The Achievement Gap and Teacher Training
Note: The tone of this post is a little more serious and it has
no very little swearing. I know that will turn some people off, and I apologize.
Under normal circumstances, analogies between teachers and doctors trigger in me a powerful, irresistible gag reflex. I hate reading about how we both have a practice, for example. However, I have found a place where the analogy between teachers and doctors makes sense, but only if we proceed seriously and follow where it leads.
It leads us to a very expensive, inconvenient and time-consuming place. It leads us to a disruptive place where the value of sloppy but lucrative teacher preparation programs is sharply questioned. It leads us to a place where teachers will be forced to invest more and be far more deliberate as they decide to take up this job. It’s a place where policymakers look forward, take risks, and commit. This place would probably annoy almost everybody.
But the entire business of preparing teachers in the United States begs for a fundamental rethinking and should, in fact, look more like that of doctors. I propose an approach that would take the two imperatives of training teachers and closing the Achievement Gap seriously. Two sides of the same coin.
As training doctors is to improving health outcomes.
Responding to Increased Diversity in the Classroom
In the recent book, The American Public School Teacher: Past, Present, and Future (Harvard, 2011), editors Darrel Drury and Justin Baer detail the “phenomenal increase in the diversity and inclusiveness of U.S. public schools” in the past 50 years. They note increases in violence, poverty and emotional, attention and behavioral disorders; as well as the erosion of discipline. They wonder aloud whether the largely white, middle-class teacher corps can effectively teach poor minority children. In 1979, 8 percent of children in the U.S. spoke a language other than English at home. Now it is 21 percent and rising. The elimination of tracking has led to a broader range of aptitudes, attitudes and abilities in every American classroom.
Whatever one thinks of these changes or their causes, there is no question that they have all added greatly to the complexity and difficulty of teaching as a job.
We continue to adjust to this still-changing reality in ad hoc ways, even as the costs of a system that is not reaching all children soar. It has become painfully clear that broken families in poor neighborhoods, incessant testing, accountability plans, catchy slogans, earnest wishes, raising the bar, good intentions and even high expectations are not going to close the Achievement Gap. After ten years, Congress is now in the process of declaring No Child Left Behind a failure.
Shit rolls downhill. One way or another, more pressure and blame is likely to continue falling to teachers. So, now what?
Teachers and Doctors
In his contribution to Drury and Baer, Joseph Aguerrebere, President and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, argues that what teaching needs is more uniformity in its training and preparation. Multiple paths to certification within states, good ones and bad ones alike, have left the profession without a solid center. He argues that the teaching profession might look to medicine as a model of what could be done in developing a core of agreed content knowledge and a skill set in order to enter the profession; a verifiable minimum that everybody would have to reach to teach. This is a start, but it does not go nearly far enough.
As the medical field has advanced, training for doctors has responded by becoming more specialized and diversified. One can no longer legally get one’s foot amputated by a barber, for example. After a general course of medical study, the modern medical student selects a sub-field and commits to specialized, intensive coursework and clinical study in, say, orthopedics or infectious diseases. Nobody calls a pediatric cardiologist or a dentist for a kidney transplant. Not anymore.
As much as there is a basic core of similarity to all teaching and doctoring jobs, there is perhaps just as much that distinguishes members of both groups internally. The diversity of our jobs as public school teachers is driven by the diversity of our student populations every bit as much as it is driven by our grade levels and content areas.
I would argue that teaching 4th grade language arts in an upper middle class suburb is actually a different job than teaching 4th grade language arts in an impoverished urban neighborhood. On average, children in the impoverished urban neighborhood will know many thousand fewer words than their suburban counterparts, have fewer parents, have poorer health and nutrition, and have less support for academics at home and in the neighborhood. The effect of these differences, begun long before the children enrolled in school, is magnified over time and is not being systematically, competently addressed in classrooms.
This IS the Achievement Gap.
If we aspire to close it, training all 4th grade teachers in the same way makes no sense. Either that, or teacher training is actually not important after all. I don’t see a third possibility. Do you?
But if the very essence of teaching has become more difficult and important over time, as I believe it has, then the preparation of teachers should reflect this. By failing to take seriously how the diversity of students imposes a diversity of challenges on teachers, we fail them both.
Outline of a Program
A teacher education program should take six years and end in a master’s degree. Period. In the end, this will be good for both teachers and students.
If you want to teach, you must complete a course of general education study that is more or less similar to everybody who hopes to teach. Perhaps this would look like the core of knowledge and skills suggested by Aguerrebere. At the end of four years, a student could gain a general education BA which would qualify him to be a teachers’ assistant or work in other capacities in the school or district. But he could not be a full-time classroom teacher. Perhaps assistant positions, which are greatly needed in any case, could be Teach for America’s true calling. ( Dear Lord, please think about this. Amen.)
In the final two years of study, the teacher candidate would declare a specialty that reflects the subject and student population the candidate expects to teach. Specialties might include rural education, vocabulary development for kids who were not read to at home, elementary math, Appalachian literacy, or science in the suburbs. These specialties would be constructed from rigorous courses in the discipline to be taught; the cognition and development of the appropriate age group; and the unique strengths and challenges of the relevant population. Courses addressing the needs of specialized student populations would be complemented by many hours of classroom observations, practice, and discussions with veteran teachers, peers, principals and parents.
Within each of these academic sub-fields, and many others, there already exist small armies of Ph.D.s and Ed.D.s and graduate students who would be delighted to develop curriculum to share what they have discovered. Academic work in education is one of a limited number of fields where such work could actually be useful to the general public in a very basic way.
This approach to teacher training would move us closer to three separate goals, all of which would positively impact the Achievement Gap and the way teachers experience their jobs. It would:
1) Better prepare teachers with knowledge and skills relevant to their specific student populations;
2) Lubricate the labor market for teachers and reduce teacher turnover;
3) Increase the overall prestige and selectiveness of teaching.
I discuss these goals next.
Goal #1: Better Prepared Teachers
We are reluctant to think too hard about how difficult some children may be to teach. (Actually, that’s a lie. Teachers think about it and talk about it all the time. As a society we are reluctant to talk about it publicly, is more accurate.)
Are students at Deal Middle School, a public middle school in the wealthiest ward of Washington, DC, easier or more difficult to teach than students at Johnson Middle School, a public middle school in the DC’s poorest ward? Which first-year teacher do you think is having an easier go of things so far this year, the one teaching at the school where 89 percent of students tested proficient or above in math last year; or the one teaching where 17 percent tested proficient or above in math last year?
Can you guess which school is which?
The answers are as obvious as they are impolitic to speak out loud. The questions immediately force us to confront issues of race and class; and we are not good at that.
However, I’ll remind you that we have an Achievement Gap. It is large, important, and persistent. And it is defined precisely by race and class. If we cannot talk about race and class in education, I’m not sure we will be able to fix this problem. We need to stop worrying about hurting people’s feelings and address these issues honestly in the training of those who are charged with fixing everything; the teachers. Anything less is simply unfair and dishonest.
We should stop creating programs to simply entice people to teach in “high needs” schools. Instead, we should work to prepare people to teach in high needs schools. We need to be more honest about what constitutes a “high needs” school. In a nutshell, it is a school in which a critical mass of students are academically far behind where they should be and are generally unwilling or unable to cooperate in correcting this. The reality is that this is the dominant vibe teachers in high needs schools face all day long, every single day.
For a teacher, it’s a very difficult spot to be in. Perhaps unreasonable. A teacher working in such an environment would benefit from serious, specialized training. Inadequate preparation for the apathy and discipline problems in such schools chews up hundreds of thousands of teachers every year; as do the bone-headed administrative mandates that coerce teachers into pretending there is no problem here that cannot be solved with an objective written just so-and-so and an interactive word wall. The teachers stay on, frustrated, embittered, and demoralized; or leave teaching; or move to a “low needs” school. This persistent pattern has thus far been ineffective in closing the Achievement Gap.
Implications of this for a teacher training program are almost certainly that someone teaching in a high poverty school should have a significantly different course of study than his counterpart in the affluent suburbs or the countryside. The poor kids in the city, in the trailer park or downstream from the coal mine all deserve a teacher who is ready; who has studied their challenges and is as prepared as possible to minimize the deleterious effects of student challenges on student learning outcomes.
It has been 10 years since No Child Left Behind and almost 30 years since A Nation at Risk. The usual comment about A Nation at Risk is something like can you believe how little progress we’ve made since then? Fair enough. But the nation did begin to take public education and its problems more seriously. And, though we are stuck now, the low-hanging fruit of the Achievement Gap has since been picked. We have learned a lot since 1983. Since that time, the volume of education studies and reports by government, academics and NGOs has been truly stunning.
What is the best way to put this knowledge to work?
Much of it looks at relatively narrow slices of the student population in terms of demographics and/or disciplines. As such, this work and its discoveries are generally far too narrow to be mentioned, much less thoughtfully considered, in teacher education curricula. But a real teacher’s day is generally spent working in two or three of these narrow slices of the global student population. Why not clue them in on what we know about their students? A teacher could be much better prepared if her graduate education work had required her to engage the core findings of research and practice pertaining to her students’ slices from the past three decades.
Goal #2: Lubricate the Labor Market for Teachers
Teachers often feel overwhelmed and under prepared. For many teachers, it is a short step from there to despair, hopelessness and then looking for a new job. Thus, we see a tremendous number of teachers leaving the field or switching schools every year. This constant churn in the teaching force is not good for anybody, students and teachers in particular. It makes it difficult for school administrators to grow and guide a steady, maturing teaching staff and for the teaching staff to genuinely feel and act as a team. This is particularly true in low-income, high needs schools, from which most of the churn arises and in which the Achievement Gap lives.
Imagine a prospective teacher is applying for a kindergarten language arts and social studies position. Imagine that the prospective teacher could tell a principal that he has taken 3 graduate seminars in early childhood literacy and vocabulary acquisition and spent 250 hours teaching and observing students demographically similar to those in this principal’s building.
Imagine the prospective teacher had completed a mini-residency of 60 hours in this very building (much like doctors and law students do). This would minimize uncertainty for both the new teacher and the principal. A program that includes more and better coursework coupled with extensive exposure to the type of environment the new teacher is likely to find himself in will reduce the likelihood that he will be surprised and overwhelmed by his new life in the classroom.
Time spent in the school will also give the teacher and administration a sense of how the other operates. I have had principals I’ve liked and others with whom I have had horrible personality conflicts and professional disagreements. I was hired in one school without ever having met the principal; who, it turns out, I couldn’t stand. Spending a little time in a few prospective schools would diminish this risk and lead to increases in job satisfaction and teacher retention.
Goal #3: Increase Prestige and Respect for Teaching Profession
In our collective consciousness, the competencies most associated with teaching are really not competencies at all. Rather, they are personality traits like patience and empathy. Teaching, of course, would be impossible without these. But it should require much, much more. At parties people will tell you they could never be a teacher because they don’t have enough patience. Or they hate kids or something like that. But, as far as I know, nobody has ever said they aren’t a teacher because they weren’t accepted to a good teacher education program; or they couldn’t pass the state certification test.
It’s not easy to be a teacher. But it might be too easy to become a teacher. Perhaps too many people have entered teaching by way of accident or whim. I include myself in this group. We’re not bad people and many of us are good teachers. (For the record, I do not claim to have the absolute truth about what is or is not a good teacher.)
But what if we put more effort into determining what knowledge and skills we would like people to have before they became teachers and made sure all teachers met this standard? Address it on the front end. What we’re doing now is a sloppy, unfair and chaotic patchwork retrofit on millions of teachers, school by school, district by district; while still creating new loopholes to circumvent and shorten teacher preparation and certification because we just need warm fuckin’ bodies to teach at risk kids in their high needs schools. Doesn’t that seem wrong?
And now, back to your doctor.
Nobody gets to perform surgery, make a diagnosis from your x-rays, or even remove a wart unless they are a doctor. And nobody accidentally becomes a doctor. Nobody becomes a doctor because something else didn’t work out. Nobody becomes a doctor because they “like working with sick people” or because having been an inner city anesthesiologist for two years will look good on their resume.
The decision to become a teacher should require great forethought and intent. You may have to move. If you want to be a math teacher in a high needs school in a big city, but you live in a soybean field in Nebraska, you might have to move. Maybe do the general education BA part of it locally while you consider your options and decide if you really want to be a teacher. (If not, take your BA and do something else. Most people do not work in the field of their BA.) Then apply to schools with strong urban education programs for your master’s work in cities where you hope to teach. This is where you should find the expertise you need. Your friend who wants to teach in a small rural district can go to school right there in Nebraska for six years.
Once you are both on the path, in Nebraska or the big city, it should be difficult. These should be tough programs to complete. If we force people take it seriously, we’ll get serious people.
At present, most education programs are not serious. Most every teacher knows that their education classes were mostly worthless; classes thrown together without much thought or consequence for anyone. Even in my M.Ed. program, at a top 25 education school in the country, my classes were almost all very easy and just plain bad. Many of the classes bordered on insulting and seemed to be mocking me because I was forced to take them. We all knew we were just putting in seat time. Nobody was going to fail this program as long as we all kept writing checks.
Imagine the buzz it would create if just 15 or 20 percent of applicants to graduate education programs were rejected. With a program that is more specialized, and more difficult to enter and complete, the professional/social prestige and respect problem of teaching would be greatly mitigated without all the whining by teachers which, so far anyway, is not working.
I understand this is a tall order with many forces arrayed against it. But the Achievement Gap is a pretty big national problem that is in no way being solved by what we are currently doing. Not only is the problem not being solved, but the current fad of reforms is alienating teachers and de-professionalizing their work. I cannot believe that this is the answer. Instead of investing money to discover new ways of using faulty data to humiliate and punish teachers, let’s acknowledge that their work is complex and important and give them the professional preparation they and their students deserve.