“If half of the 1450 places that train teachers went out of business tomorrow, we’d be better off.” The Harvard professor paused. “And, with very few exceptions, it wouldn’t matter which half.”
His is a widely held view of teacher education: too many institutions doing a lousy job. Most teachers I’ve met over the years weren’t happy with, or proud of, their training, which, they said, didn’t prepare them for the ‘real world’ of teaching.
And so the question is, HOW to put half of the institutions out of business? Should we trust ‘the market’ or rely on government regulations?
The federal government thinks that tighter regulation of these institutions is the answer. After all, cars that come out of an automobile plant can be monitored for quality and dependability, thus allowing judgments about the plant. Why not monitor the teachers who graduate from particular schools of education and draw conclusions about the quality of their training programs?
That’s the heart of the new regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education this week: monitor the standardized test scores of students and analyze the institutions their teachers graduated from. Over time, the logic goes, we’ll discover that teachers from Teacher Tech or Acme State Teachers College generally don’t move the needle on test scores. Eventually, those institutions will lose access to federal money and be forced out of business. Problem solved!
Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., announced the new regulations in Los Angeles. “As a nation, there is so much more we can do to help prepare our teachers and create a diverse educator workforce. Prospective teachers need good information to select the right program; school districts need access to the best trained professionals for every opening in every school; and preparation programs need feedback about their graduates’ experiences in schools to refine their programs (emphasis added). These regulations will help strengthen teacher preparation so that prospective teachers get off to the best start they can, and preparation programs can meet the needs of students and schools for great educators.”
Work on the regulations began five years ago and reflect former Secretary Arne Duncan’s views. “The system we have for training teachers lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and is given to extreme grade inflation that leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk,” he wrote earlier this month in an ‘open letter’ to the deans of schools of education. And, naturally, some see the Department’s actions as a continuation of Duncan’s discredited ‘test and punish’ approach with teachers. “It is, quite simply, ludicrous to propose evaluating teacher preparation programs based on the performance of the students taught by a program’s graduates,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said, adding “It’s stunning that the department would evaluate teaching colleges based on the academic performance of the students of their graduates when ESSA—enacted by large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate last December—prohibited the department from requiring school districts to do that kind of teacher evaluation.”
It’s a classic Democratic approach to problem-solving: regulate, regulate, regulate. But the flaw here isn’t regulations per se. Unfortunately, the Administration not attacking the problem, which is not teacher-training but teaching itself!
Even if half of the 1450 training programs are mediocre or worse, the reason we have that many programs is the excessive churn in the field. Teaching has become a crummy job; teachers leave and have to be replaced; and those replacements have to be trained somewhere. Because about 40 percent of teachers leave the classroom sometime in their first five years of teaching, for an annual ‘churn’ rate of 8 percent, schools are constantly hiring. Churn creates the market for training institutions. Improve the profession (higher pay at the outset, more opportunities for collegiality and cooperation, a greater say in curriculum, and a serious role in the assessment of students), and the exodus would slow down.
Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, has more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate. Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements. If 10% opt out, the K-12 schools need 14,500 trained replacements.
But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education. Soon, that training program would shrink, and lesser programs in Illinois would wither and die.
I don’t mean to pick on Illinois. You can find similar evidence in most states.
Strengthen training, increase starting pay and improve working conditions, and teaching might attract more of the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ whereas right now it’s having trouble attracting anyone, according to the Learning Policy Institute, which reported that
“Between 2009 and 2014, the most recent years of data available, teacher education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35% reduction. This amounts to a decrease of almost 240,000 professionals on their way to the classroom in the year 2014, as compared to 2009.”
Ironically, that’s ‘the market’ at work, but just not in the way we would like. Aware of the so-called ‘war on teachers’ conducted by the Administration and the School Reform crowd, young people are making the rational decision to choose other lines of work.
However, if we act to improve the lives of teachers, ‘the market’ will work on our behalf. And if we allow the market to end the constant churn, the need for 1400 training institutions will evaporate. Programs would have to compete for students, and many–maybe half–would not survive.
An improved profession will draw young people in and keep them. If that happens, substandard training, and the institutions that provide it, are likely to become a thing of the past
What we are doing reminds of the parable of the dangerous cliff: A town playground abuts a cliff, and children keep falling off and getting seriously hurt. The town leaders gather to find a solution. One proposes building a fence to prevent injuries. Others recommend building a hospital at the base of the cliff, arguing that a hospital will mean more jobs for adults. What’s more, federal and state grants will pay for the building, so it won’t cost taxpayers anything. In the parable, of course, they ignore the real problem and opt for building the hospital. That’s what the Administration is doing here, it seems to me.
I am a firm believer in the adage, “Harder to Become, Easier to Be.” We need to raise the bar for entry into the field and at the same time make it easier for teachers to succeed. This approach will do the opposite; it will make teaching more test-centric and less rewarding.
This latest attempt to influence teaching and learning is classic School Reform stuff. It worships at the altar of test scores and grows out of an unwillingness to face the real issues in education (and in society). While it may be well-meaning, it’s misguided and, at the end of the day, harmful.