Monday, November 9, 2015

Let's Play Teacher

No other profession sees anything quite like it.

Sure, we occasionally see stories about a guy who declares himself a doctor and sets up a practice with no real qualifications. Or a person who just opens a law office without benefit of a legal degree. Or a person who finds ordination documents on line and declares himself a preacher.

We have names for these people. Charlatan. Faker. Con artist. And they generally keep a low profile because everyone understands that such behavior is wrong.

But not in education.

Consider, for instance, the Relay Graduate School of Education. Back in 2007, three charter school operators decided they needed a better pipeline for staffing, a wider pool of teachers to chose from. So they figured out a way to "make" their own "teachers." Hunter College (CUNY) agreed to partner with them, they decided what they thought teachers should know, and they proceeded to crank out "teachers." Who did they work with? Who would sign up for teacher training pioneered by amateurs with no real background in public education. Here's a sentence from a glowing 2012 tribute to Relay on Education Next:

Its students are full-time elementary- and middle-school teachers, almost all of them fresh out of college, almost none of them with a traditional teaching degree.

In effect, Relay filled a special market niche of Teach for America workers who, once in the classroom, realized that their virtually-none training was not sufficient to help them do the work of teaching with real live students.

But Relay served another market as well-- the market for Content Delivery Specialists who would implement the reformster model of teacher-proof classrooms, where "teaching" would consist of simple clerical tasks that any trained CDS could perform. Scripted lessons. Large chunks of video-fed content. And all of it built around the Common Core, the biggest Amateur's Guide To Education ever foisted on the country.

It was a simple model. Fresh-out-of-school rookie "teachers" would teach other fresh-out-of-school amateurs how to teach the reformster way, and give them actual degrees to certify them as teachers. And Mayme Hostetter came out of Harvard's Reformy Education Grad school in 2001, put in a few years in a KIPP charter classroom, and is now called the "dean." There is no research done at this "graduate school," no scholars teaching, and no apparent course of study beyond  learning how to implement scripted lessons, align with the CCSS, and get test scores raised.

Relay also positions itself on the cutting edge of teacher program evaluation, declaring that the swellness of their "teachers" will be measure by how well those Content Delivery Specialists manage to get grades up (a feat made somewhat simpler by placing their "graduates" and "fellows" in charter schools where low performing students are always encouraged to head curb-ward). Relay is now expressing interest in moving into actual public schools; we'll see how their system holds up then.

It is, in fact, one of those aspects of reformsterism that we could call a reverse illusion-- a thing that is so unbelievable when you look at it that you assume that surely there's something you're just not seeing correctly.

But no. A bunch of education field amateurs with no teaching career experience got together, made a list of things they think teachers ought to be doing (based on the work of other non-professional amateurs) and opened a school, where they award teaching degrees based on their own unsupported ideas. It is as if I opened a school in my garage to teach people to be surgeons, based on my ideas about what surgery ought to be like, and then gave them certificates "proving" they're all surgeons.

How does this happen? Three reasons.

First-- the reformster network has spread like kudzu, and with it, the cult of the well-meaning amateur. But in addition to Relay GSE, we have Teach for America and its program of "Anybody who is pure of heart can be a teacher and rescue our children from poverty." And in addition to that, we have Broad "You're a superintendent because you say so" Academy. And all of them are members of the "Traditional Teachers Don't Really Know What They're Doing, But We Can Reshape Education Into Something Beautiful" Club, and when gets a foothold, she looks for other members of the club to some transform education. TFA in particular has been hugely effective in creating "education leaders" out of temporary stints in the classroom, opening the gates all across the country for club members. There are enough of these folks out there at this point to create entire shadow education systems, and they're working on the chance to step in and replace the traditional public system (and dreaming of post-Katrina New Orleans as their perfect storm).

In other words, it would be hard to get one of my garage-certified surgeons hired in a hospital-- unless I could somehow get one of my garage-certified surgeons in charge of hiring, or surgery, or on the board. It would be a tough protective shell to crack-- but just one crack is all I would need. The reformster movement has a thousand cracks all over the nation, ready to hire unqualified amateurs and never bat an eye.

Second-- we do not know how to simply and clearly measure educational success. Myself, I'm pretty sure it can't be done. That's a problem because of the First Law of Snake Oil Marketing: when there is no simple answer to a problem, that always creates the opportunity for someone to sell a fake simple answer. There is no simple cure for cancer, so there will always be a market for fake cancer cures. Ditto for weight loss. Ditto for mass shooters in schools. People really want simple answers to complex questions. Quality education, and measuring quality education-- those are very complex issues, and they cannot be solved with simple solutions, which means there is a big market for fake simple solutions. Give students a test and use the results to measure everything so that we can fix everything is a neat, simple, sweet, absolutely bullshit solution to the problem-- but it sells better than snake oil in a leper colony.

When my garage-trained surgeon starts to kill all his patients, folks will catch on to his lack of qualifications. But reformsters can plug no excuses and teaching only a few select students and a cramped tiny view of what an education even is by just waving test scores around. They don't even have to sell the snake oil to the students and parents-- just to the policy makers and philanthropists.

In other words, because there are no simple, clear measures in education, it's not as easy to see that the reformsters have not achieved success in any of their reformy ideas-- and it's easier for them to distract the customers from their widespread failure.

Third-- well, yes. Somewhere many paragraphs ago any reformsters still reading concluded that I'm just one more hide-bound dinosaur standing up for the teacher-training status quo for no good reason. But I am no fan of teacher education as handled by some schools.

So I get angry at both sides of this. I get angry at the people who waltz into the education arena with their made-up credentials and their amateur-hour ideas about how to "fix" education. But I also get angry with some colleges and universities that left the arena door wide open for anyone to waltz through. There are two important differences, however, between the pretend teacher programs and traditional ed programs-- the people who enter teacher education programs mostly actually intend to have a teaching career, and the people running these programs mostly know what they should be doing, even if they aren't. The folks at RelayGSE and TFA may very well be doing the best they know how-- it's just not very good, and it's not designed to create lifelong career educators.

These folks want to play teacher without understanding what it actually means. Being a teacher does not mean delivering a script, it does not mean focusing on BS Tests as a measure of success, it does not mean sensing the weakest "teachers" into the neediest classrooms, and it does not mean aligning slavishly to a set of mediocre amateur-hour national standards.

Relay wants to expand, which isn't good news for anybody, except maybe charter operators who want easily managed, compliant, low-cost, easily replaced Content Delivery Specialists. Their proposed move into public schools is also Not Good News, particularly if they bring with them their pre-broken measure-by-student-test-results model.

Here are two arguments I don't want to have in response to this piece. I don't want to argue about whether the Relays and the TFAs and even the Broadies are fine people with good intentions, nor did I write anything here with the intent to attack their intentions, their brains, or their character. But if my mom is on the operating table, I want a dedicated professional and not a well-intentioned amateur.

Second, I don't want to have an argument about the problems we have in public education. I have not and will not assert that the current version of the system is working perfectly, nor will I claim that we have no problems to solve. But the severity of the problem is not a reason to leap forward with a non-solution that will not help anyone. "We have to do something" does not mean "We have to let clueless amateurs have their way." If anything, it means the opposite-- that the severity of the issues and the lack of slack means we need to choose our path carefully and thoughtfully.

If my mom is really sick, that is so not the time for me to let you play doctor. And now is not the time to let these folks play teacher.



  1. "[W]hen there is no simple answer to a problem, that always creates the opportunity for someone to sell a fake simple answer."

    "'We have to do something' does not mean 'We have to let clueless amateurs have their way.'"


  2. I just saw the exclusive world premiere screening of the upcoming Michael Moore movie, WHERE DO WE INVADE NEXT? --- the first and only screening to date at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles. Moore was supposed to have screened it at a festival in September, but withdrew as he needed to tinker with it some more.

    It's not a movie about the military. He "invades" countries for good ideas that other countries use, things that can then be "stolen" and taken back to use in the United States.

    For ideas about education, he "invades" Finland for about 20 minutes of the film. It's like a 20-minuted encapsulation of Ravitch's book REIGN OF ERROR. While interviewing some high school kids, one of them reveals that he lived for a couple years in the United States, attending schools there. When asked what he disliked about education, he shot back, "Multiple choice tests!" Moore then asked if they had such tests in Finland, and the kids burst out laughing, with one of them saying, "I can't believe (in the United States) you give tests like that."

    Moore baits some education officials, "You mean you don't use tests to identify failing schools, then turn those schools into charter schools with private management?" The education break into wide smiles, and like the high school kids, shake their heads, and are incredulous that such a thing goes on in the U.S.A.

    They then go into detail about what they actually do with education.

    It's good. Look forward to it.

  3. Sadly, these bogus "schools of education" will proliferate in the next few years as real professionals are being driven from the classrooms in droves and fewer young people enter traditional college programs. Policy makers will fix on these diploma mills as a quick, cheap and easy way to get warm bodies into classrooms.

  4. That's happening here in Howard Co MD (DC suburb). Last year a tremendous and spectacular, retirement package was offered to the most seasoned and talented teachers. Of course they took it because they have been dealing with this system long enough to read the writing on the wall and I honestly can't blame them for wanting to leave the TOXIC environment. The Supe. makes it sound like it's a win-win for the budget over the next couple of years so everyone is happy, happy, happy about pension funds and saving money. But in allowing so many to retire, so many had to be hired and I don't quite know the pool from which they are hiring? Lots of new grads (but from what University). The citizens can't see that this is happening and it's right in front of their faces. This astounds me from a community that claims to b so well educated.

  5. "No other profession sees anything quite like it."

    Apparently, given the current crop of candidates, one doesn't need any training or expertise to be President of the US either.


  6. How is that licensed teachers are themselves taught by unlicensed professors?