Julie Gorlewski, State University of New York at New Paltz
Response to Raising the Bar: Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession (A report of the American Federation of Teachers Teacher Preparation Task Force, 2012)
As an educator who has dedicated my professional life to continuous improvement in the field, I appreciate the collaborative efforts of my colleagues in working to enhance teaching and learning. However, in the service of its claims of intended improvement, this report reinforces inflammatory, deceptive, and fallacious rhetoric – rhetoric that is damaging for students, teachers, and the future of the profession itself.
The document is grounded in the notion that the profession is ineffective, substandard, and intrinsically flawed. This assertion is emphasized through comparisons with other, presumably more authentic “professions,” specifically those associated with law and medicine. The claim that teacher education and induction are ineffective is erroneous; the myth is perpetuated as part of the attack on public education, labor unions, and the teaching profession. Although using student test scores as a measure of teacher performance is problematic, since it is being used as evidence of failure, it can also be used as evidence of success. That is: When US student performance – controlled for poverty – is compared with student performance in other nations, the US performance consistently ranks near the top.
In terms of the idea that teacher candidates should pass a test in order to elevate the profession to the status of law or medicine, there are numerous aspects of this argument that are specious. Implicit in this argument is that the professions of law and medicine are free from inferior practitioners, and that malpractice and corruption are prevented by rigorous, elevated standards. Moreover, neither the bar nor the medical boards require a videotaped performance by a pre-service candidate. To be certified, teachers already pass a set of professional examinations. Another examination will not make the profession more “professional.”
In considering the preparation deficiencies identified in the survey of new teachers, it is essential to apply common sense and the experience of those of us who practice in the field. One key question is this: Who ever feels completely ready for new, challenging endeavors? As an experienced educator, I still reflect on my practice and try to improve. I still have the “unprepared” dream the night before a new semester begins. As a teacher educator, I encourage my teacher candidates to embrace their anxieties as evidence of their dedication and enthusiasm. Teachers, like professionals in every field, become more confident as they become more experienced. Who is ready for parenthood? For retirement? For teaching a course the first time? We will never be ready; we must aim for reflective practice and continuous improvement.
The document has several specific statements that reveal misconceptions and reinforce biases:
We must do away with a common rite of passage, whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they (and their students) sink or swim. Such a haphazard approach to the complex and crucial enterprise of educating children is wholly inadequate….We need a systemic approach to preparing teachers for a successful career in the classroom and a more rigorous threshold to ensure that every teacher is actually ready to teach. If both are done well, a teaching credential will be meaningful. (p. 1)
These statements are insulting to those of us who are currently active in the teacher education profession. We have rigorous standards for teacher candidates. Our programs have been duly accredited and are staffed with committed professionals who are engaged in scholarship and reflective practice in the field. I have never supported, nor have I ever witnessed, the characterization of the induction into the profession described in the opening sentence. It is deeply, profoundly offensive; and the fact that the wounding words are issued from my professional union is depressing beyond words. If these are our friends, who are our enemies?
The top-performing countries spend substantial time and resources to ensure that standards, programs and entry assessments are aligned and coherent, while the United States’ system is a patchwork lacking consistency. (p. 1)
When US student performance is controlled for poverty, our student achievement (and, by extrapolation, our teacher performance), consistently ranks near the top. In a pluralistic nation, standardization and consistency do not guarantee quality. Standardization is not beneficial for students in a multicultural society, nor is it beneficial for teacher candidates who will be working with those students.
Common Core State Standards (CCSS): The AFT supports aligning professional teaching standards with the instructional expectations of the CCSS. All teachers should demonstrate the core knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to implement these new standards. The AFT continues to support teachers in this endeavor by providing an array of materials, resources, networks and ongoing professional opportunities focused on the CCSS. (p. 10).
Despite the report’s continual refrain about the significance of “evidence,” the CCSS has absolutely no evidence of effectiveness. Assessments and curriculum are being developed at a frantic pace; however, the standards remain unproven. It is bad enough that K-12 instruction and assessment will be aligned to these unproven standards, but to link teacher preparation to them is absurd. The CCSS, and its related assessments, represent a massive financial opportunity – not an authentic learning opportunity.
Among its successes, the document notes that the AFT has initiated: The launch of Share My Lesson, the nation’s largest free online collection of classroom resources created by teachers, for teachers, including a new section of materials for curricula based on the Common Core State Standards. (p. 6)
I explain to teacher candidates that if there were a formula for teaching, we would give it to them. If there were a standard way of “delivering content” in preparation for assessments (or life), we would publish and sell it. Educator preparation should not be perceived as a technical exercise linked to particular instructional technologies or sets of facts. This is a reductive, instrumental approach that limits the experiences of learners and, ultimately, will have negative effects on the diversity of the profession and the ability of young people to participate meaningfully in society.
I remain committed to the principle of continuous improvement in the profession that I love. I am not interested in maintaining the status quo, nor will I participate in the decimation of an essential, proven profession. As a union member and lifelong educator, this document represents a form of self-loathing that may very well embolden the forces aligned against us. Of course, it makes sense to explore options for more clinically-rich teacher preparation; our profession – like all professions – can always improve. That is what our scholarship is all about. Please consider reframing the plan in ways that build on the tremendous strengths of our field and all those who practice within it.