NCATE’s “Transformative” Vision…Not So Much

(This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.)

NCATE’s big report “Transforming Teacher Education Through Clinical Practice” is out today, and is likely to get the predictable hosannas. It’s scheduled for a morning event at the National Press Club (I’m doing a bit of discussant duty), where the Blue Ribbon Panel’s call for “radically” revising teacher prep to focus on practical training and residencies will be hailed as a transformative moment. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a co-chair, said, “This is a seismic moment for teacher education.” I’m not sold.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got enormous respect for NCATE honcho Jim Cibulka and for the co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Panel–Colorado’s all-star state chief Dwight Jones (about to become supe of Clark County, Nevada) and Zimpher. But this panel of twenty-some members, including both NEA chief Dennis van Roekel and AFT chief Randi Weingarten, did about what I would’ve expected–they embraced the conventional wisdom of the moment and called for stuff that’s perfectly nice (and that can be termed “radical”) but that won’t amount to much at the end of the day.

The report declares that teacher education needs to be “turned upside down,” with training shifting from a focus on academic preparation and course work and towards clinical practice that’s “interwoven with academic content and professional courses.” Those are swell sentiments. They sound reasonable to me. And I’m all in favor of teacher preparation finding cost-effective ways to do less mediocre course work and more quality clinical training. My own teacher prep experience at Harvard Ed would’ve benefited enormously from that kind of shift.

But, the truth is, I didn’t see much evidence in this report of seismic thinking. I couldn’t find anything in the report acknowledging that, if clinical preparation is the key, it may make sense to increasingly cut colleges or universities out of the preparation equation–and allow sites to deal them in on an as-needed basis. After all, the “normal school” and programs of teacher preparation are 19th century innovations; isn’t it possible that a “radical” 21st century rethinking might not want to presuppose that we rely on that machinery?

The panel does usefully note the value of creating new roles when it comes to mentoring and supporting faculty, but it seems to envision the same-old, same-old so far as every teacher being a jack of all trades. So, while the report is a useful, if modest, step forward for thinking more creatively about staffing, it stops far short of seismic. Indeed, the only reference to technology is as a means for supporting teacher preparation; there’s not any recognition that the residency model might be poorly suited for those engaging in online instruction, working in hybrid environments, or for supporting and meeting the needs of emerging school models.

I saw nothing acknowledging that teacher preparation for virtual instructors, online tutors, or Citizens Schools-style “citizen-teachers” might require new notions of specializations or efforts to shift away from one-size-fits-all preparation. Instead, I see a call for a new “one best” approach to teacher preparation, one ill-suited for serving educators in new kinds of roles or for supporting more agile, cost-effective staffing models.

Meanwhile, “implementation” challenges–like recruiting enough good classroom mentors, finding sufficiently qualified university supervisors, or handling the logistical issues–go unaddressed. The report doesn’t explain how to ensure that large-scale clinical programs aren’t merely diluted versions of today’s boutique efforts, bringing to mind far too many previous “seismic” edu-reforms that proved to be little more than fads. As someone who spent five years supervising student teachers, I’ve seen a whole lot of pretty awful practice-oriented teacher preparation. It’s not clear to me from this report how preparation programs can be counted on to guard against that or keep their “clinical” training from simply meaning that their students are wasting time in K-12 schools instead of on the college campus.

Finally, illustrating the ways in which the new budget picture still hasn’t sunk in, the report ducks like crazy when it comes to “hard choices and cost implications.” In the worst tradition of mealy-mouthed reportese, the Panel says its vision “will require reallocation of resources and making hard choices about institutional priorities.” The Panel acknowledges that “clinically based programs may cost more per candidate than current programs” but then simply asserts that they “will be more cost-effective by yielding educators who enter the field ready to teach.” The evidence for this assertion is, to be generous, lacking. In the current fiscal climate, to call for new outlays without proposing offsetting savings–or even giving some broad estimates of the anticipated costs–shows a troubling tone-deafness to the fiscal situation.

I’m going to be real curious to see how the eight states that signed onto the NCATE proposal–California, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee–move forward. And, I hope that this well-intentioned effort proves more transformative than I suspect. But that’s not the way I’d bet.

-Frederick Hess

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