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

“A Realistic, Pragmatic Approach” to Rejecting CCSS

“Should Teachers Resist the Common Core?” asks a blog post at Education Week, continuing the debate about CCSS among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, David Cohen, and me.

This posting highlights a point made by David that I want to return to (again) because I agree strongly with David’s focus: “And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher. That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.”

I have argued repeatedly that the central flaw with the current education reform movement and its major elements—CCSS, new high-stakes testing, Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, and charter school advocacy, such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)—is that these reforms-as-solutions are not based on any clearly identified problems and that the leading advocates themselves have no (or very little) experience and expertise in education.

Let me repeat: I have almost thirty years of combined public high school teaching (18 years), college teaching, teacher education, and scholarship in education that all have occurred during the thirty-year cycle of accountability-driven education reform.

I have ample experience with state standards, state and national (SAT) high-stakes testing, teacher certification, and education accreditation. A central thread of my scholarship over those years has included the negative impact of accountability, standards, and testing on literacy instruction (notably writing) and high-poverty students and schools.

Also let me repeat my answer to the blog title above: Yes, teachers should resist CCSS.

I have already argued for our resistance as part of our teacher agency so I want here to address the obligation teachers have to resist CCSS grounded firmly in our classroom experiences.

I began teaching in the fall of 1984, the exact academic year South Carolina first introduced accountability based on state standards and high-stakes testing. Over the next thirty years, SC has revised those standards three or more times, as well as reformulating our testing at least three times—from BSAP to PACT to PASS (with part of that testing reform driven by a desire to move beyond “basic” [the "B" of BSAP] and to the glory of “challenge” [the "C" of PACT]). In education, it seems, it is all about the branding.

SC and virtually every state in the nation has had decades and multiple versions of standards and high-stakes tests implemented. What is the result? Today no one is satisfied with the outcomes, and the dominant solution is to try the exact same strategy, except at the federal level.

And here is where I wish to assert David’s point as support for my argument: Teachers across the U.S. know from their lived experiences as educators that the bureaucracy of implementing and revising standards and tests over the past thirty years has wasted a tremendous amount of time and funding as well as inhibited our ability to teach and ruined learning opportunities for students—especially in high-needs schools.

Three decades of the accountability era with its standards and high-stakes testing have not improved teaching, have not increased learning, have not closed the achievement/opportunity gap, have not solved the drop-out problem, and have not succeeded in a single claim of made by political advocates of any aspect of this movement.

Why? Because the accountability model built on standards and high-stakes testing is the wrong solution and a complete failure of acknowledging the problem. Educational problems in the U.S. are not a lack of accountability, a lack of standards, or a lack of testing. In fact, increasing all three has increased the real problems because they are distractions from facing the tremendous inequity of opportunity facing children in the U.S. both in their lives and then in their schools.

Teachers must reject CCSS, and we must do so in a collective voice of our experiences in the exact environments of accountability that we know have done more harm than good to the children we serve every day.

Nothing is more real or practical than that.