Why Can’t Scholars Guarantee Good Teaching?

It was the reef on which the first big school reform crashed two hundred years ago. This week, the latest big reform in teacher-ed has come in for withering criticism. They couldn’t figure it out then, and they can’t figure it out now: Why is it so hard to figure out how to teach teachers?

edtpa map

The hip sensation sweepin the nation…

First, the latest: A group of ed scholars recently published their review of the latest reform of teacher training. The Educative Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA) portfolio has been mandated for the last few years in eighteen states—including the Great State of New York—for teacher certification. What did they think?

They had “serious concerns about scoring design, the reliability of the assessments, and the consequential impact on decisions about edTPA candidates.” In the end, they concluded that the problems outweighed the benefits. It should no longer be used to measure new teachers’ effectiveness.

Not so fast, said edTPA’s makers. The Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE)—who designed edTPA–and Pearson—who administers it—offered a quick response to the findings. They “categorically reject[ed] the conclusions” of the study and gave a point-by-point rebuttal.

We can argue about the evidence if we want, but this morning I’d like to ask a different question. Namely, why has it always been so impossible to establish an effective teacher-training program? It seems like it would be a relatively easy thing to do, but as I’m finding in my research about Lancasterian education, it has always been the second-most difficult challenge in American education.

Back in the early 1800s, Joseph Lancaster promised that his system would remove the need for expensive, trained adult teachers. As Lancaster explained in 1807,

On this plan, any boy who can read, can teach; and the inferior boys may do the work usually done by the teachers, in the common mode: for a boy who can read, can teach, ALTHOUGH HE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT IT; and, in teaching, will imperceptibly acquire the knowledge he is destitute of, when he begins to teach, by reading.

Back then, Lancaster and his many supporters thought they had solved the problem of schools that were too expensive for low-income families. By eliminating expensive teacher salaries, and obviating the need for teacher training, Lancaster insisted he could solve poverty in one generation.

phil manual 3 reading circle 1

This teacher was trained…sort of…

The problem was, it didn’t work. In New York, outraged African-American parents complained in 1827 that their children were being taught by underprepared child-teachers. As two wrote in Freedom’s Journal,

We are so skeptical, that we cannot believe, that almost any one is qualified to keep a school for our children. Enemies may declaim upon their dulness [sic] and stupidity; but we would respectfully inquire, have they not had dull and stupid instructers; [sic] who, if placed in any other than a coloured school, would hardly be considered as earning their salt.

By 1828, parent and student complaints led Philadelphia’s school leaders to turn to a new group of teachers, “better educated than those usually employed in that service.”

That first generation of urban school reformers might justifiably claim ignorance and naiveté. They had not yet heard that implementing standardized teacher-training programs was incredibly difficult.

I don’t understand why today’s reformers are still struggling with the same problem, though. I understand that teaching is complicated, but I have to ask: Why haven’t we been able to come up with a teacher-training program that works?

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