Leaning Think Tanks or (More) Flawed Education Journalism?

In the spirit of good journalism, let me start with full disclosure.

I am on the Editorial Board of NEPC (you’ll see why this matters in a few paragraphs), and that means I occasionally provide blind peer review of research reviews conducted by scholars for NEPC. That entails my receiving a couple very small stipends, but I have never been directly or indirectly asked to hold any position except to base my reviews on the weight of the available evidence.

Further, since this appears important, I am not now and have never been a member of any teacher or professor union. Recently, I spoke to a local union-based conference, but charged no fee (my travel from SC to TN was covered).

Finally, I have been confronting the repeatedly poor journalism covering education and education reform for several years, notably see my recent piece, Education Journalism Deserves an F: A Reader.

My key points about the failures of journalism covering education include (i) journalists assuming objective poses, that are in fact biased, (ii) the lack of expertise among journalists about the history and research base in education, and (iii) the larger tradition in journalism to dispassionately (again a pose, but not real) present “both sides” of every issue regardless of the credibility of those sides or regardless of whether or not the issue is really binary (let’s highlight also that virtually no issue is binary).

So I remain deeply disappointed when major outlets, here Education Week, and experienced journalists, specifically Stephen Sawchuk, contribute to the worst of education reform by remaining trapped in the worst aspects of covering education.

Sawchuk’s U.S. Teacher-Prep Rules Face Heavy Criticism in Public Comments includes a common framing of “both sides” in order to address the USDOE’s new proposal to reform teacher education.

That framing pits NEPC against the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—although a number of others with stakes in the debate are listed. What is notable here is how Sawchuk chooses to characterize each; for example:

Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generally opposes market-based education policies….

Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which generally backs stronger accountability mechanisms in education….

Only a handful of commenters were outright supportive of the rules. At press time, a coalition of groups were preparing to submit a comment backing the proposal. The coalition’s members included: Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee; Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that supports teacher-leadership efforts; the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group; and the alternative-certification programs Teach For America and TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project.

In the U.S., labeling NEPC “left-leaning” and highlighting union affiliation is just as coded as calling Richard Sherman a thug. We all know that wink-wink-nudge-nudge is dismissive, prompting Audrey Amrein-Beardsley to ask, “Why such (biased) reporting, Sawchuk?”

Yet, Fordham supports “stronger accountability” and not a single group in the third listing has a “nudge” despite, for example, NCTQ entirely lacking credibility.

Also, NEPC has a hyperlink, but none of the others? And where is the link to the actual report from NEPC, and is there any credible evidence the report on the USDOE’s proposal is biased or flawed?

Since traditional faux-fair-and-balanced journalism continues to mislead, since we are unlikely to see a critical free press any time soon, let me, a mere blogger with 31 years of teaching experience (18 in a rural public SC high school, and the remainder in teacher education) and about twenty years of educational scholarship offer some critical clarifications.

First, here is the abstract for Kevin K. Kumashiro‘s review of Proposed 2015 Federal Teacher Preparation Regulations by the USDOE:

On December 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft of proposed new Teacher Preparation Regulations under Title II of the Higher Education Act with a call for public comments within 60 days. The proposal enumerates federally mandated but state-enforced regulations of all teacher preparation programs. Specifically, it requires states to assess and rate every teacher preparation program every year with four Performance Assessment Levels (exceptional, effective, at-risk, and low-performing), and states must provide technical assistance to “low-performing” programs. “Low-performing” institutions and programs that do not show improvement may lose state approval, state funding, and federal student financial aid. This review considers the evidentiary support for the proposed regulations and identifies seven concerns: (1) an underestimation of what could be a quite high and unnecessary cost and burden; (2) an unfounded attribution of educational inequities to individual teachers rather than to root systemic causes; (3) an improperly narrow definition of teacher classroom readiness; (4) a reliance on scientifically discredited processes of test-based accountability and value-added measures for data analysis; (5) inaccurate causal explanations that will put into place a disincentive for teachers to work in high-needs schools; (6) a restriction on the accessibility of federal student financial aid and thus a limiting of pathways into the teaching profession; and (7) an unwarranted, narrow, and harmful view of the very purposes of education.

If there is anything “left-leaning” or any evidence that union money has skewed this review, I strongly urge Sawchuk or anyone else to provide such evidence—instead of innuendo masked as balanced journalism.

And let’s unpack “left-leaning” by looking at NEPC’s mission:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.

A revision appears in order so I can help there also:

Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank committed to democratic and evidence-based policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generally opposes market-based education policies not supported by the current research base….

Since NEPC is balanced against Fordham, it seems important to note that NEPC has three times awarded Fordham its Bunkum Award (2010, 2008, 2006) for shoddy and biased reports; thus, another revision:

Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a free-market think tank which generally backs stronger accountability mechanisms in education regardless of evidence to the contrary.

I added the hyperlink to the Fordham mission statement, which uses code also (“options for families,” “efficient,” “innovation,” “entrepreneurship”) to mask their unwavering support not for “stronger” accountability but for market-based policy.

What does all this teach us, then?

All people and organizations—including Education Week, NEPC, and Fordham—are biased. To pretend some are and some aren’t is naive at best and dishonest at worst.

NEPC, I believe, freely admits there is a bias to what reports are selected for review (just as EdWeek chooses what issues to cover and where to place and how to emphasize those pieces), but the reviews implement the most widely accepted practices for transparency and accuracy, blind peer-review. Further, the reviews are freely available online for anyone to examine carefully and critically.

The real story that mainstream media are refusing to cover is that the USDOE (and the so-called reformers such as TFA, NCTQ, DFER, TNTP, etc.) lacks the experience and expertise to form education policy, but the actual researchers and practitioners of the field of education remain marginalized.

Yes, the real story is that those rejecting the USDOE’s proposed teacher education regulations are credible and that the proposal itself (as Kumashiro details) lacks credibility (notably in its use of value-added methods, which has been rejected for use in high-stakes ways by researchers left-leaning, right-leaning, and moderate; see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

The greatest failure among the mainstream media is the inability of journalists to recognize and then address that their narrative about “reformers v. anti-reformers” is a straw man argument and that the real battle is between those seeking reform built on the research base (researchers and educators consistently marginalized and demonized) and the rich and powerful without credibility committed to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing as a mask for market ideologies—despite three decades of research showing that has not worked.

And since I opened with transparency, let me end with a solid clarification that I am on record as a teacher educator that teacher education desperately needs reforming, as does public education broadly, professional education organizations, and teacher unions. And thus, I recommend the following:

Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education

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

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

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

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Consuming Education and Unintended (Ignored) Consequences

As I have noted often, the roots of the accountability era—President Reagan’s directive for the Nation at Risk report—are clearly connected to commitments to free market forces as central to education reform.

Over the past thirty years or so, parental choice has been promoted through a variety of market formats (vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools), and then accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests have increasingly been morphed from academic incentives to financial incentives—starting with school report cards and exit exams for students before expanding to linking teacher retention and pay to student test scores and even now calling for adding teacher education to the value-added mania.

Many have begun to confront the negative impact of focusing high-stakes accountability on test scores, but those concerns tend to be about narrowing the curriculum and expectations by teaching to the test or about the lack of credible research supporting value-added methods of evaluating teachers or teacher education programs.

While those concerns are powerful and accurate, something more insidious is rarely examined: the unintended and ignored consequences of creating in education a culture of competitiveness among teachers about student test scores.

Whether value-added methods are used to determine teacher retention or merit pay, those policies are creating a system of labeling and ranking teachers, and thus, pitting teachers against each other for a finite number of jobs or pool of compensation.

The result of those policies is that each teacher must now not only prioritize her/his students’ test scores, but also seek ways in which her/his students can score higher than students in other teachers’ classes.

If Teacher A, then, finds ways in which to raise her/his students’ scores, she/he is incentivized to implement those practices while not sharing them with the wider community of teachers.

Yes, value-added methods (VAM) further reduce education to teaching to the test, but even more troubling is that VAM codifies a culture of competition that consumes the very community needed so that all students and all teachers excel.

Competition is often barbaric—as we witnessed at the end of the 2015 Superbowl when the Seahawks and Patriots were reduced in the closing seconds to the sort of fighting not accepted in the sport of football.

Schools, teaching, and learning are increasingly like those closing seconds—the circumstances are reduced, the stakes are high, and everyone becomes desperate to grab “his/hers,” without regard to others.

In education, then, the market forces us into the barbarism that formal education has been trying to overcome for decades.

Teacher Education to USDOE: “Let Us Ruin Our Own Discipline!”

Maybe this is appropriate with Groundhog Day approaching—since many of us now associate that with the Bill Murray comedy classic. But I am also prone to seeing all this through the lens of science fiction (SF), possibly a zombie narrative like World War Z.

“This,” for the record, is the accountability plague that began in the early 1980s and continues to spread through every aspect of public education—starting with students and schools, followed by infecting teachers, and now poised to infect teacher education.

As I noted above, on one hand, the accountability game is predictable: some government bureaucracy (state or federal) launches into yet another round of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing and then educators respond by showing that they too can play the accountability game.

On the other hand, accountability seems to be a SF plague, spawned in the bowels of government like the root of the zombie apocalypse.

Pick your analogy, but the newest round isn’t really any different than all the rounds before.

The USDOE announces accountability for teacher education, in part using value-added methods drawn from student scores on high-stakes tests.

NEPC offers an evidence-based review, refuting accountability based on student test scores as a way to reform teacher education.

But in the wake of misguided bureaucracy and policy, possibly the most disturbing part of this pattern of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is that educators themselves invariably line up demanding that we be allowed to do that same thing ourselves (including our own continuous complaints about all the bureaucracy with which we gleefully fall in line).

In this case, Stephen Sawchuck reports for Education Week:

More than a dozen education school deans are banding together, aiming to design a coherent set of teacher-preparation experiences, validate them, and shore up support for them within their own colleges and the field at large.

Deans for Impact, based in Austin, Texas, launches this month with a $1 million grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The new group’s embrace of data-informed changes to teacher-preparation curricula—even, potentially, based on “value added” information—is likely to generate waves in the insular world of teacher preparation. It’s also a testament to teacher-educators’ search for an alternative to traditional associations and accreditation bodies.

And, the deans say, it’s a chance to move away from talking about which information on teacher preparation to collect to beginning the use of such data.

And Valerie Strauss adds at her The Answer Sheet blog an open letter to the USDOE from teacher educators, including:

We recommend that you develop a process for revising these regulations that substantively includes the educational community in advancing your goal of making teacher preparation programs more accountable for successful preparation of teachers. We suggest you convene classroom teachers and school administrators; academics with expertise in teacher education, teaching, learning and student achievement and assessment; and policymakers to develop accountability measures that more accurately assess program quality and the successful preparation of teachers.

Sigh.

“[Y]our goal of making teacher preparation programs more accountable,” and thus, teacher education once again falls all over itself to prove we can out-accountable the accountability mania that has not worked for thirty-plus years.

Let’s be clear, instead, that accountability (a lack of or the type of) has never been the problem; thus, accountability is not the solution.

Let’s be clear that while teacher quality and teacher preparation obviously matter, they mostly cannot and do not matter when the teaching and learning conditions in schools prevent effective teaching, when children’s live render them incapable of learning.

And finally, let’s be clear that in that context, we have a great deal to do before we can or should worry too much about teacher quality and teacher preparation.

Even when we can truly tease out teacher quality and better teacher education, accountability will not be the appropriate way to do either.

Teacher education is a field, a discipline just as any other field or discipline. The essential problem with teacher education is that it has never been allowed to be a field or discipline; teacher education is mired in bureaucracy.

The open letter noted above is only half right. Yes, teacher education needs autonomy, but that autonomy must not remain tethered to the same hole digging we have been doing for decades.

Teacher education autonomy must be about reimagining teacher education as the complex and dynamic field it is—not a puppet for political and bureaucratic manipulation—whether done to us or done to ourselves.

Maxine Greene, Released to a New Landscape

Throughout my life as a student and career as a teacher, I have always been drawn to the philosophical; thus, my scholarly interests have leaned heavily toward educational philosophers such as Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene.

In Greene, I found not only a philosophical kinship but also an eclectic style of scholarship that appealed to my essential nature as a lover of literature and English teacher. Greene pulls from literature and history as she weaves a view of the world and education that demands something better than what we have achieved so far.

So it is with great sadness to share—Maxine Greene, TC’s Pre-eminent Philosopher Queen, Dies at 96:

Maxine Greene, the philosopher, author and professor emerita who was perhaps the most iconic and influential living figure associated with Teachers College, passed away yesterday at the age of 96. Described byThe New York Times as “one of the most important education philosophers of the past 50 years” and “an idol to thousands of educators,” Greene was regarded by many as the spiritual heir to John Dewey. Her work remains a touchstone for generations of TC faculty, alumni and students, as well as for scholars and artists around the world.

Please read the entire overview above.

As well, I offer my own Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene’s Mystification in Teacher Education, included in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy dedicated to Maxine Greene:

Greene (1978) creates an apt literary framework for her discussion of teacher education with an analogy drawn from Moby Dick (Melville, 1851)—acknowledging the broader context of navigation and the narrower flaw of “mystification” in the field. She reminds her reader of Ahab using rewards to manipulate his crew, to mask his true goals in order to increase the cooperation of that crew: “The point is to keep hidden a ‘private purpose’ that takes no account of the crew’s desires and needs” (p. 53). Then, she adds more directly:

“Traditionally, teacher education has been concerned with initiating the ‘forms of life’ R. S. Peters describes, or the public traditions, or the heritage. Even where emphasis has been placed on the importance of critical thinking or experimental intelligence, there has been a tendency to present an unexamined surface reality as ‘natural,’ fundamentally unquestionable. There has been a tendency as well to treat official labelings and legitimations as law-like, to overlook the constructed [emphasis in original] character of social reality.” (p. 54)

Greene writes here of teacher education, but also moves beyond the classroom, arguing for a critical reflection in all people, both a reflection on Self and a reflection on that Self within a community—“not merely as professionals or professionals-to-be, but as human beings participating in a shared reality” (pp. 54-55).

The books by and about Greene that remain prominent on my bookshelf, packed with sticky notes and reached for often include:

Well before No Child Left Behind and the inevitable move toward Common Core, Greene wrote in Chapter Thirteen of Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change:

Academic rigor, high standards, common learning, technical proficiencies, excellence, equity, and self-development—these themes have arisen over and over since the founding of the public schools. Considering them in present moment of hope tinged with anxiety, we teachers find ourselves (at least on occasion) pondering the nature of our democratic society, wondering about the future of our world….For all the optimism of movement for reform, the moment of hope among educators that I just cited, often a hopelessness infects those who administer and those expected to learn….

What I have been calling the common, then, has to be continually brought into being. We may indeed use representative texts and works of art at certain times; we may us paradigm cases in the various domains; we may even use the popular arts. There is always a flux in the things and ideas of this world, and there is always the need to catch that flux in networks of meaning. Whatever the networks, the focus should be on that dislodges fixities, resists one-dimensionality, and allows multiple personal voices to become articulated in a more and more vital dialogue. (pp. 169, 183)

As Greene has been released to a new landscape, let us dislodge fixities, and resist the siren’s song of misguided reform that fails again and again the humanity of each and everyone of us.

Let’s us fight on as you, Maxine Greene, rest in peace.

As a final small token, a flower picked and offered tentatively:

[375]

Emily Dickinson

The Angle of a Landscape—
That every time I wake—
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Upon an ample Crack—

Like a Venetian—waiting—
Accosts my open eye—
Is just a Bough of Apples—
Held slanting, in the Sky—

The Pattern of a Chimney—
The Forehead of a Hill—
Sometimes—a Vane’s Forefinger—
But that’s—Occasional—

The Seasons—shift—my Picture—
Upon my Emerald Bough,
I wake—to find no—Emeralds—
Then—Diamonds—which the Snow

From Polar Caskets—fetched me—
The Chimney—and the Hill—
And just the Steeple’s finger—
These—never stir at all—

Please see also:

In Print!: Maxine Says from Nick Sousanis

24/7: 24 Love Letters to Maxine Greene (In no particular order) Followed by 7 Questions from Bill Ayers

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.

Why?

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.

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.

Recommended

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