In a recent paper, the AFT's national leadership advocates for a "bar exam" for educators in order to improve the quality of teacher candidates by raising standards for entry into teaching. While there were a number of noteworthy ideas in the paper, such as more time spent observing masters teachers at work and an emphasis on educators within the profession setting standards, overall, this paper is just one more idea borne out of the notion that our teaching force and the education schools which produce them are, to paraphrase Michelle Rhee, “crap.”. It feeds directly into the oh-so-common "bad teacher" rhetoric. The report argues that if we raise GPA requirements, make ed schools more "rigorous," set higher standards of practice, and force prospective teachers to pass intense exams in subject matter and pedagogy THEN our schools will improve. Now, beyond the classist and racist implications of "improving" our teaching force (read whitening and drawing from higher income brackets), the very conversation itself is flawed. And I am upset with AFT for entering this conversation.
Don’t Feed the “Bad Teacher” Monster
This paper comes as retort to EdReformers everywhere who claim that current teacher preparation programs are creating poor quality teachers. Just last week we heard Arne Duncan with Jeb Bush and other corporate-reform-loving friends lament that “teacher education programs are ‘part of the problem.’” He went on to say “We need to push very, very hard in schools of education."
This whole conversation assumes, as always, that the major problem in education is the quality of our teachers. The assumption is that too many teachers are simply sub-par individuals and that a more selective process is necessary to weed out these low-quality people from the "best and the brightest". Although the AFT gives it a different spin, in many ways this report is the same "bad teacher" mythology peddled by EdReformers, seen on emotional display in Waiting for Superman, and put on repeat from every hedge-fund-manager/billionaire-turned-education-philanthropist out there. It's Wendy Kopp's appeal to get "new talent" in our classrooms regardless of amount of training or experience. It’s Arne Duncan calling teacher prep programs “broken”. The major problem, to these people, is always the individual teacher and the ed program that spawned them. And the only way to improve schools is to recruit better people from better universities with better rankings within those schools. And all those who do not meet these criteria must be fired and punished, because they do not have the innate qualities to be great. And those that do? Well we should reward them for their amazing greatness.
Let me be clear, it's not that I'm against finding ways to improve traditional teacher education programs. I just do not believe they are “broken”. They are not why so many teachers quit. They are not why so many low-income schools struggle. And they certainly have nothing to do with the so-called achievement gap. The achievement gap exists because of gross inequalities, racism, and poverty NOT as a result of low-quality teachers or their low-quality prep programs.
Besides, what has changed in recent years is the massive proliferation of fast-track alternative or online teaching degrees. We absolutely SHOULD crack down on these programs. But not through some "bar exam". Why can't the national unions fight in Congress to get rid of these terrible programs? Where was the AFT when Teach for America was pushing through changes in the “highly qualified teacher” stipulation in NCLB? Let's stand up to Teach for America, the University of Phoenix, and all the other programs placing unprepared teachers in our neediest classrooms.
I do see how, as Dana Goldstein points out , it sounds like Ms. Weingarten and the AFT were trying to shift some of the focus off the "bad teacher" in the classroom rhetoric by honing in on increasing standards at the front end of the process. But--this is all still within the conversation of improving education through improving teachers themselves. This move affirms the idea that we need higher entry standards for teacher preparation because our current batch of teachers is simply not good enough.
And I refuse to participate in that conversation anymore.
It’s time to change the conversation. Listen to any EdReformer give a speech. Inevitably, they will slip in the pressing need to "put a great teacher in every classroom" or some variation. Think about what that rhetoric means and assumes. Instead of the bizarre, meritocratic, elitist, "best and brightest" rhetoric trying to put the magical "best people" in the classroom, let's change the conversation from talk of great teachERS to great teachING. A focus on great teachING necessarily opens the conversation away from individual Super-Teachers and acknowledges that great teachING requires supportive teaching environments, training, experience, and can always be improved. Discussing great teachING highlights the inequities between schools and districts such as class size, resources, support services, work load, time for collaboration/planning, and all the other factors that contribute to what a teacher is able to do in her classroom. It also acknowledges the obstacles presented to great teachING from the effects of poverty.
Innately "Great" or Learned Professional Knowledge?
The mythical "great teachER" is innately and immediately ready to work miracles in the classroom. Little training and experience are necessary as long as that person is the "right kind of person". A quality candidate does not need more than the five weeks of preparation Teach for America provides. The assumption is that proper screening in the application process is enough, and the rest can be learned "on the job". Nevermind that that experimentation is on someone's precious child. To TFA, that parent should be grateful their child has exposure to such a quality human being. The great teachER conversation presupposes that there is no professional body of knowledge to be learned, pondered, or practiced, just specific character qualities to be screened for.
Great teachING, on the other hand, is a skill that must be developed over time and with guidance and care. TeachING can be improved, it not some static state of being. And in this context, preparation, training, and experience matter dramatically. By the way, great teachING can never be demonstrated through a rigorous exam, but rather must be observed and nurtured on an individual mentor/mentee basis. A strong basis in theory and extensive student teaching experiences are necessary for great teachING, because like any professional skill, it must be practiced and honed under the watchful eye of an expert.
Notice that within the conversation of great teachING, it makes sense why our successful affluent suburban schools hire teachers with Master's Degrees and Doctorates. They don't fill their schools with fresh, elite superstars with little formal training. Affluent schools acknowledge it is preparation, experience, and teaching contexts that lead to the great teachING found in these institutions. In addition, the teachers in affluent schools come from the same schools of education as the "failing" school in the nearby inner-city, and yet somehow those teachers succeed. If schools of education were truly “broken”, as our own Secretary of Education contends, then schools would fail everywhere. There is simply no evidence that our Ed Schools are doing a poor job.
When the focus rests on the great teachER, teaching contexts truly do not matter. A superstar teachER, can overcome any obstacle. "Poverty is not destiny" and anyone who claims otherwise is "making excuses". The great teachER--through their high expectations and belief that all children can learn--can work miraculous transformation. Throw in a little "grit" and "perseverance", those important innate qualities of greatness, and the achievement gap will magically disappear.
But great teachING requires teaching contexts conducive to greatness. In this new conversation, we are suddenly free to talk about inequalities in the system. These are not excuses, but realities. We can acknowledge that a teacher can perform phenomenal teachING in one context and horrible teachING in another. When classes are too large, with too many high-needs students, and few support staff or resources, we can speak the truth that the quality of the teachING will likely decrease. To improve teachING means to take on building equitable, fully-resourced classrooms for every teacher and learner. It means creating appropriate workloads and time for collaboration/planning. And no amount of firing and hiring of individual teachers in an unequal system will ever change that context.
We can also finally talk about poverty and the very real effects it will have on great teachING. Poverty does not need to be a taboo word. Instead, having the conversation of great teachING opens a frank discussion about even the best teachING's limitations.
Who is "Great" Exactly?
Also in the conversation of great teachING, there is room for all kinds of teachers: people who are inspirational, brainy, athletic, artistic, from the local neighborhood or another country, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, people who possess all types of multiple intelligences. We can be glad of this diversity, for the students we teach are just as diverse and need all kinds of people in their lives to inspire them to greatness. This conversation also allows for the occasional normal human "bad day" without it being the end of a career. Great teachING is not tied to a test score or a snapshot, but rather is a holistic picture of what happens in that classroom daily. And it can always be improved.
I urge Randi Weingarten and the AFT national leadership to stop participating in the "bad teacher" conversation. I understand wanting address the many claims by EdReformers that teacher prep is broken. But why not highlight our best examples? Why not remind people that it’s not traditional programs producing the vast majority of unprepared teachers? Why not point the spotlight back onto the real problems in preparation like the growing number of fast-track alternative programs and how some traditional programs have watered down their own programs to compete?
Or better yet, why engage in the “bad teachER” conversation at all? End the witch hunts. Focus the conversation on how to improve teachING. It is a much fuller, more inclusive, and more helpful conversation to have.