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The Many Ways We Are De-Professionalizing Teaching

Perhaps you've read this story about hundreds of teachers in Florida who are unable to pass the state certification test, rewritten in 2015 to increase the level of difficulty (and, presumably, to cause more prospective teachers to fail repeatedly).  How bad is it?

The Florida Department of Education says 64 percent of first-time examinees passed the FTCE in 2016. Among first-time test takers, 69 percent passed the essay portion, 65 percent passed the English Language Skills, 60 percent passed the Reading and 57 percent passed the Mathematics portion. But a failing score on any section sends an examinee back to square one.

Teachers say the test used to be easier, and the data supports them. In 2013 and 2014, the essay portion of the General Knowledge test had pass rates of well over 90 percent, only to plunge down to 63 percent in 2015. The same is seen in the math scores, when an 80 percent pass rate fell down to 57 percent that same year.

There are a lot of similar data to sort through: the cost to teachers of taking the test repeatedly (about $150-200 a pop), the numbers of novice and early-career teachers who are in this test-fail-test cycle ("countless"), the lack of feedback or suggestions for improvement from the test-maker (Pearson) for those who fail—and the impact, in Florida and nationally, of the decreasing number of students preparing to be teachers just as shortages (surprise!) are cropping up:

According to the Learning Policy Institute, in 2017, nationally there will be a need for more than 250,000 new teachers; however, there will only be about 180,000 qualified applicants to fill those spots. Shortages hit Title I schools the hardest, because they tend to rely on new teachers. 

 Here's the question that never gets asked, in these breathless bad-news stories: Why?

Why would any state, especially one with an exceptionally inexperienced teaching force and high levels of poverty, facing a shortage of qualified human capital, make it unreasonably difficult to get a toehold in this profession? Especially since this profession is critical for the state's economic growth? How will this make a job that traditionally pays poorly and offers few tangible benefits more attractive?

Test-makers and policymakers can adjust cut scores, a fact that is not well-known to the general public, which automatically assumes that would-be teachers are mysteriously getting dumber because they can't pass the entrance exams. Why would legislative and administrative Powers That Be have a stake in making teachers appear to be flopping helplessly at the bottom of the academic barrel?

It can't be about "raising the bar"—because for every story about making it tougher to get into teaching (via test or other requirement), there's a story like this: Charter Schools to Hire Uncertified Teachers with as Little as 30 Hours of Experience.  Or this: You No Longer Need a Teaching Degree to Teach in Utah.

So what is the truth? Are we trying to build a more highly qualified teaching force, or are we trying to make it possible for pretty much anyone to give teaching a spin around the block?

Neither. The policy goal here is de-professionalizing teaching, establishing it once and for all as a short-term, entry-level technical job designed to attract a revolving door of "community-minded" candidates, who will work diligently for cheap, then get out because they can't support a family or buy a home on a teacher's salary.

Emphasis on the word cheap. This is about profit and control, not improving education.

In addition to shutting out promising candidates by stringent testing or changing policy to allow virtually anyone with a college degree in the classroom, policymakers, spurred by ALEC and a host of education nonprofits, are also de-professionalizing by:

  • Messing with pension, retirement and insurance packages to encourage young teachers to move in and quickly out of a job that has no financial future.
  • Bringing community-based artists, musicians, sports trainers and library aides into classrooms that used to be staffed by certified teachers.
  • Confiscating teachers' professional work--instruction, curriculum, assessment, collegial mentoring, etc. Decisions that were once a teacher's prerogative are now outsourced to canned curricula designed to raise test scores, or standardized assessments that don't take knowledge of students and their context into consideration. Who should determine the curricular frameworks, design lessons and set goals for students? Teachers and school leaders who know the students and community where they work? Or a Gates-funded, agenda-driven organization?
  • Defunding the schools where the vast majority of professionally prepared teachers are working.
  • Borrowing from the success universities have had, by designing "part-time" jobs (think: K-12 "adjuncts") with pro-rated benefit packages, a lure to get good teaching for even less money than base pay. My friend Dr. Mitchell Robinson, who prepares music teachers at Michigan State University recently shared this:

Just got off the phone with a principal doing a reference check for a music job at a STEAM school—I asked if the job was full time...it was a .83 position. I told her I wished her well, but would not recommend any of my recently graduated students apply or interview for this job, and would not advertise the position. She seemed surprised. "That's all I can offer at this time due to school enrollment." Is this principal is taking a 17% pay cut and giving up her health care, retirement, and other benefits until the enrollment at this school "justifies" a full time principal?

Like many other education policy issues, the professional preparation and advancement of teaching looked very different 25 years ago, when (for example), National Board Certification—an assessment of advanced practice—was gaining ground in the U.S. The talk then was about full-year field experiences and paid internships for prospective teachers.

There was exciting work around integrated curricula, innovative technology-based instruction, full-time mentors for novice teachers and applied-knowledge assessments.

What happened to professional teaching?

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