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What do We Want Instead? (Part 1)

My friend Nancy Flanagan, who publishes an excellent blog (Teacher in a Strange Land) recently shared a list of education policy issues and offered this challenge: What is it that we actually WANT? What kinds of reforms would we like to see, if not the ones that Obama seems to be pursuing?

Here are the first two Obama/Duncan policies she cites, followed by my suggestions:

Policy #1: More charter schools (since states must get rid of caps that limit numbers and show that they're charter-friendly, as well as monitoring charter outcomes).

What's wrong with this? Charters have actually been shown (by the peer reviewed CREDO study from Stanford University) to be less effective than comparable public schools. Furthermore, as the recent Ed Sector report pointed out, there are major structural roadblocks to significant expansion of existing charters. These two problems mean that charters are not likely to be the solution that they have been sold as. Removing the very reasonable caps and restrictions is likely to further lower the quality of charters without providing much of a solution.

What might we propose instead? The argument for charters is that they allow innovation. Innovation should be encouraged in ALL schools. Real innovation means we remove the requirements that student achievement be measured the same way. Innovative schools could be made eligible for special funds which could be used to support teachers who wish to develop alternative assessments. Duncan is spending more than $300 million on alternative assessments -- but that money will be going to universities and test publishers -- not educators. It will result in more tests, not practical student-centered assessment practices.

Policy #2: More alternative-entry pathways into teaching (even in places, like my own state [Michigan], that have a huge surplus of certified teachers). Duncan has spouted the conventional wisdom that teacher prep generally sucks--should teacher recruitment and prep be changed?

What is wrong with this? First of all, alternative pathways might be called for in emergency situations when there is an inadequate supply of teachers. But we are seeing this become the systemic long-term response to a chronic problem -- high turnover, especially in our urban schools. This problem has its roots in the poor pay and working conditions found in these schools. It spawns a whole secondary set of problems and make-work solutions. New teachers do not have a solid handle on curriculum and instruction, so districts who hire large numbers tend to rely on scripted curriculum to get test scores up. Professional development tends to be done by outsiders because there is not a solid reservoir of experienced teacher leaders on which to draw.

What could we do instead?
First, recognize the nature of the problem. We do not have a teacher supply problem. We have a retention problem. This problem needs to be addressed by making our schools humane places to teach and learn for students and teachers alike. It is no coincidence that dropout rates are highest at places where teacher turnover is highest. These are not healthy places. But they could be, if we invested more trust in the teachers there, gave them more support in the form of time to collaborate, intentional structures to bring novice and experienced teachers together to work on curriculum and meaningful assessment, and addressed funding inequities that leave urban districts chronically short of funds and unable to offer competitive salaries.

There are weaknesses in our Teacher Ed programs -- most critically in their active connections to the communities of practicing teachers that could be much more closely woven into their programs. Teacher preparation is essential, but the highest form of it is apprenticeship at the side of an experienced teacher. This is often the weak link in our teacher preparation programs.

What do you think about these two policy issues? Should caps and restrictions on charters be lifted? How should we promote innovation? How should we address teacher preparation?


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