Monday, March 7, 2016

Competency Based Ed for Teachers

Competency Based Ed (or Proficiency Based Learning or Outcome Based Education) is increasingly and alarmingly all the rage, but so far we've been talking about it mainly as a content delivery system for K-12 students. Well, says Patrick Riccards at Real Clear Education, why not use it as an approach to training teachers as well?

Riccards is the chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and he lays a foundation here of reformy building blocks. Here's the Bellwether Partners report on how we don't know how to unpack "the black box of good teaching." Here's a charmingly trusting assertion that Charlotte Danielson " has clearly identified the knowledge and skills that beginning teachers need to both succeed in those formative years and remain in the classroom for many years to come." Has she? Has she really? Why, bless her heart, and yours too, if you believe in her so hard.

But Riccards is here to argue against inputs, against the traditional teacher prep program that measures hours and lists the courses one must take.

There is nothing magical about 36 credit hours of graduate education that ensures one will be an effective teacher. Instead, it is about understanding content and pedagogy, as well as being able to put that understanding to use in a classroom of your own.

Well, no. There's nothing "magical" about 36 credit hours, just like there's nothing "magical" about studying human skeletal structure on your way to mastering physiology for your physical therapy degree. But Riccards want us to see as necessary and inevitable a shift from lecture halls to actual practice in a classroom.

Let me step aside for a moment to note that I am not the person you want to defend traditional teacher prep programs. I was trained in a non-traditional program with far fewer hours of education courses before student teaching and far more support and coursework while I was getting my classroom practice on. I happily await the day that some college education department calls me up and invites me to re-configure their system, because I have more than a few ideas.

I should also note that debating study versus practice in teacher prep strikes me as just as useful as endlessly arguing about whether there should be more hugging or kissing with your romantic partner. If you are arguing violently for mostly one at the exclusion of the other, you've lost sight of the point.

But Riccards has his eye on his own point, and his point is Use CBE To Train Teachers! He does a good job of anticipating some objections:

Yes, some are resistant to the idea of competency-based education. It is too often misconstrued as a checklist approach: anyone who is wearing a blue shirt on Tuesday meets competency 183. Such application is CBE at its very worst, and doesn’t reflect what it can and should look like in teacher education.

I'm still dubious that his Tuesday checklist is not so much CBE at its very worst as it is CBE at its very usual. But Riccards says there are several things that CBE done right will do for 21st century teacher awesomeness--

- Establishes a set of outcomes one  must attain in order to graduate, rooted in what excellent beginning teachers must know and be able to do;
- Constructs meaningful assessment tools designed to determine candidate competencies at the outset, to gauge candidate progress, and to shape each candidate’s course of study; and
- Provides a problem-based, individualized, adaptive curriculum tied to these competencies.

No, I don't think so. The "set of outcomes" that every beginning teacher must perform is a very tall order, but the "meaningful assessment tools" requirement is unicorn farming. It simply isn't going to happen, because every single candidate (at least as long as we are talking about human candidates) is a completely different set of strengths and weaknesses, which themselves play out differently depending on the young humans who are in the classroom. Those students, live and in the classroom, are the "problem-based, individualized, adaptive curriculum."

There are too many variables, too many possibilities to ever be covered by a canned program. Either the "set of outcomes" will have to be so vague as to be useless ("Teacher will keep classroom orderly and focused") or so specific as to require the equivalent of a six zillion page manual ("If a male student tends to make sarcastic fart jokes, the teacher will use one of the following responses depending on their own skill set: A) If teacher is a petite, quiet female, she will approach the student with direct eye contact and a stern tone of voice and say.... on through ZZ) If teacher is a physically imposing woman with a loud voice and an infectuous sense of humor, she will keep her distance while making the following joke..." and on and on and on). In other words, this system demands that checklist-- either a checklist too short to provide useful feedback and direction, or a checklist so long it takes long minutes to load it from a zillion terrabyte cloud where it lives.

I'm a little nervous that Riccards is dreaming of an EdTPA type of program, with videos and a set of standard behaviors that can be evaluated at a distance. That idea is a snare and a delusion. It does not work. It will never work.

This also feels like one of those attempts to remove subjective personal judgment from the process. That is also a snare and a delusion.

Teachers have to be educated by other teachers. That is why student teaching works-- daily constant supervision and feedback by a master teacher who knows what she's doing. That experience is best when it rests on a foundation of subject matter, child development, and pedagogical knowledge. It also works best when the student teacher is helped to find her own teacher voice; co-operating teachers who try to mold mini-me's are not helpful.

The computer era has led to the resurrection of CBE because computing capacities promise the capability of an enormously complicated Choose Your Own Adventure individualized approach to learning-- but that capacity is still not enough for any sort of learning that goes beyond fairly simple, tightly focused tasks. Sure-- creating a CBE teacher prep program would be super easy-- all you have to do is write out a response for every possible combination of teacher, students and content in the world. And then link it all together in a tagged and sequenced program. And then come up with a clear, objective way to measure every conceivable competency, from "Teacher makes six year old who's sad about his sick dog comfortable with solving a two-digit addition problem when he didn't actually raise his hand" to "Teacher is able to engage two burly sixteen-year-old males who are close to having a fist fight over the one guy's sister to discuss tonal implications of Shakespeare's use of prose interludes in Romeo and Juliet."

And if those examples seem ridiculously specific, just remember that at the opposite of the scale is a CBE program where there's only one object-- "Teacher will teach real good." And if you now want to say, "Well, of course, the CBE outcomes will be somewhere between those extremes," then we have to have a conversation about where exactly we intend to land and who is qualified to make that call.

I know-- I really do know-- that it's appealing to dream of reducing teaching to a set list of competencies. But I don't believe you can do it. Particularly if your dream is a list of objectively measurable competencies.

Teaching effectively (which is a much better way to conceive of this than effective teachers) is work for trained, experienced professionals. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, concert pianists-- we need their complex professional judgment to navigate complex human situations. Using a pre-fab program to substitute simplistic non-professional judgment for complex human situations doesn't help anybody. Yes, systems that depend on human professional judgment are prone to Bad Things when that professional judgment fails, but using a program to substitute someone else's non-professional judgment does not help. We do need the very best professional educators we can foster and grow, but CBE will not get us there.


  1. I cannot recall if it was you or another blogger from HuffPo who wrote about the search for Charlotte Danielson who seems to be an enigma wrapped in a roll of toilet paper for the odd BS that has supposedly originated from her amazing career that seems as vague as her actual ideas. For fun try to actually assign a time frame to her career it is something that the gladiators on Scandal do and with less gaping holes and missing data such as what Schools she actually worked at and when and actual names of colleagues and others whom she alludes to as defining her as excellent. I personally love the odd YouTubes with the honorary degrees. Yes this is a woman whom I would love to meet, interview and verify those credentials that have districts across the country flocking to pay her for her wisdoms

  2. If what Riccards says is true, then why not just dump his CBE program (with a few tweaks) into a fleet of robot super-teachers?

  3. I read your blog everyday and in this case, once again, I am total agreement. But I've got a couple of nagging examples I'd to see how they square with what you say. I've worked in the medical education community and I've had two experiences that I want to share. In the education of anesthesiologists at each level of training individuals must meet certain levels of certain procedures to be deemed competent. Second, I've been the patient twice when dentist friends were taken their boards and I know they too must perform certain types and numbers of procedures to be deemed competent and become boarded. I see doctors, dentists, lawyers, and teachers as similar experts and learning in similar ways. How do you see this given your the topic of your commentary?

    1. You are comparing apples to cinder blocks here. The competencies you describe here exist as mechanical responses to specific, static situations, a cavity, a patients vital signs. They are significantly less complex and significantly less dynamic than the human interaction that is teaching and learning which can and does change over short periods of time and within each individual.