The Presidential Candidates and the Press: Missing What’s Important

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noticed something in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates so far: “Now it’s getting ridiculous: four debates among Democratic presidential candidates, and no questions—or serious discussion about K-12 education.”  She notes that Michael Bennet alone made a plea to “fix our school system,” but beyond that imprecise declaration, explains Strauss: “Some candidates made passing references to universal preschool, and moderators did raise college affordability and student debt.  But when it comes to K-12 public education, which many believe is the most important civic institution in the country, nada.”  Strauss blames the moderators, and I encourage you to read her pointed speculation about what they might have been thinking when they ignored our public schools.

The school superintendent turned member of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center, Bill Mathis also asks some tough questions of the press and policy makers, this time about the widespread and relatively unquestioned assumption that standardized test scores are a good measure for the quality of public schools.  While Mathis writes that parents, educators and students all seem to agree that other things matter at school more than test scores, he criticizes: “pundits and politicians who find it far easier to blame the schools than to confront our real problem… Poverty has a far greater influence on test scores than any other factor, including the schools. Poverty causes absenteeism, impaired attention, diminished social skills, lowered motivation and ambition, and increased depression… The state tests will not cure poverty but curing poverty will improve test scores.”

Lifelong professor of education and among our society’s finest writers about education, Mike Rose has also been worrying about the lack of a substantive conversation about what is happening in our public schools.  Rose has noticed the absence of the voice of professional educators in the traditional “high-and middlebrow media”—publications that “still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion makers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.”

Rose worries about who is doing the framing of the national conversation about our public schools: “When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor—medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion—we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics.  We rarely see this treatment of education.”  Rose thinks the absence of the voices the professional educators has constricted our vision, “For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like.  This economic managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education.  If the dominant language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.”

Rose quotes education philosopher, John Dewey: “The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.”  Rose continues: “I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery—or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach—what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars—move them to want to teach it?  How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them—and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students?”

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist also worries about the absence of what is important in our public conversation. Believing that Donald Trump’s presidency has degraded our politics and the way we talk about important policy issues, Brooks examines our current political dialogue more broadly: “If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal.  If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s.  If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.  But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.”

Brooks continues: “Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators are both materialistic wonks. Elizabeth Warren is a social scientist from Harvard Law School who has a plan for everything—except the central subject of this election, which is cultural and moral.  Bernie Sanders… is incapable of adjusting his economics-dominated mind set… The bigger problem is simply the culture of the Democratic Party. ”

Brooks lists five values this election ought to be about:

  • “Unity: We’re one people.”
  • “Honesty: We can’t have deliberative democracy without respect for the truth.”
  • “Pluralism: Human difference makes life richer and more interesting.  We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”
  • “Sympathy: We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.”
  • “Opportunity: We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life.”

I believe that Mike Rose’s concern is about finding space where educators can share broadly the way these same values can be encouraged and enhanced in their classrooms. And Bill Mathis would list these values as the central parts of a fine education that will never show up in standardized test scores.

If our politicians and the press really began to talk substantively about Brooks’ fifth value—opportunity, the educational conversation would have to get beyond Pre-K, free college tuition and college debt relief. Debate moderators would need to begin asking questions like the ones Valerie Strauss suggests: “Is it too difficult to compose questions that get at the heart of major matters confronting public schools?… How about: ‘America funds its public education system largely through property taxes, and federal efforts to close the gap between high-income and low-income neighborhoods have not bridged the gap.  Should there be a fundamental change in the way public schools are funded?’  Or: ‘If the Supreme Court rules, as it may do, that it is constitutional for states to use public funds for religious education, would you take any action as president to override that decision?  Do you believe it is constitutional for public funds to be used for religious education?’ Or: ‘Do you agree with any education move that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made?’  Or: ‘What is the most damaging step Betsy DeVos has taken, and how would you change it?’  Or: ‘Do you agree with Betsy DeVos on expanding charter schools, and if not, where is the disagreement?’  Or: ‘Can you name the three biggest problems facing K-12 education today, and how you would fix them?’ Or ‘What is the role of the federal government in education policy?'”

An inquiry that pays attention to Brooks’ five values would lead the press and our politicians to explore some of the deeper issues in our schools.  What can teachers tell us about the effect of the enormous class sizes we heard about as teachers struck last year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles and Oakland? What is the role of school nurses and what can teachers tell us about why their presence is so important? What sort of support for students is really needed at school in terms of social workers and counselors?  How much should we pay teachers and how do teachers’ salaries help stabilize a school’s faculty in a way that supports children and families? What can school principals tell us about how a library with a professional school librarian enriches a school or why theater programs and bands and orchestras are so important in high schools?  I haven’t seen serious consideration of the needs of children and their schools mentioned in the plan of any of the candidates.

David Brooks is right: “We need an uprising of decency.” And public education—a human endeavor as well as a matter of public policy—needs to be part of our serious political conversation—including the voices of the professionals who nurture and educate 50 million of our young people.

And, of course, there is that serious public policy question about school privatization that our Democratic presidential candidates keep trying to hedge. Most of them sort of support and at the same time sort of oppose charter schools—when they are for-profit.  And almost none of the candidates seems to realize that it is the management companies, not the nonprofit schools themselves, which are stealing away millions of our tax dollars.  This issue is, at its heart, also a matter of what I would add to Brooks’ list as the sixth important value we ought to be talking about: JUSTICE.  I hope that a presidential candidate will emerge who understands and can explain to the American people why justice cannot be other than systemic.  Any policy that takes from the many to serve a few—or that incorporates competition with winners and losers—cannot answer our society’s needs.  Public schools are the institution designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of ALL of our children.

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Valerie Strauss Wonders: Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?

Nobody knows, of course, exactly what Donald Trump’s administration will mean for public schools, but for a balanced and insightful analysis, I urge you to read Valerie Strauss’s fine column from the Washington Post, Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?  She begins:

“There’s a reason that people who care about public education in the United States are mightily worried about President-elect Donald Trump.  There are, actually, a number of reasons—all of which lead to this question: Will Trump’s administration destroy U.S. public education?  The short answer is that he can’t all by himself destroy America’s most important civic institution, at least not without help from Congress as well as state and local legislators and governors.”

Strauss believes that Congressional action last December demonstrated a firm rejection of federal overreach by Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education: “(T)here is no appetite in the country for intense federal involvement in local education, which occurred during the Obama administration at such an unprecedented level that Congress rewrote the No Child Left Behind law—eight years late—so that a great deal of education policymaking power could be sent back to the states.”

What about Trump’s idea of a $20 billion block grant to help states privatize education?  That is a real worry, says Strauss.

Strauss explains that today’s alarm among supporters of public education has been fed by what people have been watching now for fifteen years as policies of the federal government have in many ways begun to undermine the very concept of public schools: “That many people are worried that Trump could deliver a fatal blow to public schools speaks not only to his views and those of the people around him, but also to the past 15 years of school reform and the consequences of the policies promoted by… Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and waivers to NCLB. Corporate school reform has led to standardized test-based ‘accountability’ as well as school ‘choice’ programs—pushed in part by billionaires who have made school reform a pet project….”

According to Strauss, “Not all choice supporters agree on every topic—Obama and many Democrats oppose vouchers but support charters, while Republicans are big supporters of voucher and voucherlike programs—but the trajectory of increased privatization in recent years is undeniable under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  The growth of charter schools has drained many traditional public school systems where charters are located, and the charter sectors in a number of states—especially the for-profit charters—are severely troubled because of lack of sufficient oversight.”

What about opinion across the country? Strauss provides examples from last week’s election showing that voters’ views about market-based school choice are not in line with the educational philosophy of the person these same voters chose as our new president: “The irony of all this is that just as Trump is selecting an education secretary from a pool of pro-privatization candidates, voters in a number of states just expressed deep misgivings about unrestricted growth of school choice.”

Strauss cannot provide a firm answer to her question: Will Donald Trump destroy U.S. public education?  But her solid analysis of where we stand right now is lucid and very helpful.

Extra: Valerie Strauss’s Clear, Sensible Description of Bush and Obama Education Policies

Now that Congress has passed and President Obama signed a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there have been many explanations of what has gone wrong since No Child Left Behind, the previous version, was signed into law in January of 2002.

This morning in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss summarizes much of that history in Don’t Blame George W. Bush for What President Obama Did to Public Schools.

Her piece is short and lucid.  I urge you to read it.

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.”

Vermont Warns Parents about Arbitrary Nature of Cut Scores—Not to Worry So Much

What does it mean about our society that we are so obsessed with standardized tests?  There is lots of evidence that we’ve become obsessed.  We worry about international rankings. We have allowed our federal government and states to put in place a system of punishments for teachers and schools based on scores on mandated standardized tests. We shop for real estate based on test scores.

Maybe part of our obsession is that testing fits so perfectly with our love of competition.  The tests are like high school football scores; we like to name a champion. We also like our children to be winners, and if test scores on the SAT or ACT are not high enough, maybe our children won’t get into the right college.  But there is something else going on.  These days comparison of test scores is being manipulated by politicians for political purposes.  Most of us don’t really understand what is happening and that makes us fearful.  Maybe tests mean more than we know. Maybe the tests mean something is wrong with our school or our community or our children. Maybe tests show our nation to be a failure.

Over the past week, in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss has published columns that demystify the scores on the Common Core tests, the test scores from last spring that are only now coming back to some states and being released to parents.  Late last week, the Vermont State Board of Education and Vermont’s secretary of education Rebecca Holcombe sent a letter to parents to reassure them that the state’s Common Core tests should not be taken too seriously. (Scroll down to the end of Strauss’s column to read the letter itself.) Vermont is part of the the Smarter Balanced consortium, a group of states that have agreed to use one of the two major providers’ Common Core tests.

We can assume, from what the Vermont State Board of Education’s letter says that members of the board and Secretary Holcomb are concerned about a scoring scale that is going to make too many of Vermont’s children look like failures.  Here is part of what the State Board’s letter  says to parents:  “We call your attention to the box labeled ‘scale score and overall performance.’ These levels give too simplistic and too negative a message to students and parents.  The tests are at a very high level.  In fact, no nation has ever achieved at such a level.  Do not let the results wrongly discourage your child from pursuing his or her talents, ambitions, hopes or dreams.  These tests are based on a narrow definition of ‘college and career ready.’  In truth, there are many different careers and colleges and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests.  If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future.”

The issue, of course, is the setting of cut scores on the test.  What score should be marked passing? What score means “proficient”?  What score determines failure?

Just last week, for the purpose of addressing just such questions about scoring scales on standardized tests, Strauss republished a post by Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania school teacher and author of the blog Curmudgucation.  Greene used last week’s transition off Daylight Savings Time to reflect on the labels we use to describe and attach meaning to our reality. Labels, including Daylight Savings Time as well as cut scores on standardized tests, are mere symbols we attach to particular phenomena to make them mean something.

The day after Daylight Savings Time ended, Greene wrote: “Here’s the thing—it will get precisely as dark as it got yesterday… The distribution of light and dark through the day, the distribution of the sun’s high points and low points—it will be pretty much the same today as it was yesterday… What changed is not the distribution of light and dark, but the labels that we put on it…  This is a fine way to explain cut scores. The distribution of student scores, the lights and darks, the highs and lows—that stays pretty much the same. What changes is how people choose to label them. We can take the highest point of the curve and we can call it ‘on level’ or ‘above expectations’ or ‘below expectations.’ And the labels we use are our reality.”  The numbers of correct and incorrect answers comprise the raw data, “But what we label it… is just a label, even an arbitrary label, that we have slapped on the raw data to give it meaning.  And we can give it any meaning we want.”

Like officials in Vermont, Ohio’s education leaders were displeased with Ohio’s scores on the Common Core test—in Ohio’s case, the test of the PARCC consortium.  Less willing to write a letter that might undermine support for our obsession with standardized testing, Ohio’s legislature simply dismissed the PARCC test and plans next year to go with one from the American Institutes of Research.  And at the same time, Ohio’s state board of education bumped up the cut scores.  Some people, who believe tests really mean something objective, have complained that Ohio has just become soft like Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), our federal testing law, was intended to make schools and teachers work harder—to improve students’ academic achievement—through the manipulation of test scores.  Test scores were required by NCLB to rise every year until all children reached a level deemed “proficient.”  Because in the real world not all children can score “proficient,” a mass of schools began to be labeled “failing,” and the U.S. Department of Education had to begin to offer waivers from this provision of the law.  Now the Common Core tests are being scored the same way. The cut score for “passing” is being set so high that in many places two-thirds of students are turning out to be failures, and, based on students’ scores, their teachers’ ratings  are collapsing.

We need to ask whether threatening children and their teachers with artificially imposed failing labels is the best way to motivate everyone to try harder. There is a growing consensus that this strategy is not improving our schools.

Sides in Polarized Education Debate Reflect Different Moral Frames

George Lakoff is the cognitive linguist who has published a series of books (Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, for example) about how people think about issues of public policy.  People don’t form political opinions, according to Lakoff, by examining empirical evidence.  They don’t evaluate how particular policies and programs are really operating in their communities or in the nation or the world.  Instead they vote their core values as those values are incorporated into the meta-narratives—frames—by which they understand how the world works.  Lakoff writes: “The debate is not a matter of objective, means-end rationality or cost-benefit analysis or effective public policy.  It is not just a debate about the particular issue…. The debate is about the right form of morality….” (Moral Politics, p 169)  If you want to speak to someone’s heart—and therefore that person’s vote—you must evoke the moral frame by which they understand how the world works.

On Monday, in her Washington Post Answer Sheet column, Valerie Strauss published a thoughtful piece along these lines from Arthur Camins, who examines the moral assumptions and values of those who promote creative disruption in education as the key to innovation.  (This blog has considered the issues around education policy based on the theory of creative disruption here.)  Camins wholeheartedly agrees with Lakoff about the role of values and morals in decisions that affect education policy: “It appears that the battles over what counts as better for education in the United States will be decided, not by the relative strength of evidentiary arguments, but instead by who most successfully claims the moral high ground.  Public acceptance of policy prescriptions does not turn on technical determinations, but on values identification and moral judgments.”

Camins believes today’s school “reformers” value individual merit, hard work, and motivation via competition and filter their understanding of what’s possible and how to get there through this lens: “Success (defined as beating the competition), reformers appear to reason, is influenced by competitive advantage, which derives from application of fixed capacities (some have it, and some do not) that are motivated by extrinsic reward.  As a result, policies focus on hiring and firing able teachers rather than on developing them.  ‘No-excuses’ charter schools filter out those who do not fit in or have the ‘grit’ to struggle through… Individualism and a failure to consider more equitable socio-economic structures lead reformers to an inequality vision that is extraordinarily constrained…. increasing the chances of some students to escape from poverty.  Reformers accept inequality in the United States, with its vast wealth disparity and competition for limited resources and rewards as inevitable, if not motivational, in an unquestionably superior system.  Hence, evidence of limited impact of charter schools, their tendency to increase segregation and the apparent folly of firing a few presumably ineffective teachers in order to have systemic impact are not viewed as problematic.  Systemic impact was never the goal.  What they envision passing through their filter is improved chances for some motivated children who with a stronger education will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the children stuck in schools that simply cannot be improved.”

Camins writes, “Maximizing competitive advantage represents a core value, while disruptive innovation is a moral choice about means, in which moral certainty about achieving goals excuses the collateral damage of getting there.  This vision accepts inequality as inevitable, if lamentable.”

Camins believes we must examine the moral issues behind the policies if we are to have any hope of correcting the damage of today’s school “reform.”  “An alternative core value is maximizing economic, social and political equity.  These values support an effort to alter the current structures to create an equitable society.  Such values lead to different moral choices about means, including ensuring a public education system in which: all students are known, valued and respected by adults and peers; all students develop their talents and expertise to be successful in work, life and citizenship; and, policy and decision makers are answerable to the public in order to ensure the common good.”

About today’s school “reformers” Camins writes: “I have little hope of dissuading these ardent reformers.  I do hope that shedding some light on the nature of their ideological filters will influence public perception and undermine the credibility and traction of their policies.”

I urge you to read and consider Camins’ thoughtful piece.

Campbell Brown and Joe Nocera Trash Teachers; Education Experts Respond

Again in the past week, two prominent media personalities—neither one a school teacher by profession or training and both with an ax to grind—have attacked school teachers, the programs that train teachers, and the teachers unions and due process rights protected in union contracts.

Of course Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, has launched her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, whose mission is to bring lawsuits across the states to get rid of due process protections for teachers.  This week her organization filed a second Vergara-type lawsuit in New York state, and Campbell Brown went on The Colbert Report to promote her new cause.  (This blog has covered Campbell Brown here, and here.)  Earlier this week, Valerie Strauss published an analysis of Campbell Brown’s interview with Stephen Colbert.  Strauss’s guest columnist is Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a former high school teacher and now assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.  Hadley Dunn fact-checks what Campbell Brown had to say; I urge you to read her careful analysis.  She concludes: “Ms. Brown… I wholeheartedly concur that educational policies should be determined by what is best for children.  What I remain unconvinced about, however, is how eliminating teachers’ rights is what is best for children.  We know that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions…. What research actually shows is best for children is teachers with long-term and sustained preparation in content and pedagogy; an equitable education that is not segregated by race and socioeconomic status; and student-centered, hands-on pedagogy that sustains students’ cultures and challenges them to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens.  None of this has anything to do with teacher tenure laws.”

And Joe Nocera (on the op ed page of the NY Times) has once again been attacking college training programs for teachers.  Last December Nocera praised the almost universally discredited report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization established by the Thomas Fordham Foundation in 2000 to promote alternative certification paths outside the teachers colleges.  As the education writer and UCLA professor of education,  Mike Rose wrote in response to Nocera’s December column, “Much has been written about the problems with this report, particularly about the significant limitations of its analysis, built primarily of one kind of information: syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials.  Because of NCTQ’s well-known animus toward teacher ed programs, only a small number of programs willfully complied with requests for this information, so the Center filed open records requests, litigated where it could, searched the Internet, queried students and districts, and so on—setting up a contentious dynamic that suffuses the Teacher Prep Review.  At several points, the authors appeal directly to readers to pressure their institutions to comply with NCTQ.  The gloves are off.”  Rose criticzes those, like Joe Nocera, who equate “good teaching with technique,” and who discount the value of  more theoretical coursework in philosophy and psychology of education, for example.

Nocera’s recent article repeats his bias for teacher training based on finite techniques and tricks. Nocera also attacks young teachers without backing up his accusations. He describes new teachers who “are basically left alone in the classroom to figure it out on their own.  In America, that’s how it’s always been done.  An inexperienced teacher stands in front of a class on the first day on the job and stumbles his or her way to eventual success.  Even in the best-case scenario, students are being shortchanged by rookie teachers who are learning on the job.”  He celebrates a professor at the University of Michigan who has broken down the practice of teaching into discrete practices, and writes, “Bell is pushing the idea that teachers should be prepared to teach—that they should have the tools and the skills—when they walk into that classroom on the first day on the job.  That is rarely the case right now.” How does Nocera know this is rarely the case?  He provides no evidence to back up this contention.  What about the  guided practicum experiences regularly provided and required by colleges of education including semester-long student teaching under master-teachers backed up by college professors?

You wouldn’t know it by reading Nocera or listening to Campbell Brown, but both of the nation’s large teachers unions endorse programs to support new teachers as they improve their practice.  The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers also explicitly support accountability through formal peer assistance and review programs, and are underwriting grants to help their locals strengthen such programs.  When school districts fail to provide strong programs to support new teachers through mentoring and time for collaborative planning among teachers across grade level teams, it is not because teachers unions oppose such programs.  In fact union locals regularly work to get planning time and mentoring included in their contracts.  When school districts balk, it is virtually always due to financial constraints in communities where state and local funding has continued to drop since 2008.  Programs to support teachers, to improve school climate, and to implement fair, high quality professional evaluation are uniformly endorsed by the national teachers unions and their locals.

For a more substantive approach to issues of education policy including issues around the training of teachers, I recommend a good book for end-of-summer reading.  Public Education Under Siege, edited by Mike Rose and the historian Michael B. Katz—a collection of wonderful essays on public education published by the University of Pennsylvania Press—was just re-released in paperback at an affordable price under $20.  Chapter 3, Targeting Teachers is one of my favorite essays.  Here David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, describes exactly the kind of learning that teachers undergo in their first years in the classroom.  It isn’t as Nocera describes, that new teachers stumble along because they don’t know what they are doing.  Well trained teachers across the country do know how to teach and they know what to do, but they likely haven’t yet had an opportunity to fully develop the teaching persona that will enable them to function comfortably in the classroom day after day, year after year:

Teachers need to develop a teaching persona to manage the relationship with their students.  Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum.  And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona.  That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities.  You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you.  You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded ‘teacher look.’  You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter so infections that they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.  Constructing such a persona is a complex task that takes years of development.  It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona falls in place and becomes second nature.  The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this.  The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands—grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students—and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests.” (p. 35)

So… to answer Joe Nocera, a professor of education describes the importance of technique and also much more.  And, to confront Campbell Brown… we learn why experience matters and developing strong committed professionals is far more central to building the profession than weeding out a handful of bad teachers. Professionals working in our schools along with the professors who prepared them agree that we  need to create a supportive learning climate  to enable teachers to continue to develop what they know how to do and to help children enjoy learning.