Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Contemplating teacher education, Part III (finito, for now)

In Part I I talked about being a teacher, my own challenges in becoming an educator of some quality and with some reflection on teacher education. The upshot is my belief that professional development or growth or learning or whatever you want to call it NEVER stops. And that's true for K-12 educators (teachers and administrators) as well as higher education faculty and administrators. NEVER stops.

In Part II I talked about pre-service or teacher education. Grousing about teacher education is not a new sport. Teachers, administrators, parents, and armchair educators (aka politicians, who are often also parents, I get that) love to take potshots at teacher education, among other things, but we'll stay focused on teacher education just now.

 Last week the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) published its report on, well, teacher quality. Most folks will go directly to the Overall Findings, but you should start with the Executive Summary as that will give you some insight into the process of the research. The "how" is often as important as the "why" or the "what" because of that process insight.

There were a number of reports on the report, some of those with more titillating titles than others (yes, I'm tawkin' to you Huffington Post). US News & World Report soberly points out that "Teachers need to be at their best, so they can bring the best out in their students. But most teacher preparation programs don't equip new educators with the tools they need to make that happen."

Diverse Education reports that NCTQ "evaluates the core components of teacher education," reporting on 836 higher education institutions this year as opposed to the 608 evaluated last year. Critics suggest the process of the evaluations is somewhat flawed, but then people think the same of the the US News & World Report publications on best this or that in education. So, yes, as any psychometrician and researcher would tell you Mr. President, contemplating some sort of ranking system for higher education, process does matter. Just sayin.'

And finally, CBS News reports:
The NCTC [sic] highlighted what it sees as particularly encouraging developments:
-- 33 states have recently made significant changes in their accountability policies for teacher preparation programs and seven more have taken steps forward
-- A new consortium of seven states organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is working to beef up program approval standards
-- The Obama Administration has signaled it intends to strengthen accountability steps for teacher preparation and that it will earmark millions of dollars in federal grants to only high-performing programs
-- A new professional organization, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), is beginning to accredit programs using much stricter standards
Blah, blah, blah.

Let's go back to two earlier statements: 1) that pre-service teachers aren't equipped with the tools they need to make quality education happen; and 2) the core components of teacher education. Hmm. So, is there any agreement on those core components of teacher education? Is there any reality check that those are, in fact, in the classroom on a day-to-day basis the best and most practical of the core components for preparing pre-service teachers to be at their best so they have the tools to provide students a pathway to a quality education? How do we know that if we can't even agree on what makes a quality education?

Don't misunderstand. I do think that many teacher education programs need to rethink how they prepare teachers for the classroom. Some of what NCTQ indicates as encouraging seems to me to be rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Accountability steps and stricter standards sound great. But preparing classroom teachers isn't just about the teacher education department. Every university faculty who has education majors in the classroom has a responsibility, even if an indirect one, of preparing future teachers. We often teach the way we were taught, so every professor models teaching and assessment, and maybe even facilitation and coaching. Every professor.

Programs that have substantial practicum hours are often on the right track, in my opinion. Exposure to the classroom makes sense. That's why physicians have residencies and rotations in different areas. That's why medical students go on rounds with doctors. They have to be part of what it really means to be a doctor to become a doctor. And many of the doctors with whom they do rounds and for whom they work in their residencies are teaching doctors in that they teach classes but they also practice medicine which means they too are in the trenches of medicine; that means they have real-time, job-embedded, current practical experience in their fields.

I wonder how many higher education faculty say they have real-time, job-embedded, current practical experience in the K-12 classroom.

Educators want to be treated as professionals. But the whole system of preparing educators suggests it can be done reasonably in a four-year program. Those who want to practice medicine and law have to get additional education to be prepared to practice their professions. Those who want to be professional psychologists have to go to graduate school. The list of those who must go to graduate school to be taken seriously in their professions goes on and on. And yet we think four years of undergraduate school is sufficient for pre-service teachers to be sufficiently equipped. We think some number of practicum hours including one semester of student teaching is sufficient for pre-service students to have they tools they need. School districts don't like to hire teachers with little experience and Master's degrees because they have to pay more because of the graduate degree, and there's no proof that students are any better or any more knowledgeable as a result of that graduate degree.

NCTQ may say that some teacher education programs are better than others and, no doubt, many of them produce excellent teachers and do so with the constraints of a four-year program. I know it's possible. And part of that is the dedication of the teacher education faculty, including their own forays into the K-12 classrooms and working closely with school districts to stay close to the realities of those classrooms. And part of that is more accountability in admitting only the best of the best into their teacher education programs, and then supervising them to excellence.

In the end, I don't think there's an easy answer. Should teacher education require another year or two like law school or medical school? Should there be agreement among universities and K-12 administrators on the core components of teacher education? Should higher education faculty be required to spend some amount of time in K-12 classrooms, even if only to observe, to make sure they really understand what's happening in those classrooms?

Years ago I organized a small symposium with some area middle and high school administrators and teachers because my freshman English writing faculty was complaining about the quality of writing abilities in our students. Mind you, we were not a top tier college and lots of our kids were first generation students. But it was obvious there was a disconnect and some assumption that those middle and high school English teachers were slacking and just not doing their jobs. The symposium was an eye-opening experience. For both sides. Middle and high school English teachers had no idea of the expectations college faculty had in freshman English and why students might end up in the dreaded "0" courses (ENG 098, 099) that gained them no credit towards graduation. And college faculty had no idea of some of the challenges middle and high school English teachers faced, regardless of the school district.

We didn't change our expectations of incoming freshmen. We couldn't because we had to make sure they would have a chance to succeed in other classes. But just having the conversation made the college faculty more understanding of some of the capabilities of some of the students, and we worked harder to find ways to help them.

I did hear from some of the middle and high school English teachers who told me they were going to redirect some of their professional learning (or growth or development) so they would have better instructional skills and practices and more options for learning experiences for their students.

So here's the bottom line, especially for those of you who thought I might be advocating for more years of school for teachers or who thought I was demeaning four-year programs: equipping teachers to be and become quality teachers is a career-long experience. The most excellent of those brand new teachers know that, at best, they have a handful of strategies and practices that will help them keep their heads above water that first year of teaching. The most excellent of those brand new teachers know they will be exhausted well before the school year ends. The most excellent of those brand new teachers know they have much to learn and are eager to learn it. The most excellent teachers have formed relationships with others in their disciplines and in teacher education so they have a support group, and often members of that group are not at their school or even in their district. The most excellent teachers have at least one veteran educator who is a mentor who is supportive, yet objective, and encourages that teacher to continue to learn about this craft and art of teaching.

Go ahead and increase accountability and improve standards in teacher education programs (and make sure higher education faculty are required to spend significant observational time in actual K-12 classrooms). Absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But don't ever think that graduation day is the end of teacher education. It is, in fact, only the beginning.

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