A few weeks before the election of Hillary Clinton as president, the New York Times offers an editorial criticizing s university based teacher education programs. Ironically titled "Help Teachers Before They Get to Class," the editorial proceeds to confuse and distort the purpose as well as the reality of teacher education programs.
Starting with an obligatory bow to the effective Finnish school system, the editorial hits the central tenets of the corporate reform agenda for schools including the assertion that US schools of education should, like the Finns, raise admissions standards. This is an astoundingly narrow conclusion from the broad evidence of what makes Finish teaching work. In the first place, teachers in Finland receive a much higher salary than in the US, one that places them firmly in an economically secure middle class. In the US, many teachers can't afford basic housing and living costs on their teaching salaries; a surprising number moonlight as Uber drivers, bartenders, and clerks. Moreover, the respect and esteem with which teachers are held in Finland is a full 180 degrees from the national narrative promoted by politicians and the chattering class of teacher-bashing in the US. Finally, Finland does not have nearly the income disparity and the massive poverty that plagues the US and stands behind so much school failure.
The result of these conditions is that applications to teacher education programs are down 53% from ten years ago. And many teachers are discouraged by what they find in the profession, from low pay to constricting regulations and intensive, sometimes obsessive, high stakes standardized testing. By five years in, fully 50% of teacher education graduates will leave the profession. If we had this kind of hemorrhaging in the medical or legal profession, it would be declared a national crisis. In this context, for the New York Times to carp about low admissions standards would be laughable if it weren't so wrong-headed.
The Times cites the self-appointed National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), an outfit that has partnered with US News and World Report to rank all teacher education programs. Like their ranking of colleges, such list-making not only reduces complex factors to silly competition, it also allows corporate interests to highlight the qualities they want for education without any input from parents, communities, educators, or elected political bodies. The editorial writers repeat the "finding" of NCTQ that only ten per cent of teacher education programs are rated as "adequate." Those findings mask a noteworthy fact: the vast majority of teacher education programs, including many of those at the most respected universities in the nation like Harvard and Stanford, refused to participate in the survey and thus were rated "inadequate."
The Times charges teacher education with another sin: preparing teachers for the humanities when there is a much greater shortage in math and science. This is an incredibly blinkered observation. Can you imagine teacher education programs not wanting to prepare math and science teachers? Again, the problem is that people with math and science degrees, especially advanced degrees, with the concomitant student debt, are drawn to much more lucrative professions.
The forces of corporate education reform and their media followers, who claim to believe so fervently in the market as the way to heal all ills, cannot see the way economic incentives and disincentives are driving this crisis. We have a teacher shortage across the country - San Francisco alone this year was looking for over 400 teachers - and the Times is fiddling at the edges.
The heart of the matter, and the factor that inspired the Times editorial, is the new federal Department of Education teacher preparation regulations. The National Education Policy Center early on analyzed the failures of the department's regulations, pointing out that they blame individual teachers rather than the systemic causes for the "achievement gap." And the department is stuck on an improperly narrow definition of effective teaching.
While Arne Duncan in his last years had appeared to back down on the "value added" measurements, they are now back with a vengeance. These measures purport to evaluate the effectiveness of teacher education programs by tracking the graduates of these programs and then correlating "effectiveness" with student test scores years later. The pseudo-science of such a project, the multiple points where the data will be impossible to really evaluate, the incentive for teachers to group the "successful" students under their tutelage while pushing aside those with special needs, is obvious.
Indeed, the American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals, released an analysis in 2014 that demonstrated that such measures were "useless." But the reformers, funded by corporations as well as foundations like Broad, Walton, and Gates, reject the evidence provided by statisticians and happily eschew the "scientific skills" they purport to want for our students. The attack on university and college teacher education programs is faith-based and fact-free.
Can teacher education be improved? It certainly can. Anyone who understands the complexity and challenge of teaching knows that we should have an extended induction process, much as we do in medicine. Teacher candidates should have extensive education in the foundations and context, in theory and practice. They need a multiple year internship period with coaching by peers and experienced practitioners. New teachers need to be more than narrow skill trainers and sorters of students. They need the experience to become critical educators, community leaders who advance social justice and critical thinking with their students.
But, sadly, the corporate reformers and government overseers do not actually plan to fund or support more thorough teacher education programs. If anything, their broadsides against university teacher preparation pave the way for quick and narrow programs (and accelerating failure) such as Teach for America and district-sponsored credentialing programs. If the Times wants to cite Finland's teacher education success, they should be supporting high-quality, extensive university preparation programs and sustainable salaries rather than fast-track schemes.
What is to be done? Certainly, the framing of the whole debate must change. And the way to start is to listen to the actual people doing the work - the teachers in the classroom, the students and community members, and the teacher educators. Why the people who are a million miles from the classroom have the loudest megaphone is a particularly American way of doing things.