Teacher Education Under the Gun:
Narrowing teacher preparation is not good for kids or communities
I am a professor of teacher education, I teach teachers. It feels sometimes that declaring that one is a teacher educator is like confessing, “I am an alcoholic.” So despised are teachers, and teacher educators, in the manufactured dominant narrative, that we often present ourselves defensively, if not apologetically.
I prepare (mostly) young idealistic people to begin a career of working with young people, from kindergarten through twelfth grade — doing everything from fostering wonderful ideas to pursuing inquiry to counseling youth in crisis to negotiating bureaucracies to . . . the list goes on and on.
The demands for greater accountability, the regime of standards and tests, which have been torturing students and teachers for at least three decades are now coming to teacher education programs with a vengeance. The testing and accountability mania begins with a drumbeat of complaints about inadequate outcomes; proceeds to a declaration of crisis; and ends with the whole enterprise in the hands of private corporations more interested in selling off the public space to private entities than in teaching or in developing strong communities.
Marilyn Cochran-Smith of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College has led a group of researchers in a study resulting in the important book,Reclaiming Accountability in Teacher Education. They have produced a stunning evaluation of the new mandates placed on teacher education. Their most striking finding is that none of the initiatives impacting teacher education are based on any research whatsoever. That bears repeating: without research, proof, or evidence, states have rushed to create layer after layer of gatekeepers through testing, curricular intervention, and inspection — and called this accountability.
As an aside, let me note that Cochran-Smith and all teacher educators I know are interested in accountability — an accountability to communities, to students, and to schools for helping to develop first rate teachers. Such teachers should be passionate about understanding students and their subject matter, committed to democracy and equity, and reflective as they constantly strive to improve their practice. Positive outcomes will be different in different communities and at different times, but can certainly be tracked through teacher education programs that are closely engaged with local schools.
Reclaiming Accountability in Teacher Education shows how the current mandates de-professionalize teacher education. The very language of teacher education accountability is saturated with market ideology and a “human capital” paradigm (which sees humans as individual, rational economic actors, to be deployed and moved around for profit). It used to be that the term “accountability” meant the state’s responsibility to see that resources were supplied to support strong school programs, which is not the case today.
Unless you are inside the teacher education colleges, it’s hard to imagine the many layers of accountability, the mandates, the requirements placed on these programs. Let me enumerate what we face in California. I’m leaving aside for now the lowered expectations, the simpler pathways, created by the market-based reformers for the quickie teaching credentials. For while university-based credentialing is under attack, the marketeers happily push through simplified pathways to credentials for education hustles like Teach for America.
At each step of the mandates regime, more powerful and inspiring potential teachers, more teachers of color, more working-class teachers, are blocked from going into the profession. At each step, the definition of teaching is narrowed from a broad project of creativity and curiosity to a narrow training for business-friendly skills. And since the state holds the power to grant or withhold credentials, it is difficult to defy these demands. To do so would mean that our students would not get teaching credentials.
Consider the following layers and gatekeepers:
You should note that university-based teacher education is closely monitored from the get-go. We have a thorough accreditation process — which requires a periodic three-day visit by a team consisting of state officials from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) as well as other teacher educators. The inspection includes rigorous review of our curriculum, pathways, and outcomes. They interview faculty and students. They visit classes and check out the field work practices.
2) Required course sequence:
In addition to this, the CTC prescribes the basic sequence of required courses for a credential, as well as the student teaching field work (extending over two semesters) which we are responsible to supervise and evaluate.
Now, after these two deep evaluations by the state, you might think a university likely has a pretty good teacher education program. You have a faculty with PhDs and EdDs, as well as adjuncts and supervisors with extensive classroom experience. A rational system would say at this point: “You are professionals dedicated to teacher preparation. We trust you to certify that this or that candidate is ready and should be preliminarily credentialed as a teacher.”
But you would be wrong, terribly wrong. For here are the other hurdles and gatekeepers.
3) Standardized tests required before starting a program.
Before candidates are admitted into a teacher education program, they must first pass the general preparation test, the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), and then the subject-specific battery of tests, the California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET). Someone is making big money here — and that someone is a private corporation which the state pays millions to, Pearson Education, Inc. Of course, the future candidates must pay Pearson too. It costs $150 to take the CBEST and $300 to $400 to take CSET, with $100 to be paid again for any section you need to retake. Requiring no critical thinking, these are basic dull-minded tests, with gotcha questions and obscure details as well as an emphasis on the kind of material that defined the disciplines fifty years ago. They are difficult tests to pass. I would love for us to require our legislators to take these tests (they could pick any subject) and have the results published.
More importantly, these tests stop candidates before they can even sign up for classes. Aspiring teachers, even ones with a college degree in the discipline area, have been knocked out of the process at this stage. As with most standardized tests, the implicit bias in discourse and framing succeeds in blocking many students of color and working-class students. These are the ones, the excellent teachers, who should be in classrooms in schools today. But they never even get to start.
We at University of San Francisco have initiated a cram and strategizing class for the CSET test, free of charge to those who are applying. Again, while we object to the game, we have no way around it now, and we work extra hard to get our students through.
4) Teacher Performance Expectations (TPEs).
Once the student is in the credential program, the CTC has decided that they must poke into what we are teaching in more detail. The required courses, entrance tests, and accreditation visits are not enough. So they have generated a long list of expectations of things teachers should know, known as the Teacher Performance Expectations (TPEs). These expectations are as laudable as they are vague, for example, “Maintain high expectations for learning with appropriate support for the full range of students in the classroom.”
There are approximately 70 of these expectations. One can imagine a group of writers, probably academics making some side money, sitting in a room generating lists of what teachers ought to know. It’s so easy and so banal. How much is each person in the room paid? Never mind that real teachers learn their craft in about five years of classroom work. They take the insights they have gained as well as the habits of reflection and development they have learned to continually grow in their professional practice. The idea that the seventy expectations will be injected into their eager minds during the credential period, well that’s just silly.
Not only must each syllabus in teacher education classes contain a declaration of which TPEs are covered in that class, but the syllabus must indicate which week, which specific class, will “cover” each of these expectations. In order to maintain our ability to get our students credentialed, of course we go along with this. The truth is, it is not so difficult to assign these TPEs — since they are all issues we address as a matter of course.
You might imagine that this is enough. There is so much surveillance on teacher education that certainly the CTC would be satisfied.
5) Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA)
No, apparently this is not enough surveillance. We also have a new layer of “accountability,” a new state rewired assessment known as the Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA). Developed at Stanford University’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, the TPAs purport to do better than the dumbed down standardized tests. Instead, they will allow candidates to actually plan lessons, teach lessons (and videotape them), adapt lessons, and reflect on lessons. Good goals all, but don’t forget these are things we ALREADY DO. They are done in all teacher credential programs, but in a process embedded in critical class study and field experience.
The TPAs consist of four sections, two administered during Student Teaching I and two during Student Teaching II. Since these are assessments that will determine whether one gets a credential, the candidate’s focus shifts completely to finishing these rather than the progression of reflective work in the seminars, essentially turning to the TPA writing test and brief video clips. Each stage requires a long write-up, usually 30 to 60 pages long. While the terms are routine, the time required to get it done dominates the focus. In other words, the TPAs have colonized and overpowered our curriculum — marching into our classrooms and dictating how the work should be done. And, while the first rollout of TPAs were locally evaluated with locally hired assessors to review the submissions, this also has been farmed out to Pearson, which hires anonymous assessors. To maximize profits, the assessors are paid $20 per evaluation, so you can imagine the kind of (non) seriousness it is graded on.
These standardized and outsourced teacher performance assessments present the same problems as high stakes standardized tests do for K-12 students — for instance that standardized assessment rubrics tend to be reductive, leaving out much of the complexity necessary to evaluate teacher performance for our diverse classrooms, and privileging dominant cultural norms that reproduce inequities. And it is obvious that credential candidates’ attributes such as kindness, promotion of social justice, the ability to think on one’s feet, or to adjust teaching to the exigencies of the moment are not assessed or assessable by the TPA. In the pressure to complete the TPAs, candidates turn from work on these aspects of teaching to the narrow, transmission-of-information, training vision of teaching.
The very performance of TPA compliance, argues a position paper from the National Association of Multicultural Education, presents credential candidates with a “hidden curriculum” that mandates teaching as a process of obedience to prescribed mandates rather than critical thinking and empowerment. It marginalizes the contributions of teachers, supervisors, and school administrators that should be central to teacher development and it crushes opportunities to learn to teach through critical dialogues and feedback from peers. And it represents an encroachment of corporate control into the intensely personal, human, humane, and democratic endeavor that is public education.
Teacher educators, then, are not invited to do our job but are acting as glorified clerks, administering the mandated curriculum, the non-tested and non-researched curriculum, of these agencies. The imposition of these mandates is faith based, relying on a general idea that this type of gatekeeper would be a good idea. Of course educational research and the struggle for equity in education is a dynamic and ever-changing field. But the demands of the credentialing agency (and Pearson, Inc.) make sure that the important principles are set in stone.
When these assessments were first being developed, a study at University of California Irvine (Sandholtz & Shea, 2012) found in fact that supervisors’ predictions of scores (drawing on their observations of candidates in classroom teaching and other work with them) often negatively correlated with high scores on performance assessments. In addition, most of the candidates who supervisors predicted would fail the assessment ended up passing — so the assessment is not useful in ferreting out those who might not be effective teachers. It turns out that many excellent student teachers are pouring their focus into their students and give scant attention to the long, obligatory write-ups. And some of those who are struggling in their daily classroom work find solace in long hours in front of the computer completing assessment reports.
Alison Dover of the California State University Fullerton did an exhaustive study of the Teacher Performance Assessment in the Midwest. In her abstract, she summarizes the study as follows: “The data reveal that despite institutional pass rates above the national average, the TPA process negatively affected candidates’ sense of self-efficacy, agency, and readiness to engage in culturally and contextually responsive teaching. The article concludes with an analysis of how TPA policies socialize preservice teachers to prioritize compliance over agency, with troubling implications for urban teachers, students, and school communities.”
In addition to the TPA assessment, multiple subjects (elementary) teaching candidates must pass the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (RICA). Pearson has taken this one over too.
6) And more.
And there is more, much more, crowding into teacher education classrooms with the intention of “fixing” the problems. This includes the new teacher education accountability requirements written into the 1998 reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act (HEA). Researchers such as The National Education Policy Center analyzed these regulations early on, pointing out that they blame individual teachers rather than the systemic causes for the “achievement gap.”
The acronyms abound, from Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) to National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), each one designed to ferret out bad preparation, each one piling on with a narrative of incompetence in schools of teacher ed. The self-appointed NCTQ is an outfit that has partnered with US News and World Report to rank all teacher education programs. Like their ranking of colleges, such list-making not only reduces complex factors to silly competition, it also allows corporate interests to highlight the qualities they value for education without any input from parents, communities, educators, or elected political bodies. The editorial writers repeat the “finding” of NCTQ that only ten per cent of teacher education programs are rated as “adequate.” Those findings mask a noteworthy fact: the vast majority of teacher education programs, including many of those at the most respected universities in the nation like Harvard and Stanford, refused to participate in the survey and thus were rated “inadequate.” All of these initiatives have been analyzed by educators and found fundamentally flawed if not fraudulent.
Teacher education certainly has ample and extensive room to improve. Outside of the big megaphones wielded by the foundations and the millions of dollars bestowed by government “reform” projects, teacher educators continue the work on the ground, just as teachers in K-12 classrooms fly under the radar, doing effective work by enacting what Neil Postman called “subversive” teaching. Powerful examples of deep teacher education can be found, as in the recent book, Confronting Racism in Teacher Education: Counternarratives of Critical Practice (Picower & Kohli, 2017). If we really want to invest in teacher education, we need to listen to teachers like them.
Moreover, anyone who understands the complexity and challenge of teaching knows that we should have an extended induction process, much as we do in medicine. Teacher candidates should have extensive education in the foundations and context, in theory and practice. They need a multiple year internship period with coaching by peers and experienced practitioners. New teachers need to be more than narrow skill trainers and sorters of students. They need the experience to become critical educators, community leaders who advance social justice and critical thinking with their students. But, sadly, the corporate reformers and government overseers don’t actually plan to fund or support more thorough teacher education programs. If anything, their broadsides against university teacher preparation pave the way for quick and narrow programs (and accelerating failure) as part of the privatization of public education in America
As a result of all these top-down state and privately funded initiatives, we find ourselves constrained more and more by these many layers of mandates, controls, and assessments. Each one moves teaching away from the broad and creative art that is needed into a narrow training program based on a transmission of information. But in the end, the data will not support the proposition that such training programs produce better results, even by their own pathetic measures. While we struggle to correct these overreaches, soon it will be too late, as thousands of teacher education programs will be shut down or harnessed to the corporate reform agenda. The effect of these efforts certainly is not to make teacher education programs serve the needs of communities. Instead, they serve to make the teaching corps even more remote from, alienated from, and ineffective with communities.