Dear special education colleagues, how many times this week alone have you heard rhetoric about the failure of American schools & teachers to properly educate tomorrow's citizens? The fear that we aren't preparing our students for "competition in a global economy?" The idea that we, teachers and teacher educators, are to blame? If you haven't heard it yet today, just tune in - the messages are everywhere.
I was inspired to write this blog post after I read this open letter to college presidents and deans, written by former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan's tenure, which spanned 2009-2016, was marked with controversy, like the time that he claimed opposition to the Common Core was based on the disappointment of "white suburban mothers" who realized that their kids "weren't as brilliant as they thought they were." Yes, he REALLY said that (read about it on educational historian Diane Ravitch's blog here).
But fear not, Secretary Duncan moved on from blaming parents to blaming teachers, and now also blaming teacher educators. Please, allow me to dissect Secretary Duncan's work of dart.
Secretary Duncan starts off strong - schools of education ARE in fact critical to our future - and to the success of children. And certainly education scholars and researchers have argued for years that teaching is complex and grounded in social justice, and of course should be viewed as a respected profession.
But here is where his letter goes non-sequitor. He next suggests that "problems" with teachers are in large part the result of a failed and outdated system of teacher preparation, one which is lacking rigor. But in reality, the very serious problem is this...he bases this assertion on a highly controversial report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, the self-appointed "watchdog" of teacher preparation (spoiler alert: bark bigger than bite).
And herein is an example of how just a little, tiny bit of information can do a lot of damage. NCTQ's ratings of teacher ed programs - which were SCATHING - concluded that schools of education were inflating grades, and found a strong link between "high grades and lack of rigorous coursework" (executive summary, p. 1). The major problem with this is that the NCTQ "report" was based ENTIRELY on document reviews. But wait - document reviews of...are you ready? Commencement brochures (mostly). So this means they never analyzed the conditions, classes or assignments on which these grades are based. They failed to interview students (or look at their student records), instructors, or university processes, such as admissions requirements. Basing their assertion on a document review of commencement brochures (largely found online), course catalogues and college websites is so ludicrous it doesn't deserve further space. If you need more reasons to discount this, check out their previous reports, which have also been highly criticized, found to have serious research design flaws, and be both inaccurate and lacking validity.
Yet Secretary Duncan's authority makes big waves with the public, and given his visibility and his position, these statements, which lack evidence and grounding in any substantial evidentiary base, are accepted as FACT by the public. And when he then goes on to laud "data-driven" and "outcomes-focused" accountability, a theme he popularized during his reign of terror, he's making reference to things like value-added measures (VAM). VAM uses student test scores to estimate the effects of student learning, a model which has been extended to evaluate teacher education programs on the basis of their graduates' students. I bet you can guess the problem. The evidence is weak or non-existent for the use of VAM in teacher education. Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley has laid this out so expertly I won't even attempt - just go to her blog and pick ANY post. I like this one).
Secretary Duncan ends by suggesting that teachers should be held to high standards like their counterparts in engineering, business, and medicine - another nod to elevating the status of the teaching profession (I agree). But as a profession, teaching and teacher education have suffered from jurisdictional issues -- exacerbated when groups of reformers like NCTQ decide they can whip us into shape, and latch on to simple fixes, alternative certification programs, technical skills, and fixes-du-jour - mostly with a very, very thin evidence base.
I often say, especially to my graduate students, that as education professionals, we need to be able to answer our critics. No one disagrees that teachers should be well-prepared, expert, thoughtful, complex thinkers. No one wants to see our profession elevated in status more than we do. But until we focus on the real issues contributing to struggling students, such as the overemphasis on standardized tests; learner diversity (which we as a profession have long known is part of the human condition); uneven school resources; and social conditions, such as poverty, which contribute to students' ability to access educational curriculum, we'll continue to evade actual solutions to the problems that teachers and teacher education face.
And lastly, Secretary Duncan....we love the suggestion that teaching should be compared to respected professions such as engineering, medicine, and business - how about we start with teacher salaries and resources commensurate with those fields? Sign me up!!