17 August 2009

The Demons of the Duncan Contradiction and Teacher Education

In a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature on teacher certification, an Alexandria, Virginia English teacher named Patrick Welsh unwittingly presents, in one clear paragraph, the problem with the Obama Administration’s educational policies.

“The credentialing game in public education may have once been a well-meaning effort to create some measurable criteria to maintain standards, but it has turned into an absurd process that forces both teachers and administrators to waste time jumping through hoops that have little or no relation to their job performance.”

Welsh, a Washington Post Blogger often deeply frustrated with educational change (he openly worries about schools with “too much technology”) is writing to oppose teacher certification requirements and – by extension – teacher training in and of itself. He spells out his hoped for situation: “A good start to ensure that schools get the best people in the classrooms would be to stop filtering candidates through personnel offices obsessed with education courses and “certification,” and allow individual schools to advertise for the positions they need, and then allow principals along with panels of teachers to hire enthusiastic candidates who exhibit knowledge and love of their subject and a passion for communicating that knowledge and love to students.”

The fact that Welsh can quote only a couple of locally observed anecdotes in defense of his position while others in the debate – taking the other side – can back their positions up with data is not the problem for the Obama administration. The problem is simply that Arne Duncan is taking opposite sides in the same debate: On hand he is arguing that teacher credentialing is unimportant, that traditional paths to teaching are no longer valid, that testing of new teachers for certification no longer has a place. Yet, his other hand is insisting on the most traditional measures of student achievement and teacher evaluation. Anyone with “enthusiasm” and “knowledge” can become a teacher in Duncan’s view, but every student must jump through annual hoops and certify themselves on achievement tests or both the student and his or her teacher fail. A funhouse mirror of education policies.

Which is it Mr. Obama? Are standardized tests and standardized curricula valid? Is it essential that all students attend a certain amount of school before they can claim some sort of certification? Or should a student be able to simply prove that they are “enthusiastic” and “exhibit knowledge”? Do I need to attend Mr. Welsh's classes at T.C. Williams High School or may I just read and write on my own until I satisfy my own preparatory needs for university?

Put another way, how do you tell a student that they must complete a specific set of courses, send a specific number of hours, days, years in school, pass a certain test – if that student’s teachers have had to do none of that in order to hold their present position?

Or in its most simple form – the argument for alternative certification for teachers, and the argument for “outsider run schools” (Charters), are clearly arguments for less standardization in school curricula and school assessment. The argument is that “school” – as we now understand it – is not the appropriate place to learn for many of our students – whether those are K-12 students or future educators. That standardized curricula, evaluations, and assessments are bad preparation for life and bad measures of capability - again, for K-12 students or future educators.

As for me – I believe in alternative teacher certification just as I believe in alternative educational opportunities for all students. And I believe in high expectations – for K-12 students and for new teachers – but I put little faith in industrial standards, whether those be the standards for a high school diploma (Did you come to class often enough? Did you do enough homework to make your algebra teacher happy?), a college degree (Did you click enough times in your Intro to Sociology lecture?), a PhD (Have you mastered APA Style, or is MLA?), or a teacher certification (Are you very good at sitting for very long tests?).

But I also know that teaching is the most important profession a society has. And I know that after a very selective, very extensive, and very expansive five-year program of teacher education, our Michigan State University College of Education grads are still often missing a great deal of information we wish we could find time to get in. Learning to be a great teacher is just a difficult thing. Why anyone would imagine you could become a great teacher in fewer years than you would need to become a great doctor is beyond my understanding.

So I want better teacher education programs. I want more flexible teacher education programs. I want teacher education programs more adapted to the diverse needs of the diverse people we want to attract into teaching. And I want teacher education programs with much more time spent in actual K-12 classrooms.

Just as I want better public schools. More flexible public schools. Public schools not tied to standardized tests and public schools with diverse choices meeting the needs of diverse learners. And I want public schools more firmly connected to the world our students live and learn in.

But my goal is not to eliminate either teacher training or public schools. Eliminating those institutions will not make either better – and eliminating either or both will not improve education at all.

- Ira Socol


mshertz said...


Thank you for sticking up for those of us who entered teaching through alternative certification paths. I am saddened that so many teachers enter the classroom unprepared or that they continue to teach & get rewarded for higher education credits that don't necessarily make them a better teacher.

I believe I got into teaching by the perfect path. I worked as a full-time intern while getting my certification. I did my student teaching in the same school (an inner city school) and I learned on the job while supplementing my daily experiences with classes in methodology and sociology while also getting paid $30,000/yr by the School District.

As a result, I knew EXACTLY what I was getting myself into and was able to make the transition much more easily than those who came right out of college and/or student teaching in the suburbs.

I personally don't think that any student should ever have their only teacher be uncertified. While programs like Teach for America have proven successful, districts need to start taking more responsibility for filling their classrooms with professional teachers and supporting their new teachers to ensure that they stay in the district and the profession.

Thanks again for a thoughtful reflection.

Em said...

I went to undergrad for English and psych and am finishing my MA in English this December (with three of my ten classes highlighting lit and comp education specifically). I have no teaching certification but am interested in helping the education system. I'd go through whatever hoops if I could get paid on-the-job training.

Jose Vilson said...

Well written. I personally went through the NYC Teaching Fellows, and I'm eternally grateful not just for the opportunity but also the speediness of the process. I didn't think traditional schooling (in retrospect) would have done me any good. While the program proved difficult to do while actually teaching, I also learned a lot more than I could have bargained for.

With that said, we need to look more stringently not just at the teachers and students, but also at the administrators. Unfortunately, I don't think we as a society look thoroughly enough at the evaluators as we should. As you so eloquently mentioned, we can't have these dichotomous positions about how we view school. While there's no such thing as absolutes, we should look clearly at what we define as school and who will evaluate how effective school actually is.

But I have yet to formally put my thoughts on paper, so until then, this will definitely be a good discussion to continue. Well written.


Will Richardson said...

Hey Ira,

Riffed on a similar theme at my blog today.

Actually, I think getting rid of teacher "training" would be a noble goal. We should be deepening teacher "learning" in the pd we do. Semantics I know, but I think an important tweak to the language.

Really appreciate your blog.


Unknown said...

I liked reading your bold statements. I went through a teacher education program that was flexible with the opportunity to mentor inner city immigrant youth. I left teaching for awhile and when I decided to return I was dismayed to find out I had to go through a number of hoops to enter the public school system, in which I never taught in. I was frustrated and stayed in private schools until I decided to work in higher ed. Personally I find the public school requirements to be excessive and completely inflexible. Thanks for your post!

v said...

the problem is policy makers think just having 'enthusiasm' is enough to be a good teacher. they don't understand that you can't reach every kid the same way, that you have to be be skilled in planning lessons that reach kids who need hands-on, kids who need to hear the sound of their on voice to process info, kids who need to talk it out with others, kids who need quiet, kids who need movement... education is a much more complex field than policy makers realize. udl has not penetrated the mainstream at all- it has a long way to go- especially in penetrating the consciousness of policy makers.

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