Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bad and good ways to defend social foundations and reform teacher education

In Part I of a series of essays that somehow connect the politics of teacher education to austerity plans in Greece, Henry Giroux disappointed me most at "It is precisely this rejection of theory that prevents teachers from addressing the right-wing policies now being enacted in Texas and Arizona." There is something unreal about this argument that if only K-12 teachers had Theory, they'd be able to leap ideological nonsense in a single bound. Giroux has been prominent for decades in arguing that teachers can and should be intellectuals, and there is a core of a sensible argument in the essays (also see Part II and Part III), but it's wrapped up in so much intellectual confection that I saw little more than a gooey mess by the end of each essay. I've felt something like this regarding some other writers towards the end of their careers, that they desperately needed a strong-willed editor to help them cut the crap out. It is all the more disappointing given the need for clear-eyed perspectives on teacher education.


In the first essay, Giroux points out that Arne Duncan takes for granted and is continuing much of the core set of assumptions that drove school reform in the Bush II era. The broad strokes of that is uncontroversial. And Giroux argues that Duncan, David Steiner, and many others want teacher education to be primarily technical rather than intellectual, and there's a core truth to that. But Giroux makes both errors of commission and errors of omission in a scattershot approach. Giroux argues that the praise of Louisiana's teacher education reform ignores the disparate outcomes from Louisiana's K-12 system. Pause, scratch head: how can the slow development of changes in training new teachers be responsible for continuing inequalities in a system where new teachers are a relatively small part of the equation? Here's a case where a good editor would say, "Hey, Dr. Giroux, this just doesn't fit. We're cutting it to make the essay stronger. Yeah, I know it's one of your favorite passages. Good authors kill their favorite children, or passages, or whatnot." Or the following:

Duncan's attack on theory and critical thinking is not only rooted in the most perverse form of anti-intellectualism; it is also in lockstep with a conservative and corporate educational reform movement driven by an ideological agenda largely shaped by a number of anti-public conservative foundations, politicians, legislators and intellectuals who argue for deregulation and exhibit a strange obsession with crunching numbers.

Giroux is not alone in crafting a monolithic explanation of why the Obama administration's education policies parallel those of the Bush administration in several ways, but there's something deeply unsatisfying with the argument that it's a single wrong idea that's dominating in an uber-policy sense. And it just doesn't hang together when put in the context of education policy overall. The elimination of subsidized college loans from the private sector to create a monopoly for the direct student loan program? The $100 billion in ARRA to save teachers' jobs? Neither of those policies fits with Giroux's monolithic argument. Look, I understand the concern with reductionist education reform policies, but "it's complicated" isn't just a Facebook relationship status. There's more to the Obama/Duncan policies than "continue what George W. Bush started." This administration has done some very, very good things with regard to education (especially in the stimulus and health-care bills), and they've done some foolish things. That's very hard to fit in a seamless explanation such as Giroux's.


There is something fundamentally romantic about Giroux's grandiose argument defending classes in social and cultural foundations of education, and especially what he and others call critical theory. For those new to the term "foundations," it usually refers to four types of classes: educational psychology, measurement/assessment, curriculum theory, and humanities and social-science perspectives on education. Social or cultural foundations comprise the last. I push my students to think about the contradictions and dilemmas of education, so much so that a student from about ten years ago told me I had to read Giroux's essays. But I don't want them to save the world, or rather I don't really expect my classes to be the lynchpin in their future careers, however much my life revolves around my own area. For one thing, it's a bit absurd to simultaneously claim that we should be careful about all the child-saving goals some have for formal schooling at the same time we want people to Save the World using our perspective.

Far more realistic is a goal of sanity: If you take a class from me, I'll give you a rock to stand on when things are nutty. You should come out of my class understanding the central reasons why politics is inseparable from education policy, why there are conflicting expectations of schools, what the debates over the achievement gap revolve around, arguments over the roles of teachers and teaching as an occupation, and a basic outline of the history of education and social-science models of schooling. If you become a teacher after leaving my class, you'll have some ideas and tools to give you perspective as fads fly through your system. Or to take another analogy: my undergraduate classes in social foundations are the educational equivalent of defensive driving classes. Of course you need to know how to steer the car, work the mirrors, operate the clutch, and so forth. The mechanisms of driving are essential. But a good part of staying safe on the road is avoiding all the crazy drivers around you. Likewise with teaching: you need to know methods, but if you only learn methods you'll be crying frequently at 4 am, and not just in your first year of teaching.

The role of classes in humanities and social-science perspectives in education is different at the graduate level: researchers in other areas who wade into areas touching on humanities and social-science perspectives on education need to know something about the relevant materials my colleagues and I write lest they reinvent the wheel, misinterpret canonical authors such as Dewey, and otherwise lead themselves astray. One brief gloss on this is captured in books such as Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia (1995), after which graduate students in my classes commonly express amazement that "these things have been tried before" for a lot of these things policies. And, no, one book is not enough. Quick (for those who haven't taken social/cultural foundations classes at the doctoral level): what sorts of wheels do you not have to reinvent, thanks to Willard Waller? Robert Dreeben? Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir? Amy Gutmann?

The arguments over social foundations and "theory" in teacher education make me wince in part because they come from the counterfactual assumption that social foundations dominates teacher education. Arthur Levine made that error in one of his reports, Arne Duncan makes it, and David Steiner makes it. Were we so lucky that historians, philosophers, and sociologists of education ran the roost, but that just isn't so. Go find the social-foundations requirement in California state law or regs: I dare you. It's not there, and I don't know if there's a single state that requires it. NCATE doesn't. TEAC doesn't. Part of the difficulty with classes in social and cultural foundations of education is that they are often "infused" into other classes taught by faculty (or adjuncts or graduate students) without much more formal education in the constituent disciplines than a single class themselves. In some small college programs, there isn't much choice with the small numbers of faculty. But full-time positions specifically in foundations of education have declined dramatically over the past few decades, and it feeds a vicious cycle:

  • External and internal pressures rise on teacher education programs to add technical content to programs.
  • Programs of studies shift away from courses based in liberal-arts programs and towards more technical courses. (Sometimes this is reduction of gen-ed requirements outside teacher ed, sometimes in reduction of social foundations requirements.)
  • As foundations requirements drop, colleges and universities hire fewer faculty in the area on retirements. Some social foundations faculty entirely disappear in institutions.
  • Some time later, there is a countervailing push (either externally or internally) to increase material in teacher education programs on diversity, multiculturalism, the social context of education, etc.
  • Teacher education program faculty restructure programs again to add the material.
  • Without social foundations faculty, those who teach courses in diversity, multiculturalism, the relationship between schooling and democracy, and so forth have relatively thin backgrounds in those areas. They do the best they can...

... and the best that someone outside an area of expertise can do is often very different from someone who has spent years of study in the area. I've got three years of postdoc experience in a special education department, but you'd be nuts to ask me to teach methods classes in special education. I am just not competent to do so. Period. So what happens when people teaching classes in schooling and diversity do so with a small handful of graduate classes touching on diversity, themselves not taught by anyone with a liberal-arts background, and without being responsible for a broad field of readings beyond the required readings for those classes?

In other areas of education, we'd call this out of field teaching. To argue that teacher education is too laden with theory because you can easily find course titles, catalog descriptions, and syllabi with terms such as foundations, critical theory, diversity, and so forth when the instructors for those classes don't have significant academic backgrounds in social foundations is the teacher education equivalent of saying that high schools were too laden with science if we lived in a world where somewhere between a large minority to a solid majority of science teachers had no more than one or two science classes in college.

So the reality of teacher education today is that much "theory" is watered down, outside the context of a rigorous course in a liberal-arts tradition. I construct my readings so that no student can agree with everything they read in my course unless they've read poorly, but I can imagine someone with minimal readings in the area assigning a recent provocative writing in one particular direction without a broader context. In my undergraduate social foundations class, I assign more than a dozen pieces of writing that students usually find difficult and require close attention. But if the primary reading is a text and the emphasis is on understanding terminology or a cascade of regurgitated social-science models as separate "chunks" to memorize, students avoid a structure of close reading, deeper criticism, and a conversation among authors.


Where to go from here on teacher education and the right mix of liberal-arts courses and technical courses? First, I think we call bullshit on those who simultaneously praise Teach for America and then want colleges of education to strip their programs of everything but vocational approaches. You can't ask schools deeply in need of good experienced teachers to take fresh-out-of-school liberal-arts graduates and then say every other teacher has to start with a purely technical background. Double standard, no? Second, when talking about social foundations we stop channeling George S. Counts, who argued in the 1930s that teachers could be social reformers in an explicit sense. That is essentially what Giroux is doing even while acknowledging the (culturally) conservative nature of teaching. That lays a pretty heavily guilt trip on future teachers, who can do a great deal to improve the world just by doing their jobs, keeping perspective on bad policy and going around it legally, and staying sane while doing so.

We also have to support a solid balance of liberal-arts and professional courses as essential for new teachers. That's enormously difficult in a public four-year college or university, as universities discovered in Florida when the legislature tried to mandate more than 30 hours of prerequisite liberal-arts courses for education majors. It was great in theory, but in practice it required students to know at the start of their first semester that they wanted to be teachers. It is also true that those who want to have secondary specializations need to start early because they essentially have to double-major if they want to be certified when they graduate. The current move is to require teacher-education students to have consistent field experiences every year (preferably every semester), with the right supervision, of course. Again, this sounds great, but it imposes structural inflexibilities in other parts of a student's program of studies.

What we are left with is the reality of structurally-incomplete programs: in four years, relatively few student are going to have both a great liberal-arts education and also a great professional education. In the 1980s, the Holmes Group had another theoretically-bright idea, which is to make teacher education a five-year process, adding in a masters-degree program before people graduated and acquired jobs. Unfortunately, lots of students need to have jobs before they can take the graduate credits, and in most public universities, graduate courses are a large quantum click higher in tuition. New York State pioneered the "masters degree during your early professional career" approach, which recognizes the incomplete nature of baccalaureate degrees as professional education.

In the end, the masters-in-five-years requirement may be the best approach to the inherently incomplete nature of undergraduate teacher education. Unfortunately, that doesn't address the individual gaps in a new teacher's background or the incompatibility of taking graduate classes in the academic year while you're teaching. So it needs tweaking: New teachers fresh out of college need to be told explicitly what they come in with, what gaps they need to fill, and what type of program they must take (whether heavy on liberal arts, heavy on technical methods, or something more specific). I don't care if they are formal masters programs or graduate certificates or whatnot; we just need to acknowledge that most new teachers need help both during the year in their classes and with deeper background in either liberal arts or professional education. Any liberal-arts courses need to be heavier in the summer than in the academic year. And school districts should pay teachers to acquire more education in their first few professional years as part of accelerated early-career raises.

I wish I could change the world so that teachers were paid well enough to wait until they have a graduate degree to start teaching, or that we really could provide a great liberal-arts and a great professional education all in four years. But it does no good to propose policies based on what isn't true now. What is true now is that few teachers come out of college fully prepared to be great in the classroom right off the bat, and that isn't going to be the case no matter what Arne Duncan or you or I would wish. So we have to accept that people graduate college with an incomplete preparation, and then we need to help them without pretending that either just a technical or just a liberal-arts education is enough.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Learning on Other People's Kids - an important book on Teach For America

I wondered, "Whose America is Teach For America really teaching for? Why is it tolerable for education to be less-thanfor other people's kids? And, what are we, as a nation, really prepared to do about it?

Those are the concluding words of Barbara Torre Veltri in her book Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher

In just over two two decades since Wendy Kopp founded Teach For America as a result of her senior thesis at Princeton, the organization has become an influential player in education and politics in the United States. According to its website, for the past school year it had 7,300 corps members teaching 450,000 students. It regularly gets glowing press coverage from general media. Admission to its corps from selective colleges has become increasingly competitive. Yet what Teach For America is and does has been poorly understood.

Barbara Torre Veltri provides what may be the single most important examination of TFA I have encountered, and I hope you will continue reading as I explore the book and explain why I make that statement.

Veltri is herself a long-term educator, now a university-based educator of teachers. She began her own teaching career under emergency certification: like the members of TFA corps, that means she was NOT a fully certified teacher at the time she entered her classroom. Further, in her capacity as a university based trainer of teachers, she had a multiple year association with Teach For America: she was associated with one of the universities that serves as a site for the 5 week Institutes that represent the entirety of the training of Corp members before they get their own classroom, and she served as a resource for Corps members and TFA staff as the participants continued to learn how to teach even as they were already class-room based. The book is thus enriched not only with her insight into the experiences with which she was associated, but she had access to a large number of current and former Corps members and the people in school districts in which she was placed. Veltri is also a thorough researcher, having examined and absorbed much of the relevant literature.

As should be clear from how I began, Veltri now raises serious questions about our reliance upon Teach For America. That does not mean she is necessarily opposed to alternative programs to recruit and train teachers for hard to staff schools in inner cities and rural areas: in her Acknowledgments she refers to Jumpstart of Manhattanville College, whose model "includes 6 months of coursework, practicum, and mentoring, prior to placement of career-changers into New York Schools." By comparison, TFA Corp members get a 5 week institute. The difference can perhaps be reflected best in retention statistics - as of the writing of the book, 85% of those who completed Jumpstart remained in the classroom (these are 9 year figures(, whereas the vast majority of TFA leave the classroom upon completion of their two year commitments, taking advantage of the benefits offered by graduate and professional schools towards former TFAers, and includes a stipend from AmeriCorps equal to $5,000/year for use against any past or future educational expense. Remember (1) this is paid for by our taxes, and (2) TFAers qualify for this regardless of any financial need.

And while I am on the financial aspects about which you will learn in this book, let me also note the following. TFA requires that their Corp members be paid the same as would certified teachers in the same positions EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE NOT THEMSELVES CERTIFIED. Further, the contracts with school districts require a payment to TFA of several thousand dollars additional for each Corps Members, thus effectively making a TFA placement MORE EXPENSIVE than hiring others to teach, whether fully certified or - like TFAers - provisionally certified.

And there are the costs associated with the constant turnover of teaching faculty. On p. 168 Veltri cites a study that says the costs of teachers leaving the classroom range from $4,366 and $17,872 for each teacher leaving this classroom. There is further non-financial impact in the negative effect upon learning that is clearly documented across the professional literature in schools lacking a constant teaching faculty.

The real value of the book comes less from the statistics and studies which Veltri cites, but from the words and experiences of those who themselves were participants in TFA, with whom Veltri built a sufficient relationship of trust that they were willing to be quite candid with her. While most had little intention of staying the classroom permanently, they were drawn to this service because they wanted to make a difference, even if they were also drawn by the long-term benefits they believed would accrue to them after completing their two years. Many felt unprepared for what they were encountering in the classroom. They desperately needed experienced mentors, but TFA's support was largely limited to former TFAers, and they were on their own in finding support within their schools. They acknowledged their lack of relevant background on which to draw, and how overburdened they felt. Let me offer a few examples to illustrate this:

I tend to go over my lesson plan time. How do you fix that? (Cortina)

“My students need experienced teachers who know what works and can implement it effectively. Instead, they have me, and though I am learning quickly, I am still learning on them, experimenting on them, working on their time.” (Marguerite)

I mean, in a lot of was, how I am teaching right now is what I remember doing in high school. It's what makes sense to me. It's a kind of ... prior knowledge. I guess it is just that. (Ali)

... And, part of the problem is, I just never know exactly if I am doing what I am supposed to be doing and that creates a lot of stress. (Kyle)

That stress is increased by the requirement of completing 15 credit hours during their rookie year, because of their emergency certification status:

What does TFA want me to do? Attend UPenn classes four nights in a row, grade my student papers, and prepare for teaching, or listen to them? I'm done with it! (Curtis)

Let me comment briefly on the requirement for 15 credit hours. When I began my doctoral studies while in my 2nd year at my current school, I needed special permission to take 9 credit hours, because our system believes taking on anything more than 6 credit hours at time jeopardizes one' effectiveness as a teacher. I already had 4 years of teaching experience, one of which was in the school with the same preps as I would have while attending graduate school. I have seen beginning teachers with emergency or provisional credentials struggle to balance the demands of the classes they teach and those they attend, even with 6 hours and MORE PREPARATION than the 5 weeks offered in TFA institutes.

Another key value of the Veltri book is that she explores serious questions. If I may quote from her website, the book is organized around key questions:
Previously unanswered questions are addressed: Why do intelligent college graduates apply to Teach For America? How are they recruited, trained, and hired? How do they learn the culture(s) of the community, schools, grade level, and curriculum? Is there a “culture” of the TFA organization? Do TFAers see themselves as effective teachers? What recommendations do corps members offer to TFA, its’ donors, policy-makers, future corps members and the public?
It has three main parts, of which the final, as Veltri puts it,
presents TFAers’ views on their corps teaching experience, analyzes the “master narrative” as it relates to the education of poor children, and raises questions for readers to contemplate.

One real issue for many beginning teachers is managing the classroom, for if students are not on task learning is less likely to occur. Allow me to quote what Veltri says on this topic, on p. 111:
Classroom management proved to be one of the top three needs of first year TFAers over seven consecutive cohorts whose classrooms I visited in both the middle Atlantic and Sothwest regions.

One question some often ask is if the TFA approach is effective. The organization likes to claim that its members are more effective teachers (as measured by test scores) than others in the same setting. Perhaps in this regard it is worth noting a new policy brief, Teach For America: A False Promise, produced by the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado and the Education Policy
Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University with funding from the
Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. The subtitle is Alternative teacher training program yields costly turnover while doing little to improve student achievement. Allow me to quote two paragraphs to illustrate why the TFA claims, while somewhat accurate, are deceptive:
Studies show that TFA teachers perform fairly well when compared with one segment of the teaching population: other teachers in the same hard-to-staff schools, who are less likely to be certified or traditionally prepared. Compared with that specific group of teachers, TFA teachers "perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores," the brief's authors write.

Conversely, studies which compare TFA teachers with credentialed non-TFA
teachers find that "the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers," Heilig and Jez write. And in a large-scale Houston study, in which the researchers controlled for experience and teachers' certification status, standard certified teachers consistently outperformed uncertified TFA teachers of comparable experience levels in similar settings.
The study goes on to note that the majority of TFAers leave at the end of two years, with over 80% being out of the classroom after three. Some of the claims for evidence of better performance are based on the less than 1 in five who stay, who have become fully certified.

I entered teaching through a traditional Master of Arts in Teaching program. I had 16 weeks of practice teaching under the supervision of experienced teachers, 8 each in middle and high school. I had received formal training in pedagogy, both general and related to my content area (social studies). Before my student teaching I had multiple occasions in which I observed experienced teachers in a variety of settings. I was trained in the legal requirements of special education students. I was given training and education in teaching students whose culture and background might be very different than my own. I was an honors graduate of an elite college (Haverford), in other words, the kind of candidate sought by Teach For America. I had previous teaching experience to adults in business, and years before in a private secondary school. And when I got my own classroom in 1995 I was 49 years old. Still, it was not an easy task, although now having completed my 15th year I am generally considered an excellent and effective teacher.

I have a certain antipathy towards the TFA approach, because I believe it is unfair to the students and schools in which TFAers serve. I refuse to accept the framing that implies a TFA teacher is better than currently available alternatives. The correct answer to the need is to provide properly trained teachers who are committed to students and the profession. I do not think we do our students justice when they are viewed as a part of getting one's ticket stamped for something else in life, and the opportunity to have claimed to have been of service.

I also think the resources dedicated to Teach for America might be better spent on preparing regular teachers. Veltri provides a table using data from TFA, showing that in 2006-06 the 4,700 corps members were served with an operating budget of $39,500,000, while for 2009-10 the projected figures were 7,300 corps members with an operating budget of $160,000,000. Let's put those numbers on a per capita basis. In 2005-06 the cost per corps member was 8,400, while in 2009-10 it had ballooned to $21,917, or more than half what most teachers in this country make in their first year. I question whether that is money well spent.

Veltri raises other pertinent questions as well. She notes that to be a cosmetologist requires 9 months of training for licensure in her state, and wonders why those to whom we entrust the education of our young people should have only a 5 week institute that does not connect with the real world of the classrooms to which the TFAers will go. As Veltri writes on p. 196
When teacher training is compressed like a microwaveable meal and field experience is deemed unnecessary or a waste of time by those in public policy positions, a message is sent that "other people's kids" are able to withstand someone learning how to teach on them.

Teach For America and its alumni are highly visible. It serves as a 501c3 organization favored by corporations. Its graduates are highly sought after in business and law schools. It garners glowing media coverage. It is now expanding its reach to other nations around the world.

And yet, the question should remain: does Teach For America truly serve the needs of those it claims it is helping? Does it even fairly serve the needs of its Corp members while they participate in TFA? I would argue that it does not. And had I any doubt before, what I read in Veltri's book would have convinced me.

If you care about education policy, I strongly urge you to read and digest this book. It will provide you with information relevant to those who are considering associating with TFA as a source of obtaining teaching staff.

Please note - I fully understand the desire to be of service, even if only temporarily. After all, that is the motivation for the many who have entered the Peace Corps, an organization I admire in many ways and for which I was selected but was unable to accept the offer. I am not necessarily criticizing those who apply, although I think they are misguided.

Perhaps you are not yet convinced. I suggest that if you read Veltri you will be.

Which is why I again urge you to read her book.


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

50 Political Ideologies

I thought this was an interesting attempt:
My list of the 50 most significant modern and contemporary political ideologies. Students and teachers may find it especially valuable (it worked well in a class I guest-taught in the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at UC-Berkeley in April 2010).

Along with each ideology below, I’ve suggested two readings. Most are by co-creators or advocates of the ideology at issue, and nearly all were written in our 21st century. All are freely available on the Web -- just click on the blue titles below.

Needless to say, no reading is – or can be – perfectly representative of a political ideology, which is typically the construction of a myriad of scholars and activists and is anyway never finally set in stone; hopefully, each reading here will prompt you to dig deeper in the literature.

Example of what is there (sans links).

A. Why Ideology?: Slavoj Zizek, “20 Years of Collapse,” New York Times, 9 Nov. 2009

B. Human Nature, I (quasi-tragic vision): Steven Pinker interviewed by John Brockman, “A Biological Understanding of Human Nature,” Edge Foundation website, 9 Sept. 2002

C. Human Nature, II (blue-sky vision): Dacher Keltner, pp. ix-xii & 3-15 in Keltner, Born to Be Good, 2009


A. Understanding Ideology: Manfred Steger, “Introduction: Political Ideologies and Social Imaginaries,” pp. 1-5 in Steger, The Rise of the Global Imaginary, 2008 [after you click on this link, you’ll need to type “Social Imaginaries” into the search box]

B. Creating Ideology, I (bottom-up): Lawrence Goodwyn, “The Alliance Develops a Movement Culture,” pp. 20-35 in Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, 1978

C. Creating Ideology, II (young turks): Todd Gitlin, “‘Name the System,’” pp. 171-88 in Gitlin, The Sixties, rev. 1993 [after you click on this link, you’ll need to type “Name the System” into the search box]

D. Creating Ideology, III (top-down): Cheng Chen, “Post-Communist Russia’s Search for a New Regime Ideology,” conference paper, American Political Science Association, Aug. 2009 [after you click on this link, you’ll need to click on the box marked "One-Click Download" and then on the box marked “Chicago Booth”]