Sunday, December 6, 2015

ESSA: What Is a Teacher

We knew that a theme of the week would be teasing out the ugliest parts of the ESEA rewrite. Farewell, "No Child Left Behind." Hello, "Every Student Should Succeed in Serving Corporate Interests."

One element that has become evident is the ways in which ESSA works to gut the entire process of creating teachers, and consequently the profession itself. Just as reformsters have sought to redefine what it means to be an educated person (a person who performs well on standardized testing tasks), they have also sought to redefine what it means to be a teacher.

The assault on teaching has been bizarrely two-pronged. On the one hand, reformsters have tried to make it harder to become a teacher. On the state level, StudentsFirst and similar reformy astroturfers have been pushing longer and longer waiting periods for tenure, from two or three years up to three or four or five years-- and those years should be spent proving you can raise "student achievement" aka "get test scores up." And before you can even get to that point, some states want aspiring teachers to go through costly bogus licensing processes like edTPA. 

On the other hand, we've also seen a big push to make it easier to become a teacher. Reformsters have pushed for regulations that accept five weeks of Teach for America Summer Camp as perfectly good enough to make a teacher out of someone. Or why not accept a program like RelayGSE, where beginning teachers with no actual teacher education certify that other beginning teachers should be considered fully qualified. 

We are rapidly approaching that point where if someone is really serious about entering teaching, the absolutely last thing she should do is enroll in a college teacher education program. No, if you really want to be a teacher, go major in business and then hit up some alternative certification program after you graduate. As Mercedes Schneider notes, a  nationally board certified teacher of the year first grade teacher such as Ann Marie Corgill could not be allowed to take over a fifth grade class-- but a recent grad with a BS in computer science and five weeks at TFA is.

ESSA fully embraces this two-prong assault. Read all of Schneider's take and then, if you haven't already, read Kenneth Zeichner's blistering look at the bill. In ESSA, we find more of the same old reformster baloney.

Zeichner, a researcher who is a member of the National Academy of Education and professor emeritus in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, points out many of the lowlights. The feds declare that states can call, well, anything that purports to be teacher education as the equivalent of a Bachelors Degree (so go ahead and call your five-week TFA training session a BA program). And these teacher "academies" should be free from “unnecessary restrictions on the methods of the academy.” But it's not entirely the Land of Do As You Please for the private teacher factories; teacher certification should be linked to a demonstrated ability to raise test scores. Zeichner provides an apt illustration of the dopiness of these provisions:

Imagine the federal government supporting medical preparation academies or other professional preparation academies where the faculty would not be required to have the academic qualifications required by the states and accrediting bodies. 

We would quickly have a two tiered system-- one occupied by Real Doctors and the other by State Certified Doctors. Really-- read all of Zeichner's piece.

We've talked before about how some research is misused to discredit college teacher programs, and about how some of the research isn't even remotely legitimate research. And I'm not going to hold the existing teacher education programs blameless-- some colleges run inexcusably slack and reality-impaired teacher prep programs, and that has left an opening for privatizers and profiteers to make this assault.

But we need to be clear-- this is not an argument about the best way to get from point A to point B. This is not a disagreement about the best way to get the excellent teachers that we all want.

This is a fundamental disagreement about what an excellent teacher is. More precisely, it's a failure of reformsters and the members of Congress to manage even a rudimentary grasp of what teachers do or how schools work. One of the most discouraging thing about ESSA is that it shows, in big bold letters and numbers, that neither the members of the education committees or the members of Congress at large really know what the hell they're talking and legislating about.

This attack on teaching, this opening for states to strip down teacher education programs to literally nothing (but a nothing that can be called a Bachelor's degree equivalent)-- this only makes sense if you don't really know what a teacher is.

We know what reformsters want teachers to be, because they have told us in dozens of ways, over and over and over and over again. For them, a teacher is a person who delivers content (that has been prepared and prepackaged) with the intent of getting students to reach higher scores on Big Standardized Tests, and a teacher only needs enough training and knowledge to perform that simple function. For them, a teacher is a person who is taking a few years to pass through a classroom, but not so many years that they earn a high salary or create serious pension costs. For them, a teacher can do her job sitting behind computer screens, sifting data and pushing out canned materials in order to deliver goals and collect data. For them, a teacher depends more on compliance than autonomy, more on implementing pre-packaged programs than exercising professional judgement. Their vision of the profession is barely that of a profession at all, so small and cramped it is.

Teaching? Professional and personal, combining experience and book-learnin' and shared understandings, deployed though relationships developed with students, all laid on a solid foundation of rich content knowledge and current knowledge of what it takes to learn and grow at the different stanges of human development. A thousand thousand data points gathered and reflected upon daily, all filtered through human judgment and understanding. Serving as a sherpa for all those students who pass through your orbit, trying to help each discover what it means to be fully human, to be fully him- or her-self, helping them find the tools to move forward into a life that they choose and develop and build and understand themselves, even as the teacher also travels that same journey, growing in understanding and knowledge and professional capabilities.

And I'm only scratching the surface, nor am I gifted enough to capture all of what a teacher is in just a few paragraphs of afternoon bloggery. Which is kind of the point. Reformsters, including the ones who wrote the bill, have grasped the elephant's tail and concluded that nothing about the rest of the animal matters, that they will just cut off the tail and use it to open a zoo's elephant exhibit. They have grasped the tip of the elephant's tail and concluded that they know everything they need to know in order to manage the entire African continent.

As I've said before, the possible saving grace of ESSA is that the language is more bribes and opportunities than mandates and requirements. States will have the opportunity to say things like, "Equivalent to a bachelor's degree?! You have got to be kidding." But as long as policy is driven by a desire to turn teachers into low-skill clerical workers, it's going to be bad policy. ESSA might as well stand for Educators must Spend Special Attention because the opportunities for state-level shenanigans is huge.


1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Greene,

    Yes, Yes, and Yes. Moreover, as you have alluded to before, the new ESEA, or ESSA, shoves the Federal Dept. of Ed. into the background. This will mollify the Tea Party folks. It won't be that Kenyan fella tellin' them what their children are going to do anymore, so Reformers only will have teachers and knowledgeable parents to deal with. They could even re-introduce a new set of (secret) national standards in all of the State houses under different names. The new standards could be solely alligned with what can be tested on a computer test, and there would be no opposition they couldn't legislate away.

    I'm planning on home-schooling any grandchildren I get.