Does Anyone in Education Reform Care if Teaching Is a Profession?

04/06/2015 03:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015
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Bob Braun, retired veteran reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger and current independent blogger, reported in March that state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson announced that Newark teachers seeking graduate education would only get district stipends if they did all of their study at the Relay "Graduate School of Education." For those who are unfamiliar, Relay "Graduate School of Education" was singled out as an innovator by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last November, but it is a "Graduate School of Education" that has not a single professor or doctoral level instructor or researcher affiliated with it. In essence, it is a partnership of charter school chains Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, and it is housed in the Uncommon Schools affiliated North Star Academy. Relay's "curriculum" mostly consists of taking the non-certified faculty of the charter schools, giving them computer-delivered modules on classroom management (and distributing copies of Teach Like a Champion), and placing them under the auspices of the "no excuses" brand of charter school operation and teachers who already have experience with it.

In the case of North Star Academy in Newark, that means that the teachers who earn certification through Relay "Graduate School of Education" will have "instructors" who meet state requirements for faculty degrees by the school claiming "equivalency" because they are such amazing teachers who get amazing results. In Relay's words that is "the equivalent of the leading entrepreneur teaching in MBA programs or the leading writers and artists teaching in MFA programs." That's quite a lofty claim, especially when Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has demonstrated (repeatedly) that the "awesome" results of North Star are deeply connected to how the school has many fewer students with high needs due to poverty, language, or disabilities issues, how it suspends students at rates much higher than district schools, and how an African American male who enrolls in 5th grade has only a 40 percent chance of staying at the school until 12th grade.

So, there you have it: a "Graduate School of Education" without a single professor of education, offering teacher certification and degrees to the employees of the charter school in which it is housed, specializing in a curriculum that emphasizes teaching and discipline strategies that successfully drive away more than half the students whose families deliberately sought out the school in the first place. And THIS will be the sole provider of compensated continuing education for all of the teachers in the Newark Public Schools.

What makes the embrace of Relay "Graduate School of Education" in Newark, Trenton, and Washington D.C. so frustrating is that university-based teacher preparation continues to have the standards for our graduates raised by the very same entities that think Relay should be allowed to call itself a graduate school and confer certification and degrees. Trenton, in particular, is barreling ahead with proposed revisions to teacher certification rules that university-based programs will need to adhere to whether or not there is evidence that they will result in better teachers. Currently, the young people who wish to become teachers must meet entrance criteria upon matriculating at our school. Once in, they must maintain a minimum GPA to take classes in their education major. In addition to a full major in education courses, they must have a major in a content field within the College of Arts and Sciences, and they must take additional coursework in a liberal arts core to fulfill both university requirements and state requirements of a minimum number of credits in liberal arts courses. Our program has extensive field work prior to student teaching that go beyond current state requirements that our students must coordinate with their full time class schedule. The state also requires that all students seeking certification pass Praxis II examinations. Various changes to the code requirements are under consideration in Trenton, all of which will make it more difficult for people to seek certification at universities. Entrance requirements may be increased, or potential students can demonstrate "readiness" to begin their studies with another standardized exam. The state is considering requiring what would amount to a year-long student teaching experience, and the next version of the state code will almost certainly require teacher candidates to submit a performance assessment to the state which, for all intents and purposes, will require most universities to adopt Pearson's EdTPA assessment.

All of this probably sounds great if you agree uncritically with the self-appointed teacher quality watchdog National Council on Teacher Quality that declared teacher preparation an "industry of mediocrity" in a report so exhaustively researched that they failed to visit a single university campus and gleaned most of their quality "data" from online catalogs and program descriptions. For more cautious observers, changes like these might be intriguing, but they come with questions and trade offs. The biggest question is whether there is any evidence at all that trimming the available corps of potential teachers entering preparation and then holding those who make it in to more rigorous benchmarks will result in better learning in their eventual classrooms. Critics of traditional teacher preparation often criticize the academic caliber of students entering teacher preparation without noting a very obvious point: if being the best student was absolutely essential to being the best teacher, then the nation's professoriate would enjoy a much better reputation for teaching skills.

However, even beyond the question of evidence, advocates for increasing requirements on traditional teacher preparation need to acknowledge there are tradeoffs for increasing standards and requirements this way. Increasing the necessary test scores for entry into a program means that certain populations of students may not be able to even begin teacher preparation and prove their ability in a timely fashion and be effectively locked out of undergraduate study in the field (you can have one guess about from which communities most students who might not meet this hurdle would likely come). A full year in the classroom for student teaching is an appealing idea -- that comes with massive logistical challenges for students trying to get all of their coursework completed in just 4 years and might make undergraduate preparation unworkable for transfer students and community college graduates. A state required performance assessment is an idea worth exploring, but with indications that the state is willing to simply farm this out of a major testing corporation at a cost of $300 out of pocket for students, there should be a robust debate on the instrument itself and the ethics of tying up another certification requirement with a corporate revenue stream.

Assuming these issues could be resolved favorably and equitably, there is another issue to consider. Current conditions and proposed changes all appear aimed at trying to ensure that high caliber students and high caliber students only enter and make it through traditional teacher preparation. That goal might be defensible, but what, exactly, is Trenton, or any other state capital for that matter, doing to make teaching an attractive prospect for such high caliber students? Chris Christie breaking his own pension reform obligations probably isn't a big incentive. Despite claims to the contrary, New Jersey teacher salaries are not comparable to other professionals with similar education levels. In my 22 years in education and higher education, I have yet to meet a single teacher who thinks the distorting stakes attached to current high stakes examinations would be a job perk. The callous havoc unleashed upon school districts under state control by Trenton appointed superintendents cannot make many of the state's best and brightest want to work in urban schools. While Governor Chris Christie has not yet traveled to the New Jersey Education Association annual meeting in Atlantic City to personally beat up a teacher on the boardwalk, he has yelled at several of the state's teachers in person and accused them of using students "like drug mules" for a Project Democracy assignment near school elections. All of this is certainly going to entice New Jersey's best students to accrue debt and work hard to enter a profession held in such esteem by the highest offices in the state:

Governor Chris Christie uplifting the teaching profession again.

The disconnect between allowing Relay "school" to operate while placing these requirements on traditional programs and leveling this much disrespect upon working teachers is staggering. To a degree, those of us in academic teacher preparation have ourselves to blame for some of this. As the first wave of the "failing schools narrative" took shape with the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, numerous reports and proposals were released that focused upon "professionalizing" the field of teaching, conjuring a future where the teacher workforce more closely resembled higher status professions in career trajectory and in clinical preparation. While the wholesale transformation never happened, the clinical preparation ideology is well entrenched within different teaching standards, accreditation organizations, and among no small share of teacher educators themselves, and David Labaree of Stanford University noted in the early nineties that this focus emphasized teaching as a technical, rational, activity and potentially shut out public input the way medical fields protect their specialized knowledge. Indeed, by accepting wide swaths of the teaching as technical/rational viewpoint, teacher education has limited the role of powerful visions of teacher development that embrace all of teaching's complexities and, as Ruth Vinz wrote, begin "to look behind the act, the formula, the answers to the causes, conditions, and contexts." We have, in fact, participated in portraying teaching as technical practice whose most important aspects are measurable, so it is little wonder that policy makers are hurling a runaway train through that opening.

However, given the promotion of Relay "Graduate School of Education" and given the continuous disrespect and degradation of working conditions heaped upon teachers, I cannot accept that Trenton is really trying to elevate the profession -- in either a technical manner or not. Taken together, the current and proposed policy environment seems more geared towards greatly decreasing the number of teachers who obtain certificates via traditional teacher preparation while opening the door for many, many more to enter teaching via what amounts to on the job training without ever having studied for the job in the first place. Trenton, intentionally or not, is engineering a shortage of teachers with credentials from undergraduate study, which will result in more schools like Relay "Graduate School of Education" being "needed" to fill in the gap by certifying their own employees. Those who survive the "churn and burn" for which charter schools are famous would have state issued credentials to move on to fully public schools.

Or perhaps they won't. I find it hard to believe that today's education "reformers" really believe that teaching is a profession at all. If they did, the pressure to make certain only top students enter university-based teacher preparation and then to make sure those students have rigorous preparation would be coupled with similar efforts to raise the attractiveness of teaching as a lifelong career. Instead, reformers act as if they believe that teaching is something you do in your twenties when you are idealistic and want to "give something back" -- and then you move on to a "real career" in some other sector. If your charter school bosses like you, perhaps they will make you a school principal before you are 30, or they will set you on a path to become Commission of Education for the state of New York when you are only 36 years old. But mostly, they will thank you for a few years of service and see you off to your grown up life outside of education. After all, reformers' favorite schools -- "no excuses" charters -- manage to train their students into "little test taking machines" without very many career teachers, so why should reformers really value teachers who dedicate their entire adult lives to teaching? That people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are dedicated and developing professionals who wish to remain in the classroom must seem like an amusing and quaint anachronism to them.

The teachers I know and work with are not laughing.

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