominates the world economically and/or “U.S.A. is number 1!”

As the school accountability era began in the early 1980s, the “public school as failure” mantra began to focus on low-performing schools and underachievement by students—as the early wave of accountability focused primarily on schools (including school report cards for the public) and exit exams as well as increased high-stakes testing for students.

The twenty-first century has added to the accountability target a new focus on the “bad” teacher. As a result, teachers; educational historians, scholars, and researchers; and public school advocates have been forced into a corner, reduced to nearly a monolithic reactionary voice of rebuttal.

That position of reaction has drawn fire—charges of inappropriate tone, defense of the status quo, masked self-interest, and a failure to offer alternatives.

That last point is important, especially in the debate over teacher evaluation that has seen a rise in value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation and a resurgence in merit pay policies despite both practices being at least tempered if not refuted by a growing body of research.

Peter Smagorinsky’s “Authentic Teacher Evaluation: A Two-Tiered Proposal for Formative and Summative Assessment” (English Education, 46(2), 165-185) offers an important place to acknowledge that the field of education, in fact, has numerous evidence-based alternatives to the reform agenda and highlight the reasons why those alternatives remain mostly absent from the public debate.

First, I highly recommend reading Smagorinsky’s entire piece, but that raises an important aspect about why evidence-based reform policies coming from educators, scholars, and researchers tend to carry little weight in the political and public debate about schools: high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarly work tends to be inaccessible except to fellow researchers and subscribers to relatively obscure journals.

Thus—as Smagorinsky notes himself in this essay about his increased public work as an academic—I want to touch on some of the most important points offered as an authentic alternative to teacher evaluation below.

Teacher Evaluation, Much More than What We Can Measure

Smagorinsky begins by noting the inherent failure of focusing heavily on measurable teaching and learning, an argument well supported by research but which appears to fall on deaf ears among politicians and the public.

Key in his proposal is refuting a false narrative, notably coming from Eric Hanushek, that teachers reject being held accountable. This is a powerful and important point that must be clearly understood.

The current approach to accountability in education includes holding teachers responsible for external mandates and teaching conditions that they have not created as well as measurable outcomes (student scores on high-stakes standardized tests) that are mostly out of their control (teacher impact on measurable student outcomes is about 10%, dwarfed by the influence of out-of-school factors, between about 60-80%).

As Smagorinsky notes, educators are rejecting that flawed approach to accountability and calling instead for professional accountability, which begins with teacher autonomy and includes holding teachers accountable for only that over which they have control (which is not measurable student outcomes).

If teacher evaluation policies, he explains, focused more on the conditions of teaching and learning—increasing the likelihood that both teachers and students can succeed—and less on punitive practices (such as firing the bottom X% based on VAM rankings, as Hanushek and Bill Gates have proposed), many of the goals for improved teacher quality and student achievement could be met.

Another key shift suggested by Smagorinsky is lessening significantly the amount of high-stakes testing (every 3-5 years, for example) included in teacher evaluations both as a recognition of the inordinate cost associated with testing (we rarely note that fully implemented VAM-like teacher evaluations would require pre-/post-tests of every student in every class taught in order to be fair and consistent among all teachers) and of the validity and reliability concerns that remain for VAM-based evaluations. This is a similar compromise to the one offered by Stephen Krashen, who has argued for not implementing Common Core and the so-called next-generation high-stakes tests, but to use the sampling process already in place with NAEP.

Teaching is a social activity within and for a community, and Smagorinsky envisions teacher evaluation that is more than a number, including a wide range of stakeholders. This point reminds me of the use of the SAT in college admissions. When discussing the weight of SAT scores with a dean of admissions, he pointed out that even when SAT scores are weighted less in admissions formulas, most of the other categories cancel each other out (as they are similar) and SAT, although a lower proportion in the formula, essentially remains the gatekeeping data point.

Any percentage of VAM, then, can prove to be powerful in teacher evaluations that are not aggressively nuanced and multi-faceted, including expanding the input of most if not all stakeholders in the teaching of children.

While much of Smagorinsky’s discussion includes the complex details that should be involved in teacher evaluations (and thus, I recommend reading his essay in its entirety), a few key points can serve to conclude this consideration:

  • Teacher evaluations should be designed as “some form of mediated discussions, with artifacts from teaching serving as the basis of the conversation” (p. 171). Important here is a process that sets aside hierarchy for dialogue, seeks teacher growth instead of ranking and punishing, and builds a consensus on a rich body of evidence (artifacts) instead of reductive metrics.
  • Teacher evaluations should address the entire spectrum of teacher influence, not restricted to classroom and content only. In short, Smagorinsky highlights that being a teacher is more than lessons presented to her/his students.
  • Implicit in Smagorinsky’s discussion, I would add, is that teacher evaluation should not continue the assumption that teacher impact is solely between one teacher and one student. Learning results from the input of many people in a child’s life; teacher evaluations should acknowledge collaboration as well as individual competence and impact.

“I again return,” Smagorinsky notes toward the end, “to the idea that what matters is how well a teacher can justify an instructional approach and relate it to student work”—and I would add, demonstrated student need (p. 182). Teacher quality should not be about teachers fitting a prescribed mold, but about the professional efficacy of a teacher’s practices in the context of the field and students that the teacher teaches.

While I recommend Smagorinsky’s proposal because he emphasizes that “[t]eaching and learning are human pursuits” (and thus, likely unmeasurable in any meaningful way), I also want to stress that this essay is but one piece of evidence that the field of education already knows what to do.

Common Core, VAM-style teacher evaluation, and the entire array of education reform are ultimately misguided because they are commentaries based on flawed assumptions about the field of education.

Despite the education bashing that has occurred in the U.S. for over 100 years, we in fact know what to do—if only politicians, pundits, and bureaucrats could see fit to get out of the way and allow the opportunity to prove it.

Until that happens, we educators must begin to make our case for alternative to misguided reform, and in ways that are accessible to all stakeholders in public schools.

Capitalism, Silencing Women, Silencing Teachers

A central aspect of my blog about Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters highlights that the silencing of teachers is a subset of the silencing of women. That post followed my claim that teaching is an invisible profession.

Since posting that blog, I have read A Feminist Critique of Marx by Silvia Federici, which in part asserts the invisibility of women in Marx’s analysis of capitalism:

At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work [her emphasis] in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.

And then:


[click above to enlarge]

From the above, Federici’s first point about scarcity invites a reading of Scarcity (Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir) as well as considering how scarcity in the lives of people trapped in poverty as a consequence of a market economy that pools wealth in a small number of people at the top impacts every aspect of their lives, including their ability to learn.

Seeking gender, race, and class equity cannot be separated from the need for wholesale workers’ solidarity—a solidarity that requires teachers to envision themselves as workers and to embrace the status of worker as a noble possibility for free people.

Conditions of Teaching Are Conditions of Learning: On Students

I’m not prone to New Year’s resolutions, but I have decided that with the arbitrary designation of a new calendar year, I have a way to focus on new commitments, specifically in how I interact in the virtual world. So when I read a derogatory comment on one of my blog posts (describing my post with “stupidest” and then making a word choice error or typo), I resisted the urge to comment, but posted how painful it was not to do so on Facebook.

Many of my wonderful former students commented, leading to two threads and many comments that genuinely made my day and evening—justifying my decision not to interact with the person leaving the comment.

From that exchange, I wrote Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters because I began to think about my 18 years teaching high school English as well as how I both failed my students and served them well (by the way, my former students tend to be stunningly kind and recall our days and years together with a fondness that makes my heart enlarge like the final scene of How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

The reason my exchange with former students spurred a blog about teacher autonomy and classroom experience is that, upon reflection, I believe when I was at my best as a high school teacher, I was functioning at an autonomous level—doing what I knew to be best for what any one of my students needed (especially when that meant listening to them while they struggled under the weight of crying about a boyfriend or girlfriend)—and when I was at my worst, I was complying with mandates I felt were at least misguided.

So as I blogged about the need for listening to teachers’ voices, for honoring classroom experiences not solely but initially, I was making a case about the conditions of teaching—a case that I failed to connect to the conditions of learning and how teacher autonomy is inextricable from student autonomy.

While I remain, frankly, stunned at the antagonism expressed when I call for teacher autonomy and voice, I am equally dismayed that we tend to render both teachers and students essentially invisible and mute.

Two comments on pieces of mine, then, need to be highlighted.

On my teacher invisibility post included at The Answer Sheet, StudentsLast added: “If teachers are invisible to policy makers, what then are students? Non-existent?”

To which I must respond, yes.

And responding to Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters, Martha Kennedy highlighted:

Something I have never seen brought into this conversation is the fact that many people look at teachers through the lens of their own experience in school. I don’t think most people liked school. Judging from my university students, the teacher is viewed as an adversary, classes are obstacles, it’s all just “hoops to jump.” I think as long as this is true, teachers will have a hard time with “the public.” There’s also the fallacy that if a kid hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught. Judging from my students, many don’t even really understand WHAT the teacher is teaching. This is a larger problem since the advent of NCLB where students are taught to pass exams. Students are conditioned to find a discrete answer to every question. This pretty much steals from questions their intrinsic interest.

The first point above is extremely important: How often are the actions of teachers inculcating in students negative associations with not only school but also teachers? How often are those actions the result of misguided mandates imposed on those teachers? How might all teachers embrace their autonomy so as to avoid these conditions in the classroom?

So as I return to my blog post about honoring teacher voice and classroom experience, I must emphasize that calling for a reconsideration of how we view teachers, how we honor (or don’t) teacher autonomy, and whose voice matters, I must stress that the conditions of teaching are the conditions of learning.

And how teachers feel as well as how students feel about those conditions matters in ways that must not be ignored, must not be marginalized against a normalized rational view of the world.

As we become more and more entrenched in “an age of infinite examination” where teachers and students are “never finished with anything,” we must begin to ask new questions and then seek different answers. And as we seek ways in which teachers and workers can embrace a new solidarity, let’s not forget our solidarity with the students in our care.