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Duncan's Take on Teacher Prep and 'Union Jobs'


During our interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan the other day, my colleagues Michele and Alyson pressed him on the assurances states need to fulfill in order to receive their second chunk of money from the economic-stimulus package. In his answer about state data systems, he said that states should ensure that those systems can link student and teacher data. If you could track this down to the schools of education, you could determine whether some programs typically produced teachers of higher or lower quality, he said.

This isn't as far-fetched as it might sound. Louisiana is already using such data to evaluate its programs; other states such as Ohio, aren't far behind. Also, the head of the national accrediting body for colleges of education recently agreed that states need to step up their oversight of preparation routes.

Building on that, I asked Duncan if he'd press the states to do more to close poor programs. The new Higher Education Act has more reporting requirements that, supposedly, will make it easier to distinguish program quality:

Duncan was pretty unequivocal that weak preparation programs should be closed down, and he said that alternative routes should be held to similar standards.

Again, though, as with removing ineffective teachers, I suspect this will be a challenging thing for him to follow through on. Presumably, he could withhold higher-ed funds from states that don't take this seriously (such dollars are the collateral for teacher-college accountability, much as Title I dollars are for K-12 accountability under No Child Left Behind). But given that a lot of higher-ed funds come in the form of student loans, that would be politically tricky.

I also asked Duncan what he thought the role of the teachers' unions should be as the Obama administration pressed forward. His answer was rather interesting.

On the one hand, he clearly cast teachers' unions as equally concerned about kids as they are about their members. On the other hand, he made it clear that unions will not be spared from rethinking long-standing structures.

But this was my favorite quote:

"What the unions have that maybe they haven't felt in the past is that this is a historic, unprecedented amount of resources coming into schools, and are literally saving hundreds and thousands of teaching jobs, great union jobs, that’s really important. And unions are going to have a seat at the table, and I'm talking to the union leaders virtually on a weekly basis."

The syntax is a bit hard to parse. What do you think it means that Duncan brought up "union jobs"? Do they owe him one now? Or is this really an olive branch after eight years of less congenial relationships (and presumably fewer phone calls) between the Education Department and the unions?

As always, Duncan is a tad hard to read. We'll just have to be patient and wait to see what the administration has in store.


Strengthening teacher programs may be fine for some teachers but other teachers' thought processes already transcend the programs. Some teachers just need to be allowed to teach what they already know, unrestricted and unimpeded. Teachers in alternative certification situations should not be browbeaten to conform to traditional education models. Their educational backgrounds evolve from different sources. Measuring them from standard models is unfair and often incompatible.

Think about this; think long and hard about this. It's a great goal: to train and recruit highly qualified, competent, inspiring teachers. After all, what else can we say?

But it's also important to hear what's not being said. Just what is our estimate of the current teaching pool? Are we saying that we desperately need great new teachers because so many great teachers are moving into retirement?

Or are we saying that education will change when we finally get good teachers?

Think about this: With nearly 50% of all new teachers dropping out of the profession within their first five years, are we to assume that none of these dropouts fall within the range of what we call, great teachers? If so, then mostly the incompetents are dropping out and the great teachers are remaining? If so, shouldn't the profession already have a majority of great teachers?

Or are we not training, hiring, and retaining any great teachers at all? And now we're back to damning the teachers again!

Think about it! What percentage of our teachers today do we really think are great? 20%? 10%?

Back to the dropout rate: Really, how are we going to attract talented individuals into a profession that has such a high mortality rate?

These questions are extremely valid and very much on point, but they seem to cast a shadow of absurdity on the whole question, don't they?

That's because there is something fundamentally out of whack in the our educational system that is so basic to its success or failure that we can't resolve the issue by pointing to the teaching pool.

Sure we need great teachers, but the solution to our problems won't be found in reforms in this area.

Real solutions are found at www.educateforachange.com

I wholeheartedly agree that teacher training must change. Teachers should have to apprentice for two years. Even electricians apprentice for years to become a master electrician. I have written a book that shows how we can motivate students to learn. Please take a look at Rekindling the Love of Learning by Dr. Arlene Rotter. You can find it at www.arlenerotter.com
Thank you.

I agree that good teaching is too difficult to be learned in a college classroom. Administrators and students in any school can quickly identify "good teachers". If we want to see results, there should be an increased focus on apprenticeship and time in the classroom with these excellent teachers as mentors.

In addition, the alternative route to certification programs are significantly lacking in scope and practice. The current program in my area requires only 4 weeks of student teaching. Unsurprisingly, the teachers graduating from this program do not have the best reputation.

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