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Teacher Education Leaders Speak Out: Tim Slekar: Educators Must Be Advocates For the Needs of Our Students

Today I am sharing the third interview with a leader in teacher preparation. This week we have heard from Kevin Kumashiro and Francisco Rios, who explained their programs, and discussed the challenges schools of education now face. Today we meet Tim Slekar, who has been an outspoken advocate for educators through his writing and podcast, At The Chalkface.

1. Can you tell me a bit about how your school approaches teacher education? 

I am the Dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. Edgewood is a private Catholic college founded by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa. 

Our school approaches teacher education first through our college's Dominican values of truth, justice, compassion, community and partnership.  These values guide our approach and serve as a foundation.  On that foundation Edgewood attempts to build a program that helps our future teachers become competent in the content they are teaching but also engaged in the work of helping students understand that teaching and learning take place in historical, political, and social contexts.  These contexts are extremely important conditions that frame the teaching and learning environment.  Therefore it is very important that teacher education students understand deeply the content and the students they are going to teach and the conditions in which learning occurs. However they must also have a conscious connection to the communities in which they will work and be sensitive to socio-cultural issues that impact a student's experience with school.

2. How does this relate to how you expect the teachers your program graduates to engage in the work of teaching?

I think I touched a bit on this question above but let me try to simplify it a bit.  Since taking over as Dean last June, I have been asking our faculty to reimagine our jobs.  I have done this by asking them a simple question: What if we stopped preparing teachers and instead prepared advocates that were teachers? If we truly took this question to heart, what would we do differently?  Seriously, think about the transformative power of the image of an advocate that teaches.  How much of the reformation nonsense would we have to resist?  How many pedagogically inappropriate activities would we have to stop?  If we were advocates for the needs of our students think of the joy that would flow back into the profession of teaching.

3. What are some of the pressures your school of education faces in this data-driven paradigm we are in?

For me this question really comes down to how some of the "reporting" we are required to do actually disengages us from the work of preparing future educators.  After going through NCATE accreditation at two other institutions I have become quite skeptical of the value added to educator preparation programs that go through NCATE (Now CAEP).  What used to be a reflective practice and a chance to demonstrate the strength of our programs has now become a compliance activity that requires huge amounts of resources--both monetarily and personnel wise.  Add to that the fact that CAEP is also engaging in the controversial practice of using Value Added Measures to calculate the effectiveness of teacher education programs (using the test scores of children taught by our graduates to calculate how much value our teacher prep institutions add to those test scores) and I made the recommendation to our school's faculty that we no longer seek CAEP accreditation and instead just stay focused on the state of Wisconsin's Continuous Review Process.  This system allows our school of education to truly demonstrate our strengths and allows us the opportunity to use data wisely to make changes to our programs as needed.

4. What do you think of the NCTQ's project to rate schools of education?

First let's get this out there. NCTQ is not a national council. They are a well financed group of anti-intellectuals with no experience in classrooms.   Their "report" has been systematically dismantled by leading scholars from across the country. They have no intention of objectively evaluating our programs.

They (NCTQ) were formed to defame teacher education. In fact, if our teacher education programs were evaluated "highly" by NCTQ we would be violating our mission/values and all of the research on child development and teaching and learning.

NCTQ is a propaganda machine on a mission to eliminate "professional" preparation of teachers. NCTQ's monetary support comes from organizations and individuals that want to remove teacher credentialing from higher education in order to privatize it and turn into a technical degree designed for low wage teaching jobs.

NCTQ's real project is to turn teachers and teaching into entry level work done for low wages and for a short period of time. 

5. How has the Pearson edTPA exam affected your program and your students?

 In my opinion it is pushing us into a compliance mode instead of a reflective mode.  Instead of doing qualitative work that asks candidates to think deeply about classroom practice, we are spending too much time trying to figure out how to fit in a mandate.  Also in Wisconsin the edTPA is going to be used as a high stakes test instead of a tool to help reimagine practice based assessment.  Anxiety is starting to build as we attempt to implement this tool that will require that a certain number of seniors fail.  As a school we are having deep discussions about the issues edTPA brings to the surface.  However, Wisconsin has mandated that the edTPA be used in the credentialing of teachers and that it also serve as a high stakes test.  The high stakes nature of this assessment is truly problematic considering the lack of research available as to the validity of the instrument.  We have no idea if students who pass the edTPA are any better than students who fail the edTPA.  Knowing this to be true I can imagine that our students will also want to know why they are being forced to take a high stakes test with no proven validity?  In fact part of our job as teacher educators is to provide guidance and instruction in quality assessment.  Therefore I can imagine that while learning to take the edTPA our students will also learn to critique the high stakes nature of this experimental assessment.

6. There is a growing trend of alternative avenues to teacher credentials. There are even charter schools beginning to host their own programs, and even offer Master degrees. What do you think of this?

I think this is a sign of the times and just another way to demean teacher education and turn the preparation of future educators into a short-term training practice.  It intentionally is devoid of the historical, social and political contexts in which schooling exists.  This is a direct attack on the intellectual and professional work done by teacher preparation institutions and, in my opinion, this trend is geared towards creating a compliant workforce of technicians.

7. Are there signs that schools of education are beginning to push back against these changes?

There might be individual institutions and faculty pushing back but there is a need to organize these institutions and faculty.  And this will be the challenge--how to organize the teacher education profession.  If teacher education institutions are able to collectively organize the chances of a successful push back increases.  Hopefully, more leaders at teacher education institutions will read this series of interviews and recognize the threat our profession faces and will come forward to collectively resist the dismantling of the profession of teacher education.

8. The Obama administration through Arne Duncan has proposed holding teacher education programs "accountable" by using VAM scores as one way to rank teacher education programs.  What are your thoughts?

This is a ridiculous idea given all the problems that have been documented in research with using such unreliable measures.  Both AERA and ASA have warned against using VAMs at the level of teacher to student because of the lack of reliability.  To think that Arne Duncan is proposing that teacher education programs be rated using such an unreliable statistical method suggests to me that the Duncan's real desire is to bring teacher education into compliance with the technocratic and skill based ideology being forced on the profession. VAMs will be used to transform us into trainers--not educators.  If teacher education is the remain a profession it remain solidly grounded in a liberal arts tradition and continue to focus on creating activists that transform the world through teaching and learning. 

What do you think? Is it time for teacher education institutions to get organized to respond to the many challenges they face?

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