TeachStrong: Will New Campaign Undo Teacher Bashing and Sustain Those Called to Teach?

Did you know there’s a brand new campaign to improve teaching, a campaign, according to Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, that says its goal is “modernizing and elevating” the teaching profession?   This is a project of the Center for American Progress, the primarily Democratic Washington think tank that has ironically pushed far-right “corporate reform” in education. Valerie Strauss wonders if TeachStrong is a Gates-funded initiative, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted $850,000 to the Center for American Progress this past summer.

As it launched TeachStrong, the Center for American Progress announced: “In order to ensure that all students are taught by excellent teachers, leaders must reimagine the systems and structure of the teacher career continuum. Yet the United States has never made a serious commitment to modernizing, elevating, and professionalizing the teaching pathway.”

Daniel Katz, a Seton Hall University professor of education who trains secondary teachers and secondary special education teachers, wonders at the coalition the Center for American Progress has pulled together for this new campaign: “Lyndsey Layton mentioned in the Washington Post that the coalition includes ‘some strange bedfellows,’ and she certainly was not kidding.” On the one hand are the traditional professional organizations representing teachers, school administrators, and colleges of education: the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the New Teacher Center.  Then there are the groups that want to disrupt the teaching profession: Teach for America, Educators 4 Excellence, Deans for Impact, Relay (online) Graduate School of Education, Education Post, and finally the National Council on Teacher Quality—which has taken it upon itself to rate colleges of education in a questionable system that merely looks at the courses listed in each program’s catalog—no visits, no observations.  Katz comments: “(I)f the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnered with the Hormel corporation to design a school lunch program—you hope the more knowledgeable partner is guiding the work, but you strongly suspect that a lot of snouts and tails are going to get in there too.”

As a teacher educator, Katz worries about a “campaign (that) appears rooted in the notion that everything we are doing in school is obsolete and must drastically modernize immediately or we are all doomed.”  He believes the preparation of teaching candidates in colleges of education has been significantly strengthened in the past 30 years: “While I will never say that teacher preparation is unable to improve, it is also true that anyone who has gotten a teaching certificate since the 1980s has likely seen significant changes, often positive changes…. From increased time spent in classrooms prior to student teaching, to stronger pedagogical and content preparation, to vastly improved preparation for working with students with disabilities, teacher preparation has not been standing still, and it would behoove a number of the TeachStrong partners… to familiarize themselves with the kinds of evidence that the 656 teacher preparation programs accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (since merged with TEAC and changed to the Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation) have had to provide in order to demonstrate their strengths.”

Katz ‘s greatest worry? “While the teacher professionalization efforts of the 1980s and 1990s had some positive impacts, they…. tended to emphasize teaching as a technical and rational act with special emphasis on those aspects of teaching that can be measured or demonstrated.  While this has some merit, over emphasizing it has diminished a critical aspect of teaching: vocationalism. People who become teachers feel called in some way to the profession; they know themselves well enough to have considered why they are choosing teaching.”

Katz evokes the themes of Parker Palmer, whose The Courage to Teach, the classic book on vocationalism among teachers, calls for creating conditions that help teachers stay connected to what called them to teaching in the first place: “In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, writing curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.  Teachers must be better compensated, freed from bureaucratic harassment, given a role in academic governance, and provided with the best possible methods and materials.  But none of that will transform education if we fail to cherish—and challenge—the human heart that is the source of good teaching… This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 3-10)

Katz shares Palmer’s concern for strengthening the integrity and agency of school teachers. He concludes: “If TeachStrong is serious about a pipeline of great potential teachers, it had better look harder than most recent reform efforts that constantly emphasize getting the best students into teacher preparation without being concerned whether or not they are driven by the best motivations.  It also means that rather than focusing on impossible goals like elevating the salaries of 3 million teachers to the salaries of doctors and lawyers, it would be much better to focus upon working conditions that grant teachers significantly more autonomy and input into how their work and workplaces are conducted.”

If it intends to support school teachers, TeachStrong has another mammoth task: confronting widespread scapegoating of educators that has been pushed by some of the same groups that have now signed on to the TeachStrong campaign.  The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) operated through threats and imposition of sanctions—all intended to frighten teachers into working harder;  NCLB targeted teachers for punishment when test scores in our nation’s poorest schools proved stubbornly resistant to change. And to get waivers from NCLB’s failed Adequate Yearly Progress system, states have been required by the federal government to rate teachers by students’ standardized test scores, even as many states were at the same time implementing the new Common Core tests with benchmark cut scores set so high that in many places two-thirds of students were unable to pass.

In a commentary on college programs to prepare teachers, Mike Rose, another teacher educator, describes the effective teachers he has known and observed: “They had command of the material they taught. They created safe and respectful classrooms. They had a deep belief in the ability of their students and held high expectations for them.  They required their students to think and think hard and worked to engage students in each others’ thinking.  The richness came in the variety of ways they realized these qualities—an important point, given the push by some for increasingly regulated curriculum and pedagogy.  Part of the variation, of course, was a result of where these teachers went to college.  But the variation also came from influential teachers they had earlier in their own schooling.  The way they taught was also influenced by their personalities and by their values and background: by family or religion or positive or negative experiences in school; by the experience of race or ethnicity, social class, gender, or sexual orientation; by political and social commitments; by the love of a subject.  An important quality in a teacher education program, traditional or alternative, is how well it is able to draw on and develop these characteristics.  You won’t see this quality mentioned in any of the high-profile reports on teacher education.”

Professor Katz suspects that TeachStrong is one part a marketing campaign and another part nine principles—framed in laudable rhetoric— for improving the teaching profession. “Given the perspectives and previous projects of many of the partners in this effort, including TFA which stated in the Washington Post article that it felt no need to change its own five week training program to meet the principles outlined above, it is right to be cautious about what will materialize here.”