A Response to Jay Greene

Let’s begin with the boring part of this debate, the part where Jay and I agree. Jay makes this reasonable statement:

Education reform would benefit from less false confidence in knowing what works and more encouragement of experimentation, choice, and competition.

The idea of encouraging experimentation in the education sector makes sense: if you don’t know what works, let a thousand flowers bloom. And the field of teacher education would appear to be particularly fertile ground. After all, there’s been a common presumption that no one knows what works.

Here’s what I don’t think Jay appreciates:  Teacher prep is the Wild West of higher education.  Consider: In four out of five universities in our Review, the undergraduate and graduate programs can’t even agree upon the core skills and knowledge an elementary teacher should have. Or this fact: There are currently no fewer than 866 different textbooks being used to teach elementary teacher candidates how to teach reading.

This level of disarray raises an important question:  How much experimentation should we tolerate, given what’s at stake?  Currently some 1.5 million students are assigned to novice teachers every year. On average, those students will fall behind those assigned to more experienced teachers.

For whatever reason, we’ve convinced ourselves that their learning loss cannot be diminished, that it is something we just have to live with along with the emotional turmoil that most new teachers face… not unlike a fraternity hazing.

Those children should make us think differently about how we proceed, not unlike a drug trial that’s stopped short because the drug in question is making people sicker, not better.

No doubt there is a difference between the kind of experimentation that Jay is calling for and teacher prep’s current modus operandi of throwing anything against a wall and seeing if it sticks—or worse, not even caring if it sticks, just doing it because a professor has decided he’s right, no matter the evidence to the contrary. But since the field itself is not rigorously gathering data on what works — and the risk for the students of new teachers is so great — it makes sense to establish reasonable guidelines as to what should go into teacher training to ensure, at the very least, that new teachers “do no harm.”

Perhaps Jay would not defend higher education here, asserting instead that if we just shift teacher prep to school districts or to private providers, they could all do it smarter or better.  Really? With remarkably few exceptions—and I say this as someone who created the alternate route pathway in Maryland–alternative certification has never distinguished itself in any meaningful way, including by delivering measurably more effective novice teachers.  Its major contribution has been to supply yet another funding stream to higher education institutions that create alt cert programs side-by-side with traditional programs and to allow states a fast-track, backdoor way to hire teachers.

Frustrated school districts that flirt with the notion that they could do it better don’t, because they quickly realize their core business is to educate students, not aspiring teachers.  Private providers who provide little more than a six-week summer training module cost $40,000 to $60,000 per teacher, and are highly dependent on a stream of soft revenue that is unlikely to expand ten-fold to meet current needs. Worse still, no one has tried to shut down the alternative certification mills that litter the landscape in places like Texas, where candidates are charged up to $30,000 to declare them classroom ready.

In short, we already have a situation where a thousand flowers bloom. But what the field lacks is a unifying vision for what would constitute success. And without such a vision, the tremendous variability that’s already present in teacher preparation won’t generate a system that reliably produces effective novices.

In order for Jay’s remaining go-to solutions–choice and competition–to be viable, we cannot allow experimentation to occur in a vacuum.  First, consumers need information in order to make informed choices.  Aspiring teachers and school districts need to know what programs are actually providing in the way of training in order to choose the programs they wish to patronize.  There’s no way to frame information about training without having some standards to guide selection and we unapologetically propose that NCTQ standards do serve to inform consumers about important features of training.

I often challenge critics to pick out just one standard of our 18 that they don’t think “makes sense” and I generally am greeted by silence.  I would do the same here with Jay.  Tell us specifically what should go. Shouldn’t ed schools be more selective?  Shouldn’t teachers know how to teach reading using scientifically based methods?  Can’t we agree that student teachers ought only to be assigned to effective teachers, not just any teacher who volunteers, even if there is no research to support that notion?

We are quite candid that our standards are the best we could formulate in a field in which good research on what works to make an effective teacher is spotty and limited. We go to great lengths in research inventories to show the barren landscape.  But much is rock solid (like our reading and selectivity standards).  When research was lacking, such as in elementary mathematics, we looked to the practices of high-performing nations, just as Abraham Flexner did in 1910 when he evaluated medical schools against the European model.  We also assembled panels of leading thinkers and practitioners for yet others standards, just as professional accrediting bodies do when fashioning standards.

On one point we surely differ.  We would not be not satisfied with either a response that allows the current anarchy to continue unchecked or with the popular (and indeed, self-serving) refrain from academics that we just need more research.

As for Jay’s specific critiques of our research base, they range from nitpicky to just plain wrong.

As an example of the latter, we cite a study by Matthew Ronfeldt to support Standard 13: Equity.  This standard requires not only that student teachers experience schools that teach underserved students, but also that the schools are successful. Ronfeldt found that teachers who learned to teach in schools with proportionally less teacher turnover post higher student test score gains and are less likely to leave teaching in their first five years, with these positive effects more pronounced when the functional placement schools have a large share of African-American students. This finding is very much in line with the thrust of Standard 13.  But Jay claims the study makes the opposite claim.

You don’t have to take our word that Jay is wrong…you can take Ronfeldt’s affirmation when we asked him to review in advance of publication a March 2012 PDQ blog post about his study: I think you have done an accurate job of capturing the work in general, and appreciate you writing about my article and reaching out for feedback.

Jay’s right that no one should impose one absolute way for all teacher prep programs to train teachers. NCTQ hasn’t done so anymore than Consumer Reports dictates the one absolute way to get clean laundry when it rates detergents. But we do plan to throw open the locked doors and shuttered windows of teacher education and let market forces do their work. If the flood of emails from prospective teachers we’ve received since the Review has been published is any guide, many are hungry for just the type of information we’ve made available for the first time.

-Kate Walsh

This is a response to “NCTQ Doesn’t Know What Works,” by Jay Greene

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