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?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I’ve never really wanted to run a textbook company, but I’ve never not wanted to more than now. Pearson and other edu-types have had a rough week–here are some of the highlights:

The fake history we all remember: The myth of the spit-on Vietnam vet. HT: RH

Where do the white nationalists come from? The New Yorker profiles Mike Enoch. HT: RP

New Mexico puts science back in its K-12 science standards. HT: VW

Trump’s war on knowledge, by Ariel Dorfman at NY Review of Books.

What has Bill Gates learned about learning? He describes his twenty-first century education about education on his blog.Bart reading bible

How do writers write? Peter Greene offers his eight rules for writing right.

There’s nothing new about “fake news:” An interview with Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland, at Religion Dispatches.

Wowzers. Pearson apologizes for racist stereotypes in nursing textbook. Some examples:

  • “Jews may be vocal and demanding of assistance.”
  • “Blacks often report higher pain intensity than other cultures.”

Thanks to everyone who sent in tips and stories.

Are Teach-Bots “Conservative?”

When Arnold Schwartzenegger played a robot, it was the mean, human-killing kind (at first). But when he played a teacher, it was the cute, love-them-kids kind. But in the real world, we will soon have machines performing crucial teaching tasks. Will this be embraced by conservatives?

Hasta la Vista, Human Teachers...

Hasta la Vista, Human Teachers…

According to Politico, the company that is in charge of producing Common-Core-related standardized tests has promised to introduce computer grading. The company, Pearson, wants computers to grade student essays in order to cut down on the costs of test processing. In fact, those algorithm-guided grading programs were an essential part of Pearson’s original contract with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the folks behind the Common Core tests.

Caitlin Emma of Politico reports that those robo-graders have been delayed without explanation. Pearson’s original plan was to phase in computer grading. This year, all Common-Core tests would be graded by humans. Next year, two thirds would be done by computer. After that, computers would “read” and evaluate all student essays.

For us here at ILYBYGTH, this raises a tricky question: Is this plan “conservative?” As we’ve seen, conservatives have been bitterly divided over the plans to introduce Common Core curricula. Some conservatives have insisted that the CCSS are the best, most conservative way to reform education. Others have called the new standards a “progressive beer bong,” or a socialist plan fomented by “Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.”

So what will conservatives say about robo-grading? I can imagine some free-market types will embrace the new technology. If computers can grade tests quickly, efficiently, and accurately . . . why not? This will represent, after all, the triumph of business principles in the hopelessly sclerotic world of public education, some might say.

On the other hand, conservatives might be aghast at the dehumanization of the process. It is one thing to use machines to grade multiple-choice answer sheets, but another thing entirely to have them grade essays. For one thing, conservatives might agree that computer grading is simply inaccurate. Conservative critics might side with progressive pundits who insist that computers can’t possibly evaluate the complex meanings of student writing.

My hunch is that this issue will divide the traditional “conservative” constituency. I’ve argued that the Common Core has forced a re-shuffling of what it has meant to be “conservative” on educational issues. This question of computer grading will only deepen that divide among conservatives.