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Questions Regarding Teacher Education Reform: In Response to Marc Tucker

By Megan M. Allen — February 22, 2016 8 min read
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I recently and eagerly read a blog post from Marc Tucker titled “High-Performance Teacher Education: An Essential Component of the New System” (confession: he’s been one of my favs since Surpassing Shanghai).

My eyes and mind cruised in tandem through the piece, eager to be inspired and land on solutions from education greats. I loved the concept behind the piece: a series of proposed reforms based on strategies from successful education systems around the world. With rock-star teacher advocates like Linda Darling-Hammond (swoon!) at the helm of a multi-year comparison of teacher quality, I was eager to soak in all the goodness.

This post in particular focused on teacher prep, which registers high on my “passion-o-meter.” I agree and like most of the recommendations, but I have a LOT of questions. And a few (unsolicited) suggestions. Here are a few pieces I want to talk about, starting with this quote:

“First, close all your poor-performing teacher education programs, leaving many fewer, and move those into your top research universities.”

Question number 1: How are we currently evaluating teacher education programs in order to decide which ones are “poor-performing?”

Though I think a “tidying up” of low-performing teacher education institutions is good in theory, I have many questions. And hesitations. First, what would the criteria be for this “house cleaning?” I’ve seen the rankings and criteria “researched” by NCTQ and published in the US News and World Report, and let me tell you how I feel about it: That ain’t it (see the post by my esteemed colleague Jon Eckert on the bad research practices here). And I’ve been watching carefully as student growth measures are not only being tied back to teachers, but to colleges of education. There are way too many variables in play and too many generations removed from point A to point L when putting these “effectiveness algorithms” in place. I don’t think there is a clear and valid way to evaluate teacher education programs yet. I would suggest putting together a group of expert teachers and teacher educators and letting them brainstorm ideas on how to do this effectively.

Question number 2: Why the move towards research universities?

I’ve worked inside teacher education in two different settings: A large research university in the south and a small liberal arts college in New England. One thing holds true: Our pre-service teachers are drawn towards teacher educators who remain close to the classroom and those that are practicing teachers. We need our master teachers guiding our soon-to-be newbies, as beacons of good practice who hold tight to their expertise of the inner-workings of a classroom. Do most research universities have many classroom educators working inside them? Or with them? Versus institutions of higher education with a teaching focus, versus a research focus? I think that when research is the bread winner, that is where the emphasis is placed. They get the seat of honor at the head of the dinner table. Teaching gets the table scraps.

I also think that our small liberal arts colleges are able to quickly make the tight changes that run in parallel with PK-12 education shifts, remaining flexible to the changes needs of our public schools. I’m not sure that large research universities can always make those quick moves without running changes up the time-consuming bureaucratic flagpole (but I’m possibly thin-slicing here).

I do think that we need to be better prepared in research as classroom teachers, as suggested by Tucker and in the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teaching 2030: Leveraging Teacher Preparation (and more great suggestions from classroom experts can be found in the report). This doesn’t just mean taking a standard university research class, but learning how to OWN our research as classroom teachers.

I also point to a recommendation from the CTQ 2030 report, where the case was made for interdisciplinary studies in college versus teachers having a degree in one content area. I push back on the recommendation by Tucker for pre-service teachers to major in the subject that they will eventually teach. If we are preparing 21st century learners in our PK-12 classrooms, teachers must have not only a strong content base, but also 21st century skills. This requires the ability to look at a learning situation, analyze what needs to happen, and fluidly apply knowledge in a rapidly changing world. This is adaptive expertise, where teachers have the habits of mind and dispositions cultivated that can be applied to many learning situations, not just for one particular content area. Where teachers are experts of pedagogy and skills, not just content. As psychology/education majors, our students at Mount Holyoke College get a deep dive in psychology in addition to pedagogy and subject matter, which creates strong beginning classroom teachers who are adaptable, flexible, and can meet the needs of their students.

Question number 3: In the words of Motown’s Four Tops, is this the “same old song?”

There is something in the idea of closing poor-performing teacher education programs that seems reminiscent of what has been implemented to “improve” (and I use this term lightly) teacher quality. I recently sat in a meeting with a former commissioner of education from a large state. His exact words: “We should squash them all.” I’m not so sure that this is the silver bullet we are looking for, and I think it seems to be painting with an awfully broad brush. But it seems to be the en vogue rallying call for reformers.

To me, it’s déjà vu. We’ve been here before with the teaching evaluation reform movement of the past decade. Getting rid of the poor-performing teachers and firing our way to the top. When thinking of this model with teacher education programs, I keep hearing the Motown hit by the Four Tops that use to play constantly from the stereo of my dad’s Volvo sedan, “The Same Old Song.” It seems like the same ole’ song, just with a slightly different dance. But we know the tune.

I do agree that we should take a closer look at teacher education, but I am putting my stake in the ground around the fact that this sounds like a plan of attack that we’ve tried before, just with different players. And I’m not so sure it worked the first time.

Question number 4: What can we do about supply and demand with teachers right now?

Tucker suggests admitting only applicants who “have strong high school academic records, demonstrate an ability to connect with young people of the age that they are going to teach and have a strong passion for teaching.” And once found, give them a free ride.

YES! Right on!

So how can we make this a reality? When will our country be in a place where we are so supportive of teachers that we are rightfully willing to put their education on the public dime? I wish we were there or even on our way, but I think this idea is too “Berniesian” for our country’s current mindset. It would help the steep drop we’ve witnessed with enrollment in teacher prep, and I think that kind of incentive might push some students from the top of their class to consider teaching. But I think that this can’t be done alone--a move like this won’t attract the best and the brightest until we have done something to buoy the sinking ship that is society’s image of public educators. Tucker gets at this when he states: “There is, of course, a big catch. We will not get the top half of our college-going high school graduates to select teaching as a career unless we make teaching a much more attractive career choice than it is now.” Until we as a country can fully embrace and support our hard-working public educators, I don’t know if it’s possible to recruit the best. And it hurts my heart to type these words.

Lastly, I am bubbling over with anxiety regarding the supply and demand issues in the teaching profession. So many powerful suggestions are made by Tucker and his team--thinking about curriculum in teacher education differently, requiring a master’s degree, working under a Master Teacher, more demanding exams, getting rid of “alternative route programs, ditching current licensing procedures that fill empty teacher desks-the idea that by creating a stronger prep system, recruitment into the profession will no longer be an issue.” I LOVE the ideas and suggestions. I just wonder when and if they will really have the targeted (and hoped for) impact on recruitment. This is a long range plan--this is for the slow play. What can we do in the mean time to tackle many of the issues that face our classrooms--the churn and burn of teachers in hard-to-staff schools, the abysmal retention rates?

I taught for years in schools where there were open positions never filled, where after interviewing the slow-as-molasses incoming pool of teacher candidates, we realized that we were looking for someone who would just keep the kids safe (*ugh*). There are classrooms where many deserving students sit year after year, with long-term subs and no permanent teacher. Our kids don’t deserve that. We can do better than that. Tucker and his team outline a thoughtful and amazing plan to tackle this...eventually. But I’m afraid if we are not thoughtful and strategic about implementation, or if we don’t address the immediate issues because we are focused on a long-range plan, that these positions will still sit empty. That our deserving children will still not be served.

I’m excited about the series of blog posts with more recommendations, and I can’t wait to lay my eyes on the full report from Darling-Hammond and her team. I just hope that we are addressing and tweaking some of the nuances of the plan as we begin thinking about transformation. I’m always optimistic, but we must be strategic and thoughtful at the same time. We owe it to our students.

Photo courtesy of KT King

The opinions expressed in An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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