Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Cause for hope. That's right, hope!

A decade ago, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, then president of AERA, gave us a portrait of teacher education at a major crossroads – for better or for worse – and invited us to see where these divergent paths might lead us. At the time, in that hotel ballroom, her bleak portrayal of a future hostile to the ideals and values so many of us held, brought me to tears as I thought of my graduate students who were making so many sacrifices and working so hard to become exemplary urban educators in schools others had written off as “failing” or “ghetto” and doomed.
Why then today, when the draconian education reform ideas of Governor Cuomo have succeeded in a budget vote last night in Albany, do I feel there is cause for hope? Because last night I attended a lecture at Teachers College by the brilliant scholar and public intellectual David C. Berliner. Known especially for his exhaustive defense of public education, The Manufactured Crisis, a 1995 book co-authored with Bruce J. Biddle, Berliner is a master of reasoned argument and robust evidence, all presented with clarity and that wow factor that makes you wonder how anyone could possibly disagree with him. His latest book, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education, written with Gene Glass, is a must read. He began by characterizing current efforts to evaluate teachers and teacher education using standardized test scores of students as “ridiculous” and proceeded to enumerate a dozen slam dunk arguments against these misguided reforms. I was reminded of the spell Harry Potter learned from Professor Lupin to cast on a boggart, Riddikulus, transforming the scary into the humorous. Below is a photo of the final slide summarizing his reasons.
Berliner, D. C. (2015) "Evaluating Teachers and Teacher Education Using Student Test Data: A Misunderstanding"
            The Teachers College Sachs Lecture Series has set out to explore teacher education – its future, worth, and change (both reactive and transformative) – by examining curriculum, current practices, beliefs about knowledge, and needed research. Prior to Berliner, Marilyn Cochran Smith spoke of education reform, a “hot and huge topic” she defined as “a set of practices and policies, many of which were set into motion with NCLB, although with deeper roots, and continued or accelerated by RTTT. These were intended to fix America’s broken education system keeping with a neoliberal, market-based approach and a heavy focus on accountability.” She described the current state of teacher education as at best, uneven, and at worst, uninspired, ineffective, and out of touch.
            Many of the pessimistic ideas outlined in her AERA address ten years ago are now in motion. We are getting closer to a national database to track teacher education programs and their impact on student test scores, rewarding those effective in test results and enabling them to become, in her words, “lucrative national franchises.” Just look at the expansion of Relay. Politicians and policymakers continue to believe that creating competition and ranking programs, rewarding winners and sanctioning or closing down losers, is going to lead to improvement.
            What concerns me is that current ideas about teacher quality are terribly ill-defined, in large part because much of the research is based on statistics of standardized test results, which are horrible proxies for anything meaningful, and as Berliner pointed out, they measure next to nothing about teacher effects. Right now we are stuck, trapped in the bad idea that all that matters is successful teaching defined as making test scores go up. We have lost all regard for whether good teaching matters, whether the ends to means are ethical and justifiable. Driven by data Data DATA, it seems there is no trust in human judgment, or testimonials of stakeholders who can speak passionately to the difference teachers have made in their lives. They only want numbers.
            Take for example the latest incarnation of the bad ideas in teacher education reform, the Deans for Impact. Based in Austin, Texas with a million dollar start up grant, a group of deans from various colleges of education across the country have resolved to be “data driven, outcomes focused, transparent and accountable” and to use “empirically tested” features in their programs that improve student learning. On their website they boast, “We want to inject some of the values of start-up culture into higher education.” Their first order of business was to write a support statement in early March for the new accreditation organization, CAEP, stating “Deans for Impact stands ready to bring all hands on deck to help CAEP succeed.” Mercedes Schneider has already done the necessary investigation to connect the reform dots and money behind this venture. 
As Jorge Cabrera wrote recently, we are witnessing “a form a social engineering under the guise of ‘urgency’ and ‘reform’” and it comes as no surprise that these deans want to speed up the phase-in of new federal regulations by two years. A rush to implementation will create exactly the sort of chaos and havoc that allows them to ramp up the rhetoric of failure. Their litany of complaints is all too familiar: “teacher prep” is awful, there’s too much theory and not enough practice, it’s too easy to become a teacher. Backed by the simplistic critique of Arthur Levine, these ideas have paved the way for erroneous experiments of throwing beginners to the wolves with little more than a few weeks of boot camp preparation.  
            But the hopeful side has some promise and I believe that we have reached a tipping point. The misuse of value-added measures, or VAMs, in evaluating teachers and teacher education programs is poised for some harsh pushback. The AERA publication, Educational Researcher, has dedicated its latest issue to the VAM controversy. In a succinct and lucid editorial by my former professor at the University of Michigan, Stephen Raudenbush, he deplores the distorted use of VAMs. He cautions, “The hard question is how to integrate the new research on teachers with other important strands of research in order to inform rather than distort practical judgment.” He goes on to pose the question, “Does the answer to a precisely focused research question, by itself, have implications for practical action?” Aside from consistent and reliable evidence, he argues the need for a powerful theory of action to synthesize all of the evidence.

            Get ready for some intense work ahead of us. They will continue to put lipstick on the pig with slick ads, propaganda and celebrity endorsements, and splashy rallies, but money and political power can only go so far. Parents, teachers, professors, and students of all ages must work together on their common educational goals to restore sanity for the good of our universities, schools, and communities.


  1. The just approved NYS budget embeds the CAEP standards for schools of education, which will lead "corrective action plans" and probably the decertification of programs. Of course as soon they staple the chip in the earlobe we'll all become superfluous

  2. I rather wonder if/suspect that recent gains may be triggering increased push back in response to gains made resisting bad reform and privatization. I see similar happening with adjunct academic labor issues following the success of National Adjunct Walkout Day

  3. An update from Berliner via Gene Glass, posted by Diane Ravitch, with chilling commentary especially from the ever-insightful Laura Chapman: