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How Will Market Forces Transform Teacher Preparation?

This week I have published interviews with three leaders in the field of teacher preparation. They shared a common vision regarding the responsibility they take on when preparing teachers to enter the classroom. This IS rocket science - teaching is a profession that requires tremendous skill and dedication, and the programs that are successful recognize this, and demand commitment and intense work from all who are involved. 

The sort of teacher preparation Kevin Kumashiro, Francisco Rios and Tim Slekar described will not be long for this world if corporate reformers have their way. For the past few years, reformers have had their eyes on teacher preparation, and are following a familiar playbook. Appoint your own set of umpires, issue reports and "grade" the programs, find the ones not aligned with your ideology to be faulty, and erect market-driven alternatives to replace them. This is the path taken by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the Gates-funded advocacy organization that appointed itself the arbiter of quality for teacher preparation, and last year issued a report based largely on their review of course catalogs for the programs being rated. This was the set-up. Because in order to replace these programs, they must first be discredited.

A new research paper by Ken Zeichner and Cesar Peña-Sandoval describes the upsurge in interest in marketizing teacher preparation. 

They point out the activist role now being played by corporate philanthropists:

Unlike educational philanthropy of the past--before the entry into teacher education of individual venture capitalists and large funders like the Gates and Walton Foundations--current educational philanthropy in teacher education has taken a more hands-on approach and openly political role in pushing particular policies through their allocations of funds. This new wave of philanthropy supports policies that create conditions favorable to establishing a teacher education market and room for new entrants to the field (Ball, 2012; Barkan, 2011b; Reckhow, 2013; Saltman, 2010). This new brand of activism by philanthropists in promoting particular policies has managed to shape contemporary debates about teacher education policy and advance particular definitions of what it means to be an educated person, what good teaching is, and what should be involved in judging the quality of a teacher education program.

Zeichner and Peña-Sandoval focus their attention on the efforts of the New Schools Venture Fund to discredit and "disrupt" traditional schools of education, to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in the field. They quote from NSVF, which wrote in 2012,

New Schools aims to seed a market of autonomous, outcomes-oriented teacher preparation organizations, and set a new standard for teacher preparation with student learning at the center. . . . Our policy advocacy work supports this effort by advancing public policy that helps to create demand and provide support and funding for performance-based teacher preparation.

NSVF plays a leading role in providing funding for a wide variety of charter operators, and thus is hugely influential in this sector. As part of their campaign of to disrupt traditional models of teacher preparation, schools of education are described as being ineffective in preparing teachers for the classroom, and are presented derisively as being highly theoretical. Meanwhile, alternative programs, such as those using Doug Lemov's "Teach Like a Champion" approach, are presented as being more practical and useful. 

It seems bizarre that a traditional teacher education program featuring two semesters of student teaching under the supervision of an experienced teacher, along with coursework related to curriculum and pedagogy, would be seen as worse preparation than a five-week long TFA training camp experience. But that is the case being made by those seeking to displace schools of education.

As the authors point out, we should not behave as if schools of education are beyond critique. I received my credential in 1987 from UC Berkeley's School of Education. Overall it was a solid program, and my experience student teaching under the supervision of two outstanding veteran teachers was invaluable. The program would have benefited from a stronger emphasis on the role of race and class in our schools, and I actually circulated a petition asking for such a change before I graduated.

I still felt inadequate as a first year teacher - but I think that was just because teaching is by far the hardest thing I had ever done. I cannot imagine taking charge of a class after only five or six weeks of training. Zeichner and Peña-Sandoval offer their own detailed critique of traditional teacher ed programs, and suggest a transformative agenda drawn from the work of Goodlad:

They emphasize: (a) more shared responsibility for preparing teachers among universities or other program operators, schools, and local communities; (b) situating the process of learning to teach more strongly in relation to the kinds of settings for which individuals are being prepared to teach, while preparing teachers with content and professional knowledge as well as knowledge of and commitment to the communities in which they work; (c) focusing on preparing teachers to be able to enact teaching practices that evidence suggests will help provide opportunities for students to interact with knowledge in authentic ways and develop understanding; and (d) strengthening accountability systems for teacher education programs in ways that involve the assessment of teachers' abilities to promote student learning beyond their ability to raise standardized test scores.

Zeichner and Peña-Sandoval take care not to cast aspersions on the motives of those seeking to reform schools of education, writing:

Despite the potential to make a lot of money through investment in the disruption and re-creation of the current public education and teacher education systems, and the high degree of confidence, and sometimes blatant arrogance, of some reformers about the superiority of their entrepreneurial ventures, we do not question the motives of those who seek to dismantle the current system of teacher education in the United States and replace it with a deregulated market.2 Self-serving behavior, greed, and lack of concern for the common good can be found in all the various camps on educational reform, including in education schools; so too can genuine concern for the common good be found in all camps of the education debates.

Our purpose in writing this article is not to throw stones or impugn the character of those with whom we disagree. Rather, our purpose is to bring a greater level of transparency to the forces influencing public policy in teacher education so that they can be more clearly seen, discussed, and debated. Discussion and debate of public policy issues is the cornerstone of a healthy democratic society, and we are greatly concerned that many educators and the general public seem to be largely unaware of the ways in which private money and interests are determining the future of teacher preparation in the United States. We are also concerned about the lack of discussion and debate in the public arena of these issues and practices.

I support their call for transparency. I also think that there are a variety of motives at work. The problem I see is that once profit is introduced as an engine for change, it can sometimes propel poor models beyond their natural lives -- so long as they are making money. The huge experiment with virtual charter chain K12 Inc is a good example of this. So I remain concerned about the unleashing of market forces as a motive force, because we live in an economy where such forces operate with very weak regulatory restraint. And making money in education these days means finding ways to do away with expensive university campuses and professors, and doing as much as possible via the internet.

A new report, Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning, written by Karen Cator, Carri Schneider and Tom Vander Ark, pencils out the working strategy being put into place. As usual, reading this sort of report requires a sharp eye, in order to cut through all the flowery techno babble.

The report states:

The idea of teachers being isolated within 
four walls and students being limited to the knowledge and capacity of that one teacher 
is quickly receding into the past. Schools are social institutions that rest upon a social base for achieving their vocational and scholarly activities. Thus, building relational trust among educational professionals and creating relationships without physical boundaries that connect over passion, expertise and a shared desire to become better is the unstoppable innovation of today's education.

What does that mean? Boiled down to practical terms, it means the authors wish to create flexible "virtual" environments where teachers-in-training can earn their credentials. Think MOOCs. Online courses, where students may never physically meet one another or their instructor. 

How would this work? One of the new buzzwords in education is "competency-based systems." This usually translates into a modular form of education, where "competency" is certified by the student having completed some specified tasks and passed a test. A related idea introduced in this report is "microcredentialing," which is explained as:

Micro-Credentialing New Skills

One promising strategy in support of competency-based pathways is the design
and implementation of micro-credentials
that are displayed as digital badges. Recent research and development efforts have
focused on the use of digital badges or tokens
to signify accomplishment, measure and
reward competency-based outcomes. Micro- credentials can be awarded to those who have successfully demonstrated competencies worthy of recognition as a means to increase educator capacity around multiple aspects of the education profession.

Applied to digital badges, a managed peer review process could be key to fully scaling up a system of awarding high-value, trusted badges for educators. This strategy requires the creation of customized rubrics, a process for the submission of artifacts to be evaluated, the process (and incentives) for conducting peer review, and methods for eliminating reviewer bias.

If successful, the earner can then collect a credential (a visual representation that includes the metadata associated with that micro- credential) and share it with the world. An important aspect of these credentials is their open nature, enhancing the earners' ability to share and expanding understanding about the nature of the credential as well as the artifact produced to earn it.

The other big idea in this report is an emphasis on "outcomes." This translates into requiring programs to monitor the "effectiveness" of teachers they graduate. And as we all know, "effectiveness" is measured by one's effect on test scores, measured through VAM systems.

Here are the key recommendations from the report:

  • Use an outcome-focused accreditation/authorization process to approve traditional and alternative preparation programs (for a period not to exceed five years) based on design adherence to best practices and the demonstrated effectiveness of graduates.
  • Require accredited/authorized programs to use demonstrated competence rather than courses and credits to certify teachers.
  • Require teachers and the programs that prepare them to renew licensure based on demonstrated performance.
  • States should encourage (with grant-supported requests for proposals) alternative district/network-linked preparation programs.
  •  If states require pre-service tests like edTPA, they should set minimum requirements as well as require teachers to demonstrate effectiveness in the classroom.

If all we shift our focus to "outcomes," in practical terms this means we are no longer paying attention to the "inputs." The inputs in this case are the professors who might be guiding the student teachers, the course of study, and the student teaching experience. Instead we monitor the outcomes - the test scores of the teachers the programs produce, and make sure their teachers are "effective" at raising them.

If we shift to a system where charter schools and alternative programs offer their own credentials and "digital badges," to certify competence, with money to be made, there is likely to be a major loss in quality. We have seen research emerging on the very low level of completion for students participating in MOOCs, as discussed here. There are elements of human communication that are missing from virtual platforms. The process of learning to teach is an intense one, which requires deep communication and solid relationships between the beginning teacher and those serving as mentors and guides. This does not transmit well through virtual platforms.

What we stand to lose from this is huge. When I was learning to teach, my supervisor was a veteran teacher named Parker Stack. He convened a small cohort of about eight of us who were all learning to teach science. We met every week, to discuss what was happening in our student teaching placements. I received his wisdom, as well as that of the teachers whose classes I was student teaching. A big part of this wisdom was the understanding that there are things even more important than test scores. The spark of interest in a student's eyes, the way we model caring behavior, the way I behave as a man in relation to both girls and boys, how we deal with the complex power dynamics so as to own our authority as teachers without becoming oppressors of disempowered students - all these things that transcend test scores. This knowledge is not reflected in easily measured "outcomes," and when teachers are prepared on this basis, that knowledge will be lost.

There needs to be an institutional framework for this. We need to carefully choose the people we elevate to the role of teacher educator. We need the process of becoming a teacher to be well-designed and structured, so credential candidates participate in solid courses focused on pedagogy and human development, as well as other aspects of teaching. Student teaching under the guidance of veteran teachers ought to be required. This process is not something to be turned over to MOOCs and the purveyors of digital badges certifying competency. We should look closely at how obsession over test score outcomes has distorted our schools, and not allow this trend to overtake schools of education. 

What do you think? Is teacher preparation likely to be improved by a shift to more efficient and flexible outcome-based systems? Or should we defend our schools of education?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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