Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

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Checklist: Media Coverage of the “Science of Reading”

Several years ago while preparing the first edition (2013) of De-testing and De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization, I came to know Peter DeWitt as a highly praised principal who wrote in that volume about no testing week at his school.

His work and career have shifted since then, but I have remained in contact through his public writing. Coinciding with a mostly fruitless Twitter debate about how the media continues to misrepresent the challenges and realities of teaching reading, then, I was strongly drawn to DeWitt’s 3 Reasons I Do Not Engage In Twitter Debates.

Much of his examination of the paradox that is social media is extremely compelling to me; his three reasons, in fact, resonate powerfully: They’re rarely about common understanding, they make you look really crazy to onlookers, and he’s not good at them.

When I find myself crossing (foolishly) DeWitt’s pointed line, I try to justify the effort by this (mostly idealistic and probably misguided) justification: Making a nuanced and detailed case, even through the limitations of Twitter, will likely not persuade the Twitter thread members, but can provide a platform for learning to those observing the discussion.

However, I find DeWitt’s conclusions hold fast, and thus, offering here the details and the nuance has a better, although also limited, potential for changing the dialogue and reaching more understanding.

Instead of providing yet another discrediting of yet another media misrepresentation of the “science of reading” (see some of that work listed below), I want to offer here a checklist for those who want to navigate the media coverage in an informed and critical way.

Mainstream media education journalism is routinely bad because of some broad problems inherent in journalism: journalists tend to be generalists and media assume a journalist can and should cover specialized fields, journalism remains bound to a “both sides” coverage of topics that misrepresents the actual balance of evidence in those specialized fields, and as I outline below, mainstream media tend to be trapped in a sort of presentism that lacks historical context.

Below with additional sources to support and illuminate the problems is a checklist for navigating mainstream media’s coverage of the “science of reading”:

Mainstream media’s errors in science of reading include the following:

[ ] Misrepresenting balanced literacy (BL), whole language (WL) to discredit them. To evaluate media coverage of reading instruction, know that reading ideologies such as balanced literacy and whole language suffer very complex realities. First, as links below detail, even when teachers or schools claim to be implementing BL or WL, there is ample evidence that traditional and more isolated practices are actually in place. Second, and extremely important to the current and historical versions of the reading wars, both BL and WL recognize and endorse a significant place for phonics instruction in early literacy; as Stephen Krashen explains pointedly: “Zero Phonics. This view claims that direct teaching is not necessary or even helpful. I am unaware of any professional who holds this position.”

Resources:

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen

Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92, Stephen Krashen

Literacy at the Crossroads: Crucial Talk About Reading, Writing, and Other Teaching Dilemmas, Regie Routman

Facts: On the nature of whole language education

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Silver Bullets, Babies, and Bath Water: Literature Response Groups in a Balanced Literacy Program, Dixie Lee Spiegel

[ ] Misrepresenting the complex role of phonics in reading in order to advocate for phonics programs. Related to the first point above, phonics advocacy tends to suggest falsely that some literacy experts support no phonics instruction and that all children must receive systematic intensive phonics instruction; these extreme polarities distort, ironically, what the broad and complex research base does show about how children learn to read as well as the role of phonics in that process.

Resources:

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

Stephen Krashen: Literacy: Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

The Literacy Crisis False Claims Real Solutions, Jeff McQuillan

[ ] Lacking historical context about the recurring “reading wars” and the false narratives of failing to teach children to read. The media, the public, and political leaders have chosen a crisis narrative for teaching reading throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. That framing as crisis has mostly obscured both the problems that do stunt effective reading instruction and the complex nature of teaching reading as well as the current research base on teaching and literacy development.

Resources:

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium

Research in Language (1947), Lou LaBrant

Hooked on Phonics Redux

[ ] Overemphasizing/ misrepresenting National Reading Panel (NRP) value, ignoring it as a narrow and politically skewed report. A central component of No Child Behind was the NRP; however, as a key member of the panel has detailed, that report was neither a comprehensive and valid overview of the then-current state of research on teaching reading nor a foundational tool for guiding reading practices or policy. Yet, media coverage routinely references the NRP as gold-standard research and laments its lack of impact (although the NRP report did spawn a disturbing scandal concerning federal funding and textbook adoptions).

Resources:

Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

Did Reading First Work?, Stephen Krashen

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report, Joanne Yatvin

The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

[ ] Citing bogus reports from discredited think tanks such as NCTQ. Well over a decade ago, Gerald Bracey warned about the growing influence of agenda-driven think tanks aggressively promoting reports before they are peer reviewed; since the mainstream media and most journalists are under-funded and overworked, press-release journalism has become more and more common, especially regarding education and often in terms of how so-called research is framed for the public. With the recent focus on the “science of reading,” the scapegoat of the day is teacher education; the narrative goes that teachers today do not know the science of reading because teacher education programs do not teach the science of reading. Often as proof, the mainstream media resorts to anecdote (they talk to a teacher or two who claims not to have been taught the science of reading) and citing bogus reports masquerading as research—notably the work of NCTQ, a think-tank that has aggressively and falsely attacked teacher education in report after report using slip-shod methods and devious processes to gather the data claim to analyze.

Resources:

NEPC Review: 2018 Teacher Prep Review (National Council on Teacher Quality, April 2018)

Review of Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know

GUEST POST by Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

[ ] Scapegoating teacher education while ignoring two greatest influences on reading: poverty and reading programs adopted to comply with standards and high-stakes testing. There is ample room to criticize teacher education, particularly focusing on the problems with credentialing and the flaws inherent in the accreditation process, but the current media urge to blame teacher education for either how reading is taught or the errors in how reading is taught distracts from some hard facts about measurable reading achievement: first, standardized testing of all kinds are more strongly correlated with socio-economic and out-of-school factors than either teacher, teaching, or school quality; and this blame-teacher-education narrative glosses over that almost all reading instruction in U.S. public schools is mandated by standards, high-stakes testing, and adopted reading programs regardless of what teachers learned in their certification program.

Resources:

In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words | Shanker Institute

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Masquerading (1931), Lou LaBrant

[ ] Conflating needs of students with special needs and needs of general population of students. The genesis of the most recent version of the reading wars that focuses on the “science of reading” appears to be grounded in a growing advocacy for children either not diagnosed or misdiagnosed for issues related to dyslexia. Parents of those children have been very politically active, and while their concerns for children with special needs are valid, the media and politicians have overreacted to that narrow issue and over-generalized the needs of those students to all students. This advocacy has also run roughshod over the actual and more nuanced research base on dyslexia itself. In short, parents advocating for their children should be honored and heard, but parents should not be driving reading instruction or reading policy.

Resource:

Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

[ ] Emphasizing voices of cognitive scientists over literacy professionals. Two common patterns in media coverage of education and specifically reading are that journalists perpetuate both a gender and a discipline bias in whose voices are highlighted; notably, mostly men who are cognitive scientists are used to drive the agenda while women who are literacy practitioners and scholars are either ignored, marginalized as “critics,” or scapegoated as misguided advocates of BL or WL.

Resources:

NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

[ ] Trusting silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all claims about teaching and learning. Fundamentally, the historical and current flaw in the reading wars, even one framed as the “science of reading,” is that phonics advocacy reaches for “all students must have systematic intensive phonics programs,” buoyed recently by “but intensive phonics programs won’t hurt any students.” However, all teaching and learning proves to be far more complex that these claims. If we return to BL as a reading philosophy, we can emphasize that each child (not all children) should receive the type and amount of direct phonics instruction they need to begin and then grow as readers; that type and amount is difficult to prescribe, and often children are mis-served when systematic phonics programs are adopted because fidelity to the program typically trumps the actual goal of reading instruction, eager and autonomous readers. When a child is mandated to complete a phonics program, regardless of that child’s needs, that time would have been much better spent with the child reading by choice; therefore, systematic phonics do in fact harm students when they are implemented as “all students must.”

Resources:

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Research in Education

Teaching Students, Not Standards or Programs

[ ] Feeding a false narrative blaming teachers and teacher educators both of whom are deprofessionalized /powerless in accountability structures. There are some dirty little secrets about education that discredit much of how media cover teaching and learning: as noted above, measurable teacher impact on student learning is quite small; teachers are mostly complying with mandates, and not making instructional or assessment decisions; and teacher educators have very little impact on how teachers implement teaching once they are in the classroom and required to conform to the mandates linked to standards and high-stakes testing.

Resources:

Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

Autonomy Must Precede Accountability

See Also

 

On New Criticism and Louise Rosenblatt: A Clarification and Dialogue

In an ambitious and contrarian essay, Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an “Experienced Understanding” of Literature, Andrew Rejan asserts:

Without diminishing the significance of Rosenblatt’s contributions, I wish to reexamine and reimagine the familiar history of Rosenblatt’s rebellion against New Criticism: I will propose that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, might be viewed as pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, shaped by the shared influence of I. A. Richards.

As a former Council Historian of NCTE and the biographer of Lou LaBrant, whose career overlapped significantly with Rosenblatt’s, I was immediately drawn to Rejan’s unpacking of both New Criticism and Rosenblatt—but was also intrigued by his citing my “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in En­glish Journal.

Rejan incorporates my analysis of the historical relationship between EJ and New Criticism to offer an example of what he calls the “the folly of defining and critiquing the New Critics without directly citing any of the New Critics’ actual writing.” While I find much of Rejan’s analysis important and nuanced, here he rushes to support his thesis without taking into account the purpose of my piece and he fails to note key final points I raise that fit more closely with his thesis than providing evidence of “folly”:

On one level, we owe our field of English language arts pedagogy the opportunity to reexamine the unspoken power of New Criticism as well as the reduced ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in our classes. We must consider the role reader response has played as the most frequent challenge to New Criticism in our classrooms—including the misunderstanding and misuse of Rosenblatt’s perspective as well. But we must rise above the narrow tensions among critical perspectives.

Literary analysis, then, becomes about agency—the agency in the work/text itself and the agency of the reader reading and rereading the world (Freire). The call for critical literacy does not deny or silence the potential power of New Criticism or reader response or any critical stance. Instead it calls for confronting efficiency and objectivity as questionable stances:

“We can help students read the word and the world in deeper and more profound ways. We can help students investigate the ways in which they are manipulated. They can become critically literate consumers of the media. They can engage with and focus on current issues. We can help them problematize the world so they think about their role in it and what they can do to shape its future directions.” (Michell 45) 

Before highlighting how Rejan offers some very important contributions to both literary theory and how that manifests in traditional English and literature classrooms, I want to clarify a couple points about my own work cited.

First, my article is a historical overview of the relationship between teaching English in high school or college and New Criticism; and in that overview, I note that there is a gap between the pure theory in its founding and how teachers practice a reduced (and often bastardized) version best represented, I think, by the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition [1] test.

In other words, while not as developed or explicit as Rejan’s thorough essay, I very much recognize that what passes as New Criticism in the teaching of English is not solidly grounded in the seminal work of the New Critics. In fact, I will address this more fully below, high school English teachers may have never read the New Critics and, like our students, often navigate within New Criticism without it being named or acknowledged in any way.

The commonly implemented (distorted) version of New Criticism is mostly a consequence of the goal of appearing to be objective that is driven by the primacy of assessment in teaching; in other words, literary interpretation grounded in analysis and “right/wrong” answers helped reduce New Criticism to a practical shadow of its original self—as I teased out when rejecting “close reading”:

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

And to the “folly” Rejan sees my essay modeling, I would note that I spend a significant subsection of the essay, “New Criticism: Defined and Embraced, Narrowly,” arguing a similar point as Rejan’s, the reductive application of New Criticism, citing heavily from a major literary scholar, David Daiches.

Finally, as the passage from my essay highlighted above demonstrates, I was documenting the exact dynamic—the tension between New Criticism and Rosenblatt—Rejan teases out far more explicitly, and also suggesting that tension is too often reductive and fails ultimately to be sufficiently critical, in that students are rarely afforded agency in the process whether they are navigating text through New Criticism or reader response.

Setting aside that Rejan was a bit hasty in one paragraph citing my work, I want to note that Rejan offers some important take aways for how English teachers are prepared and then how we practice our crafts of literary analysis with our students.

One foundational commitment I have implemented as a college professor since my doctoral program in the mid 1990s is assigning seminal texts, not secondary texts, addressing the most prominent ideas in education and literacy. As one example, my undergraduate and graduate students read Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration.

And during our discussion, we address that Rosenblatt’s work is often mischaracterized and over-simplified; I typically add that a careful reading of Rosenblatt uncovers a thinker far more conservative and traditional that often acknowledged.

So, yes, Rejan’s call for reading the original work of the New Critics to understand New Criticism is a worthy call for all aspects of education, the teaching of English, and preparing teachers of English.

Rejan’s broad message about understanding literary theory also shows the importance of the “considerable gap” (LaBrant, 1947) between theory and practice too often common in English classrooms.

A former graduate student of mine and current doctoral student has been discussing by email with me Rejan’s piece as she investigates Rosenblatt. She has confessed, in fact, that she knows little about literary theory because that topic wasn’t covered well in her undergraduate English courses, leaving her with a “superficial” understanding—all of which reinforces Rejan’s central concerns.

When I have taught young adult literature, where I assign Rosenblatt, practicing teachers in the graduate section often share a similar lack of understanding when we practice literary theory with a picture book.

Ultimately, as I shared with Rejan, we are offering a similar message, although our pieces are distinct in purpose and thoroughness (EJ articles tend to be brief, and EE essays, dense and extended). I could not agree more with Rejan’s last paragraph and sentence: “I suspect that Brooks and Rosenblatt both would appreciate a closer reading of the past that might bring us closer together in the future.”

Although I must offer yet one more caveat, the central thrust of my essay—any literary theory lens is a way to investigate text, and if any becomes the way to investigate text, we have failed the ultimate goal of fostering critical literacy in our students.

That is a folly we cannot afford.


[1] I Taught AP Lit and Comp for most of my 18 years as a high school English teacher.

See Also

“A Respect for the Past, a Knowledge of the Present, and a Concern for the Future”: The Role of History in English Education, P.L. Thomas (English Education, January 2011)

Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

I cannot promise below anything as exciting as battling a potential new partner’s seven evil exes, but I do want to wade into an important but too often overlooked aspect of how we assign power and blame to teacher impact of student achievement.

In two recent posts, I have confronted teacher blaming as well as teacher buy-in because far too many people simultaneously overstate teacher impact on student outcomes while ignoring that teachers in the U.S. have very little professional autonomy.

First, and I will not belabor this point, teacher quality contributes to only about 10-15% of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school factors accounting for about 60% or more.

Yet, what is also important to emphasize is that teacher practices in public schools are highly regulated, increasingly so over the past thirty years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Teacher professional autonomy has been nearly absent in the U.S. over the last century-plus in the U.S.—likely since it is seen as a woman’s profession—but current in-service teachers will attest that their practices are significantly restrained by state mandates and schools polices anchored to state standards and a wide assortment of high-stakes tests (from state accountability to the SAT/ACT and Advanced Placement as well as International Baccalaureate).

Part of the reason I resist the inherent teacher-blame in pieces such as Goldstein’s on how writing is taught rests on my own experiences as a teacher educator of English teachers for 15 years.

My journey to teacher education began as adjunct teaching in local colleges throughout the 1990s, culminating with two wonderful years as the co-lead instruction in the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP).

That fist summer institute of SWP introduced me to Dawn Mitchell as well as how common her struggle is among in-service teachers across the U.S.

While we at SWP worked diligently to teach our participants best practice in teaching writing, they—as did Dawn—routinely met resistance in their real-world schools and classrooms.

Principals and parents balked repeatedly at changed practices, even as those changes move from unwarranted to warranted instruction.

Once I became a full-time teacher educator, I had to anticipate a recurring refrain from the wonderful young people I was helping move into the field of teaching English; they nearly all said they valued what I had taught them about best practices in teaching reading and writing, but they were not able to implement most of those practices once they secured a job teaching.

So here is the dirty little secret of education blame in the U.S.: we simultaneously want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement even though we know teacher quality is a small percentage of those measurable outcomes and even though teachers are often implementing practices that are not supported by research but by mandate.

If we return to the Goldstein article and consider why student writing continues to fall short of our expectations, we must accept that how we measure student writing proficiency significantly shades what we believe about student proficiency and that teachers are mostly practicing in their classes what they are required to do (teach to standards, teach to tests) even when those mandates conflict significantly with what we know is best practice in fostering young students as writers.

Ultimately, there is a type of education reform that has never truly been implemented—seeking ways to increase teacher professional autonomy.

As someone with almost two decades as a public school English teacher and now 15 years as a college professor, I can attest that professional autonomy is one of the most powerful aspects of university teaching; we are hired for our expertise and then given the respect we deserve for behaving as professionals in our classrooms.

There is much about teacher certification as well as in-service teaching that deserves attention and reform, but currently, the discourse around teacher blame and why students (and schools) fail completely ignores the key cause behind all of this discord: accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests, which is all folded into federal and state legislation.

Both teacher education and in-service teacher practices would be exponentially improved by teacher educator and teacher autonomy—and then we would find a much more valid context for holding both accountable.


See Also

Many Teachers Have ‘No Say’ in Decisions About Their Own PD, Survey Finds

Accreditation: “‘relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement'”

For well over three decades, I have been both a full-time educator (high school English teacher for 18 years and currently a college professor, going on 16 years) and a writer. As a high school teacher, I also taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor for the school newspaper and literary magazine over about 10-11 years.

Therefore, I have a great deal of experience in the fields of education and journalism, experience that has revealed to me a rather damning fact: One can be well trained in educational pedagogy or the craft and conventions of journalism, but without nuanced and deep knowledge of the content of that teaching and writing, the outcome can and often is quite awful.

In journalism, for example, the vaunted New York Times publishes and fails to recognize blindly awful articles about poverty. And Education Week regularly features the worst of edujournalism.

And let me emphasize here, these criticisms are about the very best of the field.

The rise of Trumplandia has also birthed a renewed concern about the media and journalism—much gnashing of teeth about fake news and post-truth—so this announcement from Northwestern University may seem ill-suited in the context of those concerns:

In a nontraditional move, officials at Northwestern University‘s prestigious journalism and communications school have decided not to renew the program’s accreditation, letting the designation lapse.

The dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications said Monday that school officials chose not to pursue renewed accreditation, which provides outside approval of academic programs, because the process is “flawed” and not useful.

More pointedly, the dean explains:

“Our goal is always to be the best in the world, and this process doesn’t get us there,” Hamm said in an interview Monday afternoon. “We just don’t find that the review provides us with anything beyond what we already know today. It’s relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It’s sort of a low bar.”

The current hyper-focus on media and journalism has been a parallel reality in the field of education over the last three decades-plus; therefore, there is much to unpack about the parallels in the two fields.

As a lifelong educator, I had to seek certification during my formal college education, I worked as a classroom teacher in public schools under standards and testing, and I now must conform to the mandates of teacher certification and program accreditation as a teacher educator.

In all of those contexts, I am a witness to that accreditation (like certification) is, in fact, “’relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It’s sort of a low bar.’”

All types of bureaucratic accountability—such as the thirty years of standards and high stakes testing in public education reform—are ultimately reductive by shifting the focus toward meeting standards and requirements that are secondary and tertiary approximations of authentic goals (holistic goals that have been cannibalized into discrete elements for the sake of efficiency).

Why, we should be asking, do disciplines such as journalism and education feel the need to add the layer(s) of accreditation (and certification) onto their degrees—when other disciplines trust that the degrees themselves are enough?

Two reasons are practitioners in both disciplines suffer from the low self-esteem of the fields and the twin-tyrannies of the market place and bureaucrats.

Since I focused on journalism above, let me shift here to education.

No discipline or profession has suffered more under the weight of political and public marginalizing and de-professionalization than education—in part as a consequence of sexism (teaching long associated with being a woman’s job) and in part due to the burden of K-12 and many college teachers/professors being agents of the state, working in tax-funded public institutions.

Education currently labors under a nearly unmanageable matrix of mandates related to degrees, certification, and accreditation; and these requirements are in constant flux—standards and mandates for proving those standards have been met shifting every 3-5 years.

Over the accountability era, then, many teacher certification programs have dropped educational philosophy courses, foundations courses, and what many people would consider the more academically challenging knowledge base of education degrees (degrees, by the way, that have historically been slandered as “too easy”).

Education programs are in constant flux, changing courses and programs to meet state certification mandates and accreditation mandates—neither of which are being driven by scholars or practitioners but by bureaucrats.

The most perverse of ironies has occurred, then, in education because those who claimed education degrees are flimsy have successfully made them a maze of nothingness through certification and accreditation mandates.

Ultimately, we must face these realities:

  • Increasing an emphasis on the technical aspects of education and journalism distorts the importance of both and has created practitioners who may perform with proficiency while failing miserably at the larger responsibility to what is being taught and what is being expressed as well as who is being taught and who is being informed.
  • No generic teaching or journalism skills exist absent the content of what is being taught or written about, and therefore, reducing teaching or journalism to discrete skills necessarily dilutes holistic professions to simplistic bureaucracy.
  • There is no option for objectivity in education or journalism; both are political acts that require moral and ethical distinctions as well as seeking out the Truth/truth.
  • Accreditation (and certification) is more about power and political grandstanding than about the integrity of any discipline. In fact, accreditation is necessarily counter to the integrity of any discipline.

Reaching back to Franz Kafka and then recurring throughout pop culture (mainly satire such as Dilbert and Office Space), the folly of bureaucracy has been exposed time and again; yet, it remains entrenched in some of the foundational disciplines in our democracy—education and journalism.

Northwestern University has taken a bold but necessary step that should be a beacon for all of journalism and education; we are well past time to end accreditation (certification) as the process that strangles the vibrancy out of any discipline.

Teacher Quality: A Reader in 2017

Let me start with a full disclosure: Lawrence Baines is a colleague and friend with whom I have collaborated on several book projects and presentations. So I want to offer some friendly concerns about his thoughtful When ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers Aren’t in Education Week.

Baines open with: “Recent research confirms that America’s most vulnerable children are being taught by the least-qualified teachers.”

This is incredibly important, but let’s clarify a few points. Vulnerable students include black and brown students, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students. And Baines is highlighting a truly ugly fact about unwritten policies in education: these vulnerable populations of students are assigned disproportionately new and early-career teachers as well as un-/under-certified teachers.

Dozens of studies for many years have confirmed that administrations commonly “reward” veteran teachers by assigning them “good” students and advanced courses such as AP and IB.

Add to that dynamic that the rise of charter schools linked strongly with TFA has increased the likelihood that vulnerable students will be assured a continual stream of uncertified and new teachers.

Confronting the increased bureaucratization of teacher preparation and alternative certification programs, Baines makes his central case: “The continual dumbing-down of the preparation of teachers is not without consequences.”

I would argue that the “dumbing-down” is about the false attack on “bad” teachers as the primary or even single cause of low student achievement among, specifically, vulnerable students.

And the ugly consequence of that assault has been increasing accountability over teacher certification and teacher evaluation (such as using value-added methods) and thus demonizing teachers without improving teaching or learning.

Another repeated fact of education is that measurable student learning (usually test scores) is most strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of students’ home; see this about Arkansas, which is typical across the U.S.

So here is the teacher quality dilemma: If we demand that teacher quality is the primary mechanism for improving student achievement, and if that is a false claim (which it is), we are doomed to both destroying the profession and discouraging anyone from entering that profession.

And Baines concludes: “All of the highest-performing countries in the world require teachers to obtain advanced degrees, demonstrate pedagogical and subject-matter expertise, accumulate significant teaching experience, and show an aptitude for working with children before stepping into the classroom as full-time teachers.”

Herein we are confronted with what it means to prepare well people to teach. And how do we disentangle teacher preparation and teacher evaluation from corrosive and ill-informed bureaucracy (certification and accreditation) while also providing the context within which we can create robust and challenging teacher education as well as ongoing professional development for teachers?

My short answer is that standards, certification, and accreditation are all the problems, not the solutions. Teacher education needs to be re-envisioned as the other disciplines, which are often self-regulating and robust because of professionalism and fidelity to the discipline among members of that discipline.

Since I have written on these issues often, I offer here a reader to help confront the issues raised by Baines:

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

What We Tolerate (and for Whom) v. What the Rich Demand: On Teacher Quality

Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

On Education and Credentialing: “Mak[ing] a Straight-cut Ditch of a Free, Meandering Brook”

“What does education often do?” Henry David Thoreau asked in his journal, answering: “It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”

As a former high school English/ELA teacher for 18 years, as I sat in the first of two training sessions yesterday, this from Thoreau came to mind.

Over the past 15 years, I have been a teacher educator, now a full and tenured professor in my university’s Education Department. Yet, from 9-4 yesterday, as representatives from the state department of education trained our full-time and adjunct faculty on the new South Carolina teacher evaluation rubric, adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) standards, I felt more like an elementary student because the so-called training was mostly condescending and entirely unprofessional.

But the unprofessional, I regret to acknowledge, is business as usual for teacher education, as a faux-field in higher education, and for K-12 teaching, a faux-profession.

Some of my doctoral courses for an EdD in curriculum and instruction covered educational leadership. In that work, I was always fascinated by what the research often describes as three types of leaders—authoritarian, authoritarian-light, and collegial.

The most chilling of the three is the authoritarian-light, which is a style that includes finding strategies that manipulate stakeholder buy-in by making it appear the stakeholders are making decisions even though they are actually being coerced to comply with mandates about which they have no real choice.

This is the process I suffered through yesterday as bureaucrats from the state department assured a room of professors and practitioners that the new state rubric for teacher evaluation is backed by research and that we already know and do everything therein.

Again, as a former English/ELA teacher, I am struggling with describing the experience as Orwellian, a Kafkan nightmare of reason, or both.

Training Teacher Educators to Train Teachers to Train Students

Some of the early session dynamics are worth noting upfront.

As part of the authoritarian-light strategies, the facilitators had lots of group work with large sticky paper and markers. Much laughing and chatting included references to the numerous teacher evaluation systems SC has adopted over the past three decades and how everyone in the room knew all this stuff.

We all shared our very E.D. Hirsch moment of knowing all the acronyms for the four or five systems many of us in the room have experienced.

And then the dramatic kicker: But this new rubric and system is different, better, and supported by research!

[Let’s note that no time was taken to acknowledge that this same framing occurred each time all the former systems were introduced.]

In passing, the credibility of the rubric was linked to the fact that the rubric includes footnotes (so do Ann Coulter’s books, by the way) to the incredible work of Danielson and Marzano!

However, as I found the rubric online, I noticed that neither were in the 23 footnotes.

[Let’s note that no time was taken to examine very powerful and credible counter-evidence refuting the credibility of the cult of Danielson and the cult of Marzano. Also, the cult of Hattie is in footnote 7, a hint to the hokum therein.]

Not to belabor the seven-hour training session, but a few additional points:

  • This rubric is highly touted, yet when we raised concerns about vague terms such as “most” and “some” to distinguish between “proficient” and “needs improvement,” that conversation was mostly brushed aside, except that we discovered if you look under “Description of Qualifying Measures” on page 8, you learn that “most” means “some” (though “some remains undefined). By any fair evaluation of this rubric, it fails miserably the basic parameters of high-quality rubrics (interestingly something I teach in my methods courses).
  • And then there is the rubric’s enormity: 404 bullets over 4 categories and nine pages of small Helvetica font. To navigate these bullets (and we were warned repeatedly to do so “holistically and not as a checklist” as we walked through the bullets as a checklist and not holistically) with any care at all requires nearly three hours for just one lesson, assuming about 2-minutes per bullet. Not only does the rubric fail basic expectations for clearly defined terms (just what the hell are “powerful ideas”?), but also it fails for being incredibly unwieldy and overwhelming.
  • Throughout the training, two key points were emphasized: mastery and teacher impact on student learning. As I will discuss below, we were given no opportunity to explore the serious problems with both, and no time was spent highlighting how the training itself practiced faux-science in the context of each.
  • As we explored the rubric, as well, the facilitators unpacked key factors that are not expressed in the rubric itself. Even though the language of the rubric under “proficient” references the teacher, the facilitators noted often that to move from “needs improvement” to “proficient” was dependent on students demonstrating mastery (showing “proficient”), not teacher behaviors (merely “needs improvement”).

To clarify how problematic this training proved to be, let me offer briefly the last activity, our viewing a lesson and watching the facilitators model how to use the rubric.

The lesson was a ninth-grade ELA lesson on inference, and the class was a “no excuses” charter school with black and brown children all adorned in matching purple shirts.

Here is the short version: the lesson, we were told, met the upper range of “proficient.”

Yet, what the activity highlighted was quite different than the intent.

The lesson was weak, a reductive attempt to teach inference to mastery that confuses isolated literacy skills with teaching literacy or literature. But this sort of bad lesson is necessary once you reduce teaching to mastery and teacher impact on student learning.

Instead of addressing this substantive problem and ways to conference with the teacher about focusing literacy instruction on rich texts and inviting students to explore those texts with more and more sophistication over a long period of time, the points of emphasis were on transcribing verbatim the lesson (although we could barely hear the audio) so that we could give lots of evidence for the bullet points we were not supposed to view as a checklist.

[Let’s note that no time was allowed to acknowledge that if and when teacher evaluators need detailed evidence of teaching, the video itself is superior to transcribing.]

The Big Point here is that once a rubric is codified by the state as a credentialing instrument, that rubric determines “proficient,” which may also simultaneously be a very bad, uninspiring, and reductive act of teaching.

Within that, as well, we witnessed the faux-science of claiming to embrace concepts while simultaneously contradicting them.

While only a few students out of a class of 20-plus students responded aloud during the lesson (our only potential evidence of learning), that constituted “most” and thus “proficient”—and represents in the Orwellian confines of this rubric “mastery.”

A few students offering one or two comments aloud in no reasonable way constitutes mastery, and there were no efforts to control for anything that justifies claiming this lesson by this teacher was a direct causal agent for the supposed learning. For example, those students willing to share may have come to class already capable of playing the inference game in school.

Teacher education as a bureaucratic mandate has mostly and currently functions as faux-science—adopting the language of being a certain kind of reductive behavioral psychology without taking the care and time to understand or implement the concept with fidelity.

This is a tragic consequence of the low self-esteem of the field—which becomes a vicious cycle of pretending (badly) to be a field deemed more credible (psychology) but unable to become a credible and independent field unfettered by bureaucracy.

Everything Wrong with Teacher Education Is Everything Wrong with Education

“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy,” concludes Rebecca Smith, adding:

Data hold elusive promises of addressing educational concerns, promising real-time personalized instruction, predicting student growth, and closing the achievement gap of marginalized students (Bernhardt, 2006; Earl & Katz, 2006; Spillane, 2012). Today collections of student data are considered a reliable and a scientific way of measuring academic growth, mobilizing school improvement, and creating accountable, qualified teachers. Influenced by policy, pedagogy, and governing school procedures, data collection has become normalized in schools. Instead of asking what we can do with data, the better questions are: How did the accepted practice of quantifying children become normalized in education? How does our interaction with data govern our thoughts, discourses, and actions? (p. 2)

And as Smith details, the historical roots are deep:

Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where “knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity” (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision. (p. 3)

As a logical although extreme consequence of this historical pattern, Common Core represents the false allure of accountability and standards as well as the quantification of teaching and learning within the idealized promise of “common.”

Common Core was doomed from the beginning, like the many iterations of standards before because as a consequence of the accountability era the evidence is quite clear:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum.

And thus:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

For decades and decades—and then to an extreme over the past thirty years—education and teacher preparation have been mired in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

The quality of education, teaching, and learning is not in any reasonable way connected to the presence or quality of standards, to the ways in which we have chosen to measure and then quantify them.

Training education professionals to use a really bad rubric that will determine if candidates are allowed to teach “proficiently” (which I can define for you: “badly”) is insanity because within a few years, another rubric will be heralded as the greatest thing while teaching and learning are no better—and likely worse—for all the bluster, time, and money wasted.

Education and teacher education are trapped in a very long technocratic nightmare bound to a reductive behaviorism and positivism.

These false gods are useful for control and compliance, but are in no way supportive of educating everyone in a free society.

Technocrats and bureaucrats cut straight ditches; teaching and learning are meandering brooks.