Monday, March 30, 2015

Changing not just teacher prep programs, but how we think about teaching

Arne Duncan thinks the U.S. Department of Education hasn't done a good job of overhauling teacher preparation programs. I don't think he should be too hard on himself because I don't think it's the U.S. Department of Education's job to overhaul teacher preparation programs. Perhaps the U.S. DOE could be tasked to provide guidelines that make sense. Making sense and the federal government, however, may be asking for too much.

Despite of all of the blowback about standardized testing and despite how foolish many think it is to measure the quality of a teacher by her students' test scores, the government cannot seem to help but plod down that same road that meanders to nowhere.

There are many theories about why students are not really prepared to teach. We could start with the limited amount of time they really have in the classroom. We could start with the fact that even a brand new shiny degree is not really evidence of knowing how to teach and that any teacher with any experience will tell you it takes a few years to really get the hang of teaching.

So maybe we should start by applauding kids who go into teaching but also caution them that no matter how fabulous their student teaching experience, having their own classrooms with the potential for limited support is a way different and harder experience. I don't mean dissuade them from the profession, but if we know that teachers leave teaching within the first five years and we know why they leave, then let's be more honest with them.

Let's also point out, again, that the reason most teachers leave the profession with the first five years is because they have little or no support. Doctors serve lengthy internships and residencies before they're allowed to practice on their own. Lawyers spend years working their way up through the ranks, often doing what might be considered legal drudge work to prove they're truly capable, but also to remind newbies in the professions that there is a lot yet to learn and know. Why do we assume teachers need any less support when asked to be responsible for the social, emotional, and educational well-being of up to 30 young minds and bodies for several hours a day, and often by themselves? Why do we set up our new teachers for possible failure?

The new teachers who succeed and thrive? They have not only administrative support but collegial support. There are structures in place to help them succeed because if they succeed the students succeed and if the students succeed the school succeeds. This is not rocket science.

Perhaps we forget that traditional teacher education majors are not just future teachers, but students themselves. They continue to learn about teaching and how to teach from their professors, and what their professors value, they are likely to value, too.

I am not saying that some teacher preparation programs need to be overhauled. I am not saying that CAEP needs to be diligent in looking at the validity and viability of some education programs. The Deans for Impact seem to think they could do better if only they had more data. Data is only part of the answer, and a very small part of the realities of the classroom. And so I wonder. . .
  • I wonder how many college education faculty have been in a school for longer than a supervising faculty visit. In other words, how many of them have spent a few days in a school and in multiple classrooms? 
  • Or how many college education faculty and deans have had meaningful conversations with the two- and three-year veterans of schools about what has helped them and what they wished they'd really known when they got their own classrooms. 
  • Or how many college education faculty and deans have had meaningful conversations with curriculum directors and media specialists to learn what changes have come down from federal, state, and district offices and how those changes have complicated and maybe even eased some parts of their instructional lives. 
  • Or with instructional coaches, special needs teachers, and various compliance officers to learn about potentially conflicting mandates and requirements that can impede as much as help. 
  • Or with veteran teachers about the ways administrations can and should support them, or how weak administrations simply cause more drama and difficulties but how teachers are frustrated by the absence of mechanisms to rid themselves of weak and ineffective administrations. 
  • Or with veteran teachers and administrators how various stripes of political influences can confound any potential for improvement. 
  • Or with parents and educators about how home life, especially in high-poverty areas, complicate every facet of a child's life and sometimes education seems the least important thing.
Now those are some data points that matter and will not be found in any standardized test. Then let's be realistic about what an undergraduate can really do in the classroom for his or her first few years and moderate our expectations accordingly. And let's also be realistic and really inventive in our thinking about competency-based capabilities for career changers. Then let's think really creatively and constructively about the kinds of support we can put in place for both groups. I bet if we shudder out of the constraints that bind us to current ways of doing and thinking we'll discover not only solutions, but ways to fund them.

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