More "data" is the last thing colleges of education need
When President Obama was still settling in to his first term in the Oval Office, Education Secretary Arne Duncan had harsh criticism for teacher preparation programs. Because of their low overhead and high enrollment, Duncan expressed his concern that these programs were “cash cows”. “By almost any standard,” he said, “many if not most of [these programs] are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom.” One such standard could be a 2006 report by Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s own Teachers College, which found that 58% of alumni claimed that they were not adequately prepared to teach. (Missing from that report was any data pulled from faculty or alumni of Teachers College; Levine claimed it was to eliminate any appearance of bias, although it seems biased to not put an institution you presided over for 12 years under the same microscope as the rest of the nation’s colleges.) In the ongoing debate between whether or not teaching is a profession (like medicine) or a craft (like journalism), Levine has historically been on the side of those who favor more time in a college classroom or laboratory school and less time in the trenches. A 2011 op-ed written in the Washington Post hinted at the kind of reform that will sound familiar to those who read this week’s news from the White House:
“These programs should be evaluated primarily on the basis of outcomes —student learning in a particular teacher’s class compared to the classes of that teacher’s peers. A generation ago, we simply did not have this sort of data. Now we do, and it is incumbent on us to use it.”
Duncan and Obama appear to agree — a cornerstone of their plan is to encourage states to create, maintain, and rely on a database of high-quality teacher education programs when deciding how to distribute federal financial aid to prospective teachers. If these databases are anything like the ones Levine and Duncan envison, they will undoubtedly rely on the results of teacher evaluation systems. The same teacher evaluation systems which are increasingly dependent on student’s standardized test scores, of course. And that’s why this plan is just more of the same.
If colleges are going to be rated on their effectiveness based on graduate’s performance in the classroom, how can that performance be weighted so heavily upon an equation with so many unpredictable variables? An Ivy League school might churn out some great teachers who end up in some of the lowest-performing schools in the nation. When those teacher’s test scores come back and their “peers” who ended up just down the road in a wealthy suburban school are celebrating huge gains, is the conclusion really to be made that one teacher or another was prepared more adequately? The achievement gap (this time between the teachers rather than the students) will probably be the least wide in low-quality programs; high enrollment and a bar set too low might result in medicore or ineffective teachers that end up in mediocre or ineffective schools, but when compared to each other, there might not be such an obvious difference in their post-graduation performance.
Unlike Arne Duncan, I did graduate from one of those “cash cows”, and in many ways I would agree with him if asked whether or not my alma mater prepared me for the realities of a 21st-century classroom. The fact of the matter is, teaching is both a profession and a craft. All of the theory and the hypothetical lesson plans in the world cannot prepare you for the unpredictability of a public school. Each student is different. Each student’s family is different. Each student’s previous educational background and attitude towards education is different. And that’s the fundamental reason why the solution to failing teacher education programs can’t be solved in the same way that we are fixing failing schools— just knowing that you are failing is not enough!
My prediction for the outcome of this proposal, if there is one, is that colleges will actually end up doing less to prepare their graduates to teach in diverse and challenging classroom environments, because in order to protect their status or ranking, colleges will want fewer of their graduates to end up teaching in those classrooms. Teach for America and other alternative routes to teaching certification will not be so disdained among those who train future teachers in a traditional four-year program, because the schools that TFA serves are “risky”. Meanwhile, those colleges that already attract the best and the brightest and send their graduates into thriving school districts in wealthy regions will delight in seeing how well those teacher’s students score on the tests that they are disproportionately prepared for. More of the same, more of the same.
Update: In a New York Times article published Friday, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University’s education department warned about the risk of judging a prep program’s effectiveness based upon the performance of their graduates in heterogeneous classrooms, and said things more eloquently than I could:
“If we evaluated doctors based on that kind of measure, nobody would train AIDS physicians. They’d all train pediatricians who worked in the suburbs where kids are pretty healthy to begin with.”