19 June 2009

What Teacher Education needs to be?

More "laboratory" work, more doubt, more diverse, more complex, and more flexible.

Chad Ratliff, a twitter colleague from Virginia, routinely challenges my thinking (a direct refutation of Larry Sanger's claims about web 2.0). Chad believes in Charter Schools (a rare thing in the Old Dominion), and Chad believes in alternative teacher certification, and I think Chad believes that at least some market forces can improve education. As an ex-teacher from a very high-needs impoverished community, and as a guy who studies education closely, I don't take his stances lightly.

First, let me say that I am not against Charter Schools. I believe charters and university lab schools are critical to educational invention in the public sector. My kid attended a great charter school. What I oppose are for profit chain-charters which steal money from children and do nothing to re-invent anything except, too often, racial and disability segregation.

Nor am I against alternative teacher certification. I am desperate to find effective ways to take experienced adults and convert them into great teachers, and equally desperate to develop strategies which turn committed adults from high-needs communities into lifelong teachers and community role models. What I'm against is Teach for America - a program that gives poor kids untrained, non-experienced teachers, while giving rich kids a resume boost.

Yes, I am pretty much against market solutions for public service. In my view market-based strategies have, for example, made American health care the most expensive in the world while also making it clearly less effective than the systems of other nations. And market-based strategies in the US military have given us Halliburton profits and Blackwater murders. I hope for better for our kids.

But let's go back to Teach for America. What's the problem? Well, it starts with a bit of cognitive dissonance. Teach for America claims that going to school to learn something is not just completely unimportant, it might be a negative. This is the heart of their argument (and the arguments of TFA fans like Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and The New York Times), that there is not just no difference between teachers who have attended education schools and those who have not, but that those who have not might even be better. This seems a story I wouldn't want presented to any child who I hoped to keep in school. "My teacher says school is worthless," is what I'd say if I had a TFA teacher.

But the bigger problem, even skipping my opinion of TFA as a classic colonial project designed to oppress, is that I see no reason why if rich kids get only "trained, certified" teachers, poor kids deserve something less. That's not, in my opinion, a gap-closing path.

If there is a teacher shortage in certain places, then maybe we do need a small "market solution." Would those districts attract top teachers if the pay was $150,000 or $200,000 a year? If the schools were properly equipped and maintained? If the necessary supports for student achievement were in place? I think the TFA Foundation should be raising cash to try that set of solutions out.

But yes, we all know that Teacher Education across America is not what it should be, and Chad wants to know where and how to start. And its a great question. And in trying to answer, I start outside the field.

Back when I was an NYPD cop, we used to describe certain rookies as suffering from "Starsky and Hutch Syndrome" (I believe the term now might be "Jack Bauer Syndrome"). "Starsky and Hutch Syndrome" cops inevitably came from the distant exurbs of New York, Suffolk County, Rockland County, Putnam County, and beyond. They had led these white bread kind of lives, and all they knew about the City of New York and its diverse population were the "horror" stories told by older cop relatives who had moved their families as far east or north as permissable to escape the "nightmare" of the city, which in their minds looked a lot like the film, Escape from New York. These cops arrived as crusaders who would "clean up" the city. They were totally earnest and sincere, determined to recreate the mythic New York City of their parents' childhoods'. They were also unbelievably dangerous. They could not understand street dynamics, our community standards. They could not comprehend that different people might behave differently on a hot summer Saturday night. They got into endless fights, they made stupid, worthless arrests, they damaged police community relationships, and they hurt members of the public and other cops through turning small problems into huge crises.

Here's an example of typical "Starsky and Hutch" behavior - from a much more recent time - thankfully captured on video:

The moral is, beware saviors, beware crusaders, and go for training.

The reason I start here is that for 6 months, that is, 26 weeks, the NYPD worked diligently in Police Academy courses to eliminate this syndrome. Through sociology and psychology courses, through Constitutional Law courses, through simulations and role play, through awareness training. New York cops learned all sorts of things during those 26 weeks, but the hardest thing to get across, almost every instructor said, was the notion that nothing in the past lives of these suburban 'pre-cops' or their educations (which were often quite impressive), was of any real value in terms of helping those in New York's struggling neighborhoods.

And so, after 26 weeks of 45 hours per wek training, New York's rookie cops are typically supervised heavily on the street for another six months - that's all considered part of their training. And still, more than a few Starsky and Hutches slipped through.

We compare that to the guy on the left, who now runs Teach for America in the San Francisco Bay area. He went through TFA's five week training program, and then taught for two years. I'm just saying...

So, issue one is that it takes a lot of training, and a lot of actual time, to make people effective public servants when dealing with people unlike themselves.

You know I tend to make fun of, and even to bash, my school, Michigan State University, but honestly we do do somethings quite well, and here's one: Our future teachers have typically spent time with as many high-needs diverse students before they begin their internship year than TFA corps members will in their entire "career." And we use that. From the first 100-level ed course on our students work in high needs classrooms. They do this in almost every course. And they come back and we - the instructors - get to work with their reactions. We do that for most of four years, and that makes a difference, because this is very difficult stuff to learn. We don't want missionaries, we don't want crusaders, we don't want saviors - we want teachers who, before they begin "student teaching" are starting to understand that their experience is not their students' experience, and that they are not superior humans for having had better luck in the birth lottery.

Now, Michigan State is no Ivy League institution. It is a Land Grant University (the very first Land Grant University) in a desperately struggling state. Yet our students are the elite, they have made it to one of our top universities in a place where attending any post-secondary school is a minority position. Their knowledge of the struggles of underclass children or children who struggle in school is typically highly limited. And if we, in the College of Education, did not push them out into the City of Lansing's schools or poor rural districts, well, the only times they'd actually get into Lansing itself is going to World Market in the Frandor Shopping Center for beer (sorry Spartans, MAC's Bar doesn't count, it is technically in Lansing Township). In other words, if they were not education majors, they would likely know little of this - even on a campus far more diverse in economic origin than those East Coast elite campuses.

We do something else pretty well at MSU, which is deal with issue two, creating and understanding doubt, which is essential to developing teachers who can differentiate instruction. We do not teach students "one way" to do anything. Our faculty could hardly agree on a group of five or six ways. I say to those in my team-taught course, that even in that single course they will hear three views, often at odds. If you take any sequence of MSU College of Ed courses you will hear lots of ideas, lots of possibilities, lots of suggestions - and as you go out into the a real classroom, and meet any collection of students - you will need every one of them.

Obviously, this also takes time. You cannot dump 50 strategies on a bunch of pre-service teachers in a semester. You can only offer that variety if you give everyone the time to process and compare, to test in actual teaching moments, then process and compare again.

We also have a highly diverse group of instructors at MSU, which is issue three, getting fully comfortable with diverse perspectives on the notion of education itself. I don't mean diverse in skin color, though we do have lots of people from lots of continents. I mean diverse by economic origin, by family origin, by systems of primary and secondary education. The "Brit" group comes with a set of views, as does our "East Asian" group, our "South Asian," and "African" groups have a "Brit plus" view set. Then we have our Americans. There are instructors wth every "disability," and instructors with every kind of language issue, and instructors with every type of political stance. This really does make a difference as new teachers learn to navigate communities which do not share their values or histories.

Issue four is all about complexity. In any class of students, but especially among "high needs" students, there will be real issues you must deal with. In Linda Darling-Hammond's study of TFA this is the place where the untrained teachers really fell apart, they had no exposure to any of this, and it showed. What, I recently asked a man on Twitter who seemed to be suggesting that anyone with good content knowledge would be a good teacher, does (his example) film maker and history buff Ken Burns know about dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ELL, AAC, CAPD, ADHD, EI, Autism, Aspergers - to name a few issues likely to confront every teacher. These are complex issues with no set formulas for answer. These take time too. You must move past the labels, past your "declarative knowledge," to true "operational knowledge," or you will not only not help these students, you will injure them.

My fifth issue though is about flexibility. Because I am a fan of alternative certification. When someone like @spedteacher chooses, after a lifetime of diverse experiences with people, to become a teacher, that is a fabulous thing. And so I want to be able to entice great people, in their 30s, 40s, 50s into education, and I want to leverage the human skills they already have. I want them to be able to study to be teachers while being paid. I want them to have shorter, year round courses, that fit their lifestyle needs. I want them to be merging their past experiences with the curriculum, and I want them in classrooms in a secondary role almost immediately. I especially want these people if they come from the kinds of communities which suffer teacher shortages, because I want to develop a community-based faculty which is lifespan dedicated to that community and its children.

In my battle over teacher training I surprise myself. I have a ton of problems with how we train teachers, just as I have a ton of problems with how we train doctors. So, I might think I'd be on the TFA "No Training" side. But I'm not. I consider these both to be critical, life and death professions. Who kills more in a year? I'd guess bad teachers over bad doctors, really. A disastrous education too often leads to a disastrous - and short - life.

So my solution to bad teachers and bad doctors is not to minimize training, it's to reconstruct it. To make it really work the way it should. That's my start - let the conversation begin...

- Ira Socol


v said...

my experience in a teacher's college was laughable. a waste of time. my two main professors had PhD's, but had never taught in a public school. What i learned, i learned on the fly and through my own research and experience, especially when i found my daughter to have a reading disability-that really concentrated my attention. so, yes, knowledge and experience matters.i could have helped a lot more students early on if I had had better training. a school that uses teachers with minimal training and a minimal time commitment is not the ideal solution, but it is possible that it is better than what those kids would get with a so-called experienced teacher. i worked in camden, nj for a year. sometimes a teaching degree and all the experience in the world won't do a thing if you really could care less.

Michael Faris said...

You're speaking to a very important issue: the de-professionalization of teachers. This unfortunately extends to even when teachers are in the classroom. When I taught middle school, some of our professional development was top-down, rote training in a rote reading comprehension system for students. It wasn't about teachers building knowledge about a profession—it was about teachers being told how to implement a program that a company developed.

Of course, there are a lot of forces going into this de-professionalization: NCLB, economics (pay), high turnover of teachers, TFA, and more. Easy to lament. Hard to change.

Thanks for your thoughts here!

Chris said...

Wow, Thanks for laying this all out! Since I began working in schools so much of what you're saying here has troubled me, not the least of which is "What I'm against is Teach for America - a program that gives poor kids untrained, non-experienced teachers, while giving rich kids a resume boost." This is true all over education, not just with TTA. We continue to entrust our kids with the highest needs to the educators with the least experience, whether these be first year teachers, or untrained support staff. It's just not right and people should be getting as worked up about it as we have about civil rights, because that's just what it is. We cannot pay lip service to meeting the needs of students and closing the achievement gap while continuingto run the education system with the idea that some populations can be taught on the cheap and/or for profit. No easy formulas, simple solutions or enlighted do-gooders will fix the problems we have in schools. I commend you and Michigan State for the work you're doing to prepare true teachers to teach real kids.

Anonymous said...

I went from a master's degree program in theology to summer school, and from summer school to the regular year classroom. My 'training' consisted of a week of school procedures before summer school started, and another week of 'training' before the regular year started.

Private schools, at least in CT, are exempt from hiring certified teachers, and largely exempt from most continuing education mandates. The advantage you get in sending your students to a private school is that they have a formal degree in the subject they teach: math or English or science or history. The disadvantage you face is that they know their subject well, but not the niceties of teaching.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and it's probably worth mentioning that I'm now in my twelfth year teaching. I've had about 14 in-service days; I got a second master's degree in history; I've read a few dozen books on education; and held down a varied and confusing course load that's varied significantly from year to year.