Revolutionary Change and Teacher Education Reforms

On October 4, Arne Duncan issued an open letter to America’s college presidents and education school deans urging them “to create revolutionary change” in teacher education. The letter that appeared on the Brookings Institute website seemed to repeat many of the litanies shared before: teacher education lacks rigor, teacher education is not changing, teacher candidates are not prepared well enough, and together these factors put K-12 students at risk. Surprisingly, Duncan cited a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) that focused on grade inflation as evidence of the low quality of teacher education. NCTQ does not have a great reputation for producing solid research, yet out of thirteen paragraphs of Duncan’s letter, eight were devoted to the NCTQ report. The ultimate point of the letter was that “systematic change” has yet to happen in the sector and holding teacher candidates to higher standards is a first step on the path towards change.

The problem with Duncan’s position, however, is that it is a bit misleading. Change has been happening. Enrollments are lower than they were in the past; curriculum is narrower with questions of equity and social justice disappearing from the standards; and new bureaucratic demands pile higher every year.

Change is happening, but so far it has been very subtle.

For example, if you are in the field of teacher education, have you ever given much thought to what CAEP stands for? It stands for something mundane, you could say. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

Prior accrediting bodies in the US were NCATE – the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education – and TEAC – Teacher Education Accreditation Council. CAEP emerged as a result of their merger.

The change in titles is very subtle – it is as if the same letters were tossed into a bag to produce the name. Yet, instead of focusing on Teacher Education, CAEP focuses on Educator Preparation.

This phrase – Educator Preparation – does not appear just in CAEP’s title. It resurfaces in policy-makers’ professional associations, reports of non-profit organizations, and mission statements of think-tanks:

  • The Council of Chief State School Officers issued a report in 2012 “Our Responsibility, Our Promise: Transforming Educator Preparation and Entry into the Profession.” Subsequently, it created a Network for Transforming Educator Preparation (NTEP) to put into practice the reform principles highlighted in the report.
  • Similarly, Deans for Impact state in their mission statement that they are committed to improving student-learning outcomes by transforming the field of educator preparation.
  • Or, in an article on data literacy, authors from WestEd and Education Northwest, discuss data-driven decision-making in educator preparation.

The difference is subtle but even as a junior scholar in the field I would never describe myself as someone who is involved in educator preparation. By default, I always speak of teacher education.

No matter how subtle, however, perhaps this change is indicative of bigger changes that are already unfolding around us. CAEP focuses on Educator Preparation Providers – EPPs, whereas NCATE focused “on the professional education unit, which is defined as the administrative body at an educator preparation provider (EPP).” Technically, both use the term EPP, but CAEP no longer focuses on the “education unit,” it focuses on the provider. A google search for “educator preparation provider” returns hits from several different states: Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado, Wisconsin, Tennessee, which under the already familiar category of EPP – Educator Preparation Provider – list traditional university/college-based programs, alternative programs, or completely online programs. The numbers of alternative programs are staggering. What is even more staggering is how they describe themselves. Phrases like “fast track to success,” “affordable,” and “real world program” sound like catchy gimmicks for training door-to-door salesmen, rather than members of an intellectual profession.

The focus on providers is particularly jarring because it is reminiscent of changes in teacher education in England. In the 90’s, conservative groups managed to push through legislation that opened the teacher education market to multiple providers. Estimates vary as to the exact number of routes into the teaching profession, but currently there seem to be somewhere between 17 and 19 different tracks that one can take into teaching. Customers – i.e. future teachers – can work toward the Qualified Teacher Status through any one of those tracks:

  • Postgraduate Certificate in Education
  • Assessment-based training route
  • Assessment Only route
  • Graduate Teacher Programme
  • Teach First
  • School-centred initial teacher training road (SCITT)
  • Registered Teacher Programme
  • A more traditional degree based preparation (BA or BS)

If you visit websites that describe these tracks, you will see the same order as the one given here that positions university-based degree route as the last option that takes most time and money, clearly inconveniencing the customer.

One of the most recent and most interesting newcomers to this scene is Pearson, now offering diplomas and certificates in teaching, some of which lead to a teacher aid status while others can qualify one to be a full- time teacher. “All you need is a credit card” states the cheerful advertisement for one of the programs that Pearson offers. In this context, some scholars gently suggested that university-based teacher education may be on its deathbed.

Why is this important?

Because in the British bureaucratese, the proliferation of these tracks into teaching was accompanied by a similar semantic shift – first the switch from teacher education to teacher training, then from programs to providers. This shift to providers also begs a question whether CAEP will be charged with overseeing multiple routes into teaching, not just the university-based programs the way NCATE and TEAC did.

Subtle changes like these are everywhere: from the name of the field to who the providers are, from what counts as knowledge and valid research to what the final outcome of “educator preparation” should be (more on that later).

But clearly, Arne Duncan wants more radical and more revolutionary change. The trouble is that it is not clear that the changes Arne Duncan is advocating for will create a strong economy or informed citizenry that he is promising. After all, drastic reforms in teacher education 20 years ago did not show dramatic improvements in England’s performance on international assessments. Brexit raised doubts both about how informed English citizens truly are and about how great the economy is doing. The conversation about raising standards is also rather suspect. There is no evidence that the measures that Duncan advocates for will actually create higher standards for the profession. What seems to be happening instead is political theater – by using the spotlight directed at the “low-quality” teacher education programs, reformers manage to obscure the proliferation of routes into teaching and a redefinition of how teachers can be prepared for working in schools.

When Duncan’s letter came out, however, I had a heavy feeling that his writing was meant to prepare the way for bigger things to come. Just as I suspected, this week the federal government released new regulations for evaluating teacher education programs. The revolutionary change that Duncan so desired is clearly underway. Being of Russian heritage, however, I think of revolutions as not only the events of dramatic change, but also the events of dramatic loss. Perhaps it is time to #reclaimteachered.

phllip-curtis-high-chairs
Philip C. Curtis. High Chairs (deserted landscape). 1976

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