Saturday, December 19, 2009

Arne Duncan and Teacher Education: Still More "Bullshit"


Those who can do, those who can’t teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.

—Anonymous

Teacher education has long been a low status activity, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan isn’t making it any better. Lacking any professional preparation himself, Duncan nevertheless confidently asserts that many, if not most, of the nation’s teacher preparation programs are second-rate. He claims that they attract inferior students and weak faculty. He also charges that colleges and universities use them as “cash cows,” bleeding off the revenues they generate.

Politics, Not Logic
There is truth in Duncan's allegations. But at the same time he demands increased rigor in teacher preparation, Duncan also praises alternative “quickie” routes into teaching.

Logic demands that if teacher education lacks rigor, it must be made tougher, not easier. How shall we account for Duncan's illogic? The explanation is that Duncan holds a political office, and naturally prefers politics to logic. So let's forget his observation that: It’s no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher standing in the front of the classroom. For Duncan it's politics that takes first priority.

Mr. Duncan says he favors getting to the root of the nation’s educational problems. Time magazine, for instance, quotes him as saying,
It’s obvious the [educational] system’s broken. Let’s admit it’s broken, let’s admit it’s dysfunctional, and let’s do something dramatically different, and let’s do it now. But don’t just tinker around the edges. Don’t just play with it. Let’s fix the thing.
The trouble is, at least when it comes to teacher education, Duncan doesn’t follow his own advice.

Letting State Officials Off the Hook

Duncan conveniently ignores the fact that state governments set, and enforce, standards for teacher education. So if programs are lousy, Duncan’s primary quarrel is with state officials.

Duncan could use the big bag of non-earmarked money that the Obama administration is injecting into schooling as a means to compel those officials to raise teacher education standards.

Would state officials do a good job of improving teacher education? Probably not, but since Duncan is inordinately fond of top-down reform, his inattention to state responsibility suggests he isn't really serious.

Professional Education Schools

Also, if Duncan were not just “tinkering around the edges,” but truly serious about improving teacher education, he would advocate the complete abolition of undergraduate programs. In their place, he would demand graduate-level professional schools of education modeled on the training required by other established professions.

Consider what is required of aspiring physicians, attorneys, architects, optometrists, dentists, podiatrists, veterinarians, and chiropractors, for example. Entrance into any of these occupations requires selective, tough, graduate-level schooling in a specialized environment. To qualify for entrance, candidates first have to grow up, get a college education, and pass a tough examination.

In contrast, teacher education programs typically are mere undergraduate majors that must compete for student attention with other undergraduate requirements and campus social life. Most teacher education programs can’t even select their own applicants. They must accept anyone the university admits who declares they want to major in education. In consequence, teacher educators have to make do with many immature, unfocused, often marginally committed youngsters who aren’t developmentally ready for serious study.

By what magic is such raw material to be transformed into skilled, dedicated professionals?

Money Talks
Why the enormous difference between training in the true professions and in teaching? Is teaching easy? Just give it a try. Is there little to learn? Not the last time I checked. No, the reason those other occupations can charge a higher price for admission is because of the generous benefits that await graduates.

Forgetting his secret tape recorder was on, Richard Nixon once candidly observed, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” And Secretary Duncan emphasizes that sort of bullshit in his speeches. He specializes in fertilizer such as this:

There is no question that our country needs you. Our children need you.
[I]f you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start.
Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.
This call to teaching is the great public mission of our time. . . .[3]


Secretary Duncan goes on to say, “Put plain and simple, this country needs an army of great, new teachers.”[5]

What Duncan does not say is that this country is not about to offer sufficient rewards for teaching to attract many of the best and brightest, nor will it support truly professional preparation. In fact, Duncan's florid rhetoric indicates that the substantial benefits of teaching are slim indeed. That doesn’t mean that the symbolic benefits are unworthy, mind you, but in this materialistic society they don’t offer the same degree of motivation as money.

Warm Bodies
Given how we poorly we reward teachers and how enthusiastically we dump on them, professionalizing entrance requirements would cause the candidate pool to dry up. Then where would we find the roughly two hundred thousand new teachers per year that the United States will shortly need? Remember, it has been a long time since sexism forced nearly all the best and brightest women into teaching. Today’s competent women have many other options.

Conclusion
The truth is that America's politicos only pretend that they want high-quality teacher preparation. If they really wanted it they would not tolerate slack state regulation, ever-easier ways to enter teaching, and exploitation by short-sighted college officials. It's just that, given the current costs and benefits of being a teacher, it is absolutely necessary to make it cheap and easy to enter the occupation.

Of course, this slapdash approach creates many difficulties. But they can be dealt with by focusing still more blame on teachers and teacher educators. Duncan’s rhetoric provides a perfect example of this political sleight of hand.

What lies beyond Duncan's rhetorical smokescreen? In the end, it is more of the same old bullshit. We might as well still have William Bennett in the saddle. At least he offered comic relief.

In the end one can’t help but wonder if the Secretary of Education would encourage his own kids to become teachers. A quote from William C. Bagley comes to mind:

When will men who would never for a moment encourage their own sons to enter the work of the public schools cease to tell us that education is the greatest and noblest of all human callings?[4]

To further examine these and similar issues, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

-- GKC