Teacher Education "Reforms" Hurt Children and Learning

10/31/2016 06:38 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2017

This month the United States Department of Education published new regulations that are supposed to ensure "new teachers are ready to succeed in the classroom and that every student is taught by a great educator." Is every baseball player great? How about every doctor? But somehow these regulations will ensure that the United States only has great teachers.

To ensure "great educators," states will be required to track teacher education program effectiveness. How? By looking at the test scores of K-12 students that graduates of their programs are teaching. Which means increased pressure on everyone on every level to push test prep over real teaching and learning.

I do not pretend to have ever been a "great educator." But let me give an example of how ridiculous this regulation is based on my own experience as a high school teacher. In 1990 I was teaching at a troubled inner-city high school that was later closed. Approximately 40% of the students in my academic classes passed the state standardized United States history exam at the end of eleventh grade. In 1993 I was teaching in a high school with a much larger middle-class student population and 90% of my students passed the same exam. Based on the 1990s results, the School of Education I attended would have been rated a failing program, but suddenly in 1993 it was a great success.

If the federal proposals were only ridiculous, maybe I could forgive them. But unfortunately, they are destructive. "Great" teachers, or at least those who want to be labeled as great, will avoid working at lower performing schools with students that need them the most. Schools of Education that want to be rated "great" will avoid placing pre-service teachers at lower performing schools and encourage their graduates to steer clear of urban minority students. It will be a debacle.

Readers know I am a retired New York City high school teacher and a teacher educator at Hofstra University. I have always had some issues with university-based teacher education programs. Classes can be too theoretical. Professors are not always grounded in school culture and practice. The nuts and bolts of teaching are important.

But I also think Schools of Education play a crucial role in preparing future teachers. Common Core standards, state curriculum frameworks, textbook publishers, and so-called education reformers all claim they want students to become critical thinkers. Somehow critical thinking is supposed to emerge from packaged standardized instruction and assessments delivered by semi-skilled automatons to well-controlled students. Anyone who knows schools and students knows this is highly unlikely.

Schools of Education try to prepare teachers who will be curriculum creators, willing experimenters, and classroom decisions makers, qualities that define critical thinking, but also qualities that scripted teaching programs do not value or permit. Schools of Education advocate for teachers and schools that respect student and community diversity, develop multicultural curriculum that touch on the lives of their students, and exhibit concern for children as complex human beings and as active learners, again qualities that scripted teaching programs do not value or permit. These are all reasons why so-called reforms in teacher preparation and attempts to eliminate Schools of Education are also attacks on children and learning.

Ken Zeichner of the University of Washington reviewed several leading alternative teacher certification programs and found "The promotion and expansion of independent teacher preparation programs rests not on evidence, but largely on ideology." He called the teaching and management practices drummed into prospective teachers by some of these programs totally unacceptable.

In previous Huffington Posts I criticized the SCALE/Pearson/edTPA student teacher portfolio evaluations for pushing prospective teachers into boxes and forcing them to use scripts, interfering with their ability to learn how to become effective teachers. I also mocked the Education Testing Service (ETS) for proposing that student teachers be evaluated using online programs and avatars instead of live students, as if we want teachers focused on the screen and not on children as developing human beings.

In response to these posts, I received information that makes it clear proposals promoted by so-called reformers are much worse and further along than I feared. Their proposals read like something out of the novel 1984 by George Orwell. They twist the meaning of words around to mean the opposite. In Orwell's novel, ruling party slogans are "War is peace." "Freedom is slavery." "Ignorance is strength." In the education wars, "reformers" demand increased "clinical practice" for pre-service teachers, but what they really propose is that the teacher trainees play around with avatars in virtual computer animated classrooms rather than working with real children.

In a forty-page glossy pamphlet presenting their ideal teacher education program, prepared by their Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning, NCATE, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, endorses expanded clinical practice in "laboratory experiences" that "provide prospective teachers opportunities to learn through on-line and video demonstrations" where they can "analyze a virtual student's pattern of behavior" and candidates can become engaged in the "life of a virtual school."

Techno-loonies who believe the latest app is the solution to everything and publishers' representatives are in the driver's seat influencing education policy at Education Departments and in State Legislatures and if they are not stopped soon, Schools of Education, legitimate teacher preparation programs, teacher professionalism, and the education of our nations' children, will be in jeopardy. I know these things are happening in New York State and I suspect they are happening across the country.

In New York, the Commissioner of Education, MaryEllen Elia, and the Chancellor of the State University, Nancy Zimpher, are teamed up with their in-house the TeachNY Advisory Council to either close down Schools of Education or transform them into cookie-cutter assembly lines producing classroom "clickers" who follow scripts, keep students plugged-in, and record test scores. In May 2016, they announced a "TeachNY campaign" and "listening tour" that would supposedly "promote the profession, expand clinical preparation" and "generate investment."

Working with allies in the State Legislature and the Governor's Office they are creating an artificial teacher shortage by ratcheting up entrance requirements to Schools of Education and frightening away potential candidates with a battery of questionable tests. As soon as one of their tests is thrown out by the courts as discriminatory or irrelevant to teaching, they come up with another one. They acknowledge a "number of factors have contributed to a 40 percent enrollment drop in New York's teacher preparation programs since 2009-10," but take no responsibility for creating the artificial shortage that will make it easier for State Education to shift to suspect alternative certification programs like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows program.

Their campaign exposes the type of teaching preparation they are advocating. "Informed" by a report prepared by their TeachNY Advisory Council, they want to expand what they, like NCATE, call "clinical practice." They propose a "clinical demonstration lab in the Capital District that connects existing labs throughout its campuses and increases access to clinical experiences" which they define as microteaching (I am not sure what that is) and virtual simulations, which in my world are not expanded clinical practice in schools with real students.

Virtual simulations are already being piloted at the State University's New Paltz campus. According to the website New Paltz News, "Education majors are getting real word teaching experience thanks in part to TeachLive,a mixed-reality simulation lab that supports teacher practice in classroom management."

This unworldly real world experience takes place in a "virtual lab" that "looks like a typical classroom -- complete with desks, whiteboards and student avatars. The simulated classroom is projected onto a screen, and a session participant stands in front of the class while a camera tracks his or her movements as they virtually teach. Participants interact with the avatars in real-time, presenting lesson plan material, answering questions and monitoring students as they complete assignments." Five onscreen student avatars are "scripted to portray typically developing students or students with more complex learning needs, depending on the objectives of the simulation session."

The scenarios were developed by Dr. Kathleen Ingraham of the University of Central Florida. I was unable to find an academic vita online for Dr. Ingraham or even a faculty biography. According to her Linkedin page, Dr. Ingraham graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2007 with a degree in English Literature and French, earned a Master's degree there in 2009 in Film and Digital Media, and completed her doctorate in Instructional Technologies, also at the University of Central Florida in 2014. Based on her Linkedin page there is no evidence Dr. Ingraham was ever a K-12 teacher, ever trained as a K-12 teacher, and it is not clear she ever worked with or consulted K-12 classroom teachers. The TeachLive program, piloted at SUNY New Paltz and classroom siimulations championed by Elia and Zimpher seems to be based entirely on Ingraham's doctoral dissertation.

Education "reformers" like to say we wouldn't want people to become doctors without clinical experience. We also don't want people to become surgeons who learned how to operate by cutting up avatars in virtual operating rooms.

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