Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More nails in the church door -- the case for the counter-reformation keeps getting stronger

The education reform movement is a strange beast. Its support is extensive and extraordinarily broad-based, bringing together players as diverse as Roger Ebert, the New Republic and Rick Scott (not that TNR is exactly proud of the commonalities -- check out how Kevin Carey manages to avoid Scott when discussing Republicans' reform positions, despite the Florida being the epicenter of the GOP's reform agenda).

Yet, despite this overwhelming consensus, it is a movement almost completely unsupported by solid, non-anecdotal evidence. I summarized some, but by no means all, of the cases where the data seemed to be running against the tenets of the movement in a post entitled: "Perhaps this is the time for a counter-reformation."

The following report (described here by the indispensable Dana Goldstein) undercuts the intellectual framework of the movement even further (though I would have liked to hear more about Canada which seems to be the more relevant example).
But what if the United States is doing teacher reform all wrong?

That’s the suggestion of a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank funded mostly by large corporations and their affiliated foundations. The report takes a close look at how the countries that are kicking our academic butts—Finland, China, and Canada—recruit, prepare, and evaluate teachers. What it finds are policy agendas vastly different from our own, in which prospective educators are expected to spend a long time preparing for the classroom and are then given significant autonomy in how to teach, with many fewer incentives and punishments tied to standardized tests.

Finland, for example, requires all teachers to hold a master’s degree in education and at least an undergraduate major in a subject such as math, science, or literature. Finnish teacher-education programs also include significant course work in pedagogy—exactly the sort of instruction former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein recently called useless. All teacher candidates must write a research-based master’s dissertation on an issue in education policy or teaching practice, and will then spend a full-year as a student teacher reporting to an experienced mentor.

Shanghai takes a somewhat different approach; its teacher candidates take 90 percent of their college courses in the subject they will teach, and are expected to complete the same undergraduate programs as students who will go on to receive Ph.Ds in math or the sciences. As in Finland, however, a new teacher in Shanghai will spend the first year of his employment under the supervision of a mentor teacher, who is relieved of some of her own classroom duties in order to spend more time training the newbie.

You can see how these international examples cut against the grain of American education reform. Our approach has largely borrowed the Teach for America model. First, we attempt to bring more elite college graduates into the teaching profession by decreasing the credentialing necessary to become a teacher: no student-teaching year or education degree required, just a few weeks of summertime training are supposed to suffice. Then we expect teachers to spend much of their time preparing children for standardized tests, whose results, in turn, will be used to judge teachers’ competency.

The NCEE report makes a persuasive case that the Obama administration and its allies in the standards-and-accountability school reform movement have teaching policy exactly backward. The way to increase the prestige of the teaching profession is not to make it easier for elite people to do the job for a few years and then burn out, but to make it more challenging to earn a teaching credential, so that smart young people are attracted to the rigor of education programs. Within such a system, alternative credentialing programs for career changers could still play an important role. But alternative pathways will never have the capacity to provide the entire teacher corps.

Following this approach, Finland has been able to abolish test-score based accountability, finding that the folks who come through their challenging teacher professional development pipeline are well prepared to create their own curriculums and assessments. “It is essential for high-performing countries to trust its teachers, but it had better have teachers it can trust,” writes Marc Tucker, author of the NCEE report.

For the record, I don't believe in slavishly following international examples (even when they support my position), but when movement advocates like Klein and Rhee use these countries to bolster their arguments, they need to explain why we should pursue the opposite of these countries' policies.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece, it even mentions Canada. :-)

    You should ignore any emails referring to this particular piece.

    I do think it is a very interesting difference in approach. We seem to be going towards more high stakes testing and less autonomy. We are also shrinking salaries. I wonder if this attempt to "commoditize education" is part of the attempt to remain a low tax country (which, if you count government mandated savings, none of Canada, Finland or Singapore actually are).