Do the suggested teacher education reform policies work?

Will policies that create low salaries and status, poor working conditions and denigrate teachers help teacher educators attract the best and brightest and encourage them to inspire their teacher candidates so that they in turn will inspire their future students? Will laws and policies that limit or bypass the authority and autonomy of teacher educators and their programs accomplish these goals? Popular policies for teacher education reform seem to de-professionalize teaching and seek quick and easy measures of performance that are not valid.

 The new philanthropists “believe good leadership, effective management, compensation based on performance, competition, the targeting of resources, and accountability for results can all pay dividends for education as well as for foundations” (Colvin, 2005, p. 37). These policies though seemingly based on common sense and thus deemed inarguable,  suggest none of the qualities philanthropists seek are evident in current policy. Some reforms may help in some circumstances, but may not improve the system as a whole. For example, views of good leadership and effective management differ from person to person, from time to time and from situation to situation. What may work for one person at one time in one situation may not work in another. Good leadership should look different in schools and classrooms than it does in political or financial organizations. Management, performance, competition and accountability should all look different as well as the social dynamics and realities vary in each institution.

Some reformers seem to forget that teaching should or could be a calling and that many among the best and brightest go into teaching because they want to be teachers, not to become rich or powerful. Yes, teachers should be among the best and brightest in our society, but they also need to have the commitment and character needed to be successful in the classroom. Politicians and philanthropists could create policies that encourage these qualities; however, they seem to be doing the opposite. It is very hard to legislate for the character, excellence, professionalism and commitment needed to be a good teacher. The superficial standardized tests the states use for entry into the profession are, at best, selection criterion that only measure a very limited and superficial slice of one of the many capacities, basic cognitive skills, needed to be a good teacher.

Why then do the United States Department of Education (USDOE) and foundation policies strongly encourage states to expand testing, alternate certification, and a host of other destructive policies? Policies that advantage alternative routes to teacher certification and bypass accredited teacher education programs and the high standards and strong clinical experiences they require seems more about privatization and corporatization than educational excellence. Why are leaders not advocating for similar policies in the professions that are already privatized and profit-motivated?

The number of new alternative-route-prepared public school teachers hired has risen to about one out of three nationally. In 1997-98, 6,028 teachers were certified through alternative routes, but by 2007-08, that number had increased tenfold to 62,000 (Feistritzer, 2010). With current support by politicians and philanthropists, we can expect it to increase exponentially in the future.  These alternative routes to teacher certification vary in quality. Many are offered through universities and some have higher standards and expectations than traditional programs. However, most alternative routes to certification require less of, and give less to. their teacher candidates than do traditional university-based programs.

Though some politicians call for more clinical experience and “rigorous performance-centered assessment” (Snyder, p. 10), their reform policies allow alternative routes to certification to avoid them. While political leaders call for teachers to be better prepared, their policies both limit the quality of their preparation as well as the requirements for continuing education and ongoing certification. How is reducing our expectations of teachers through the lowering of requirements to become a teacher and of those needed to obtain an advanced professional certificate improving teacher education or education?

Reform policies that allow quick entry into teaching and educational administration for those who do not want to go through university programs may be justified when there are no better options. However, to criticize the low standards of the status quo while praising the “new and improved” alternatives that require even less seems hypocritical. The rhetoric behind these proposals seems to be aimed at criticizing teacher education as a failed enterprise while endorsing alternative routes as the solution to our educational problems. They portray teacher education as broken so they can fix it with their “visionary” policies. The trend is to allow any alternative that claims to be better or cheaper to certify teachers and administrators.

Traditionally prepared students generally have extensive field experiences and course work to prepare them for the classroom, while alternative routes to teaching require much less. Teach For America (TFA) is the most well known, prestigious and popular of these alternative-route programs. I applaud what it has done to attract some of the best and brightest to teach in some of our most challenging schools and to assure the quality of its programs and candidates; however, it does not provide a sustainable model for preparing the teachers our nation needs, nor is it representative of the many less reputable alternative-route programs.

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About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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