The Temptation of “Training” Teachers

What do new teachers need to know? Should they learn specific teaching methods? Or instead a more generic intellectual approach to teaching and learning? The obvious answer, it seems to me, is a little bitta both. Historically speaking, however, long and bitter experience has proven that merely training teachers to deliver a single “system” has failed miserably.

system boys one through four

If new teachers simply learned his fool-proof system…

This old question was raised again recently in the pages of the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog by teachers Jasmine Lane and John Gustafson. As they warn, their teacher-ed program left them feeling abandoned. As they put it,

we were not trained in how to actually teach. Our training felt more like a philosophy of teaching degree than ensuring students could learn the tangible skills required for success in high school and beyond.

I feel for them. More than that, I remember feeling a similar way when I started—left on my own, scrambling to prepare for Monday and wondering if last Friday was helpful for my students. Even veteran teachers struggle to know what to do and too often new teachers are left feeling isolated and underprepared.

So should teacher-ed programs help new teachers know exactly what to do? I work every day with talented new teachers, so personally I share the desire to provide teachers with practical, helpful ways to deliver useful lessons and to evaluate student learning. But I’m still skeptical about a couple of things.

NYC manual 1820 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

…nothing could possibly go wrong. All teachers need is the right system and the right tools…

First, as a history teacher, I know far less than Lane and Gustafson do about specific methods of reading instruction. They advocate “effective whole-group instruction or the “Big 5” components of reading.” Would that be better? I admit it happily: I don’t know.

As a historian, however, I’ve seen the dismal effect of trying to impose a one-size-fits-all teaching “system” on new teachers. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my eyeballs these days in research for my new book about America’s first major urban school reform.

Back in the 1810s, growing cities such as Philly, New York, Baltimore, and Cincinnati wondered what they could do with all their wild American children. They turned to young London reformer Joseph Lancaster. Since (about) 1798, Lancaster had run a school for low-income London youth. More importantly, he used his school primarily as a teacher-training institute.

Lancaster promised that he had created the perfect “system.” With Lancaster’s careful instruction, anyone could teach, because Lancaster provided perfect guidance. Lancaster’s system, in short, taught teachers exactly what to do. It taught teachers, in other words, “how to actually teach.”

As Lancaster wrote 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…

What happened? In short, it didn’t work. Among other faults with Lancaster’s system, new teachers found that their “training” did not really teach them what to do. It did not teach them “how to actually teach,” because actual teaching requires flexibility and a wealth of methodological tools, not just one system or method.

In practice, as Lancaster-trained teachers fanned out around the world, they found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lane and Gustafson, but from the opposite direction. That is, Lancaster-trained teachers found that the simplistic system they had learned did not prepare them for the exigencies of real-world classrooms. Unlike Lane and Gustafson, they yearned for a broader education about teaching and learning, instead of only one over-hyped “system.”

When they got to their new classrooms, Lancaster-trained teachers found they had to make things up on the fly. They found that Lancaster’s pre-fabricated instructions did not address important questions of teaching and learning. In a few years, the actual teaching practices in Lancasterian schools had come to vary widely. By 1829, Lancaster felt it necessary to denounce “erroneous practices” that had taken over Lancasterian schools.

What would have been better? To this reporter, it seems obvious that a simple training program for teachers has never been enough. Because real-world classrooms are infinitely complicated places, new teachers cannot be “trained” in only one method of teaching. Instead, new teachers should learn a mix of methods, ideas, histories, and, yes, even philosophies.

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?

Why Do School Leaders Need Teaching Experience?

Generals don’t have to start as privates. CEOs don’t start in the mailroom anymore. For that matter, Horace Mann himself never had any classroom teaching experience. Yet a new story from New Haven raises this question again: Why is it a bad idea to put people in charge of schools if they’ve never been teachers? This morning I’ll offer my three reasons. Are they enough? Or do teachers just feel an irrational desire to be flattered into thinking that their classroom experience matters?

broad yale

He’s betting $100 million that I’m wrong…

Here’s the background: Mega-rich ed donor Eli Broad just dished out a cool $100 million to Yale. Broad (apparently pronounced “Brode”) moved his center from LA to Yale’s business school. The goal is to offer an academic center that will offer, in the words of Yale’s leadership,

a tuition-free master’s degree program for emerging education leaders, advanced leadership training for top school system executives, and an extensive research endeavor aimed at assembling the premier collection of data on public education leadership.

Just in case you missed it, this program in school leadership is not part of Yale’s teacher-training program. In fact, Yale no longer offers teaching certification. No, this program will be part of Yale’s business school. The school leaders emerging from the Broad program will plan to take over districts and operate them more efficiently and productively, more like businesses.

Will it work? As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene pointed out in the pages of Forbes Magazine, Broad’s track record in education is not great. As Greene recounts,

Many of the most familiar names [of former Broad program grads] are familiar precisely because of their level of failure. Robert Bobb had a lackluster showing in Detroit. Jean-Claude Brizard received a 95% no-confidence vote from Rochester teachers, then went on to a disastrous term of office in Chicago. Oakland, CA, has seen a string of Broad superintendents, all with a short and unhappy tenure. Christopher Cerf created a steady drumbeat of controversy in New Jersey. Chris Barbic was put in charge of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and resigned with all of his goals unfulfilled (and recommended another Broad grad as his replacement). John Deasy’s time at LA schools ended with a hugely expensive technology failure.

Yet in spite of this record, Yale seems eager to take the money and open a program for similar leaders. To be fair, Yale’s not alone. There seems to be no general objection to elevating school leaders who have no classroom-teaching experience. It’s not only Queen Betsy. Obama’s Ed Secretary Arne Duncan also had no real teaching experience.

So why do so many experienced teachers think that leaders should have a teaching background? Why do so many clamor for our next President to install a teacher in the top ed job?

Easy. It’s not that learning general business and management skills can’t be helpful to running a school district. But having classroom teaching experience gives people three big, necessary advantages when it comes to building- or district-level school management.

First, having teaching experience cures us of the misunderstandings that we all have from our time as students. Unlike most jobs, almost everyone thinks they understand school, because we all spend a lot of time in school as students. In order to be an effective school leader, however, we have to go through a difficult process of giving up our tendency to assume that our experiences are somehow typical or representative. In every case, they are not.

One of the first lessons of a lot of new teachers—the talented group of people I get to work with—is that most of their students are not like them. A lot of new teachers remember school fondly. They often excelled in their classes and enjoyed their time in class. That’s a big part of their reason for wanting to become teachers in the first place. It is only when they start teaching that they realize how unrepresentative their own experiences are. Working with groups of students teaches teachers that there is no single one-size-fits-all approach to learning and growth.

And that brings us to the second necessary lesson that teachers learn. Unlike business leaders, teachers do not plan to ignore parts of their “market” that are not “productive.” Unlike business leaders, teachers do not expect that some of their “customers” will not buy in. Unlike business leaders, teachers learn to help every single student that they work with; they don’t concentrate on the “likely buyers.”

Third, and maybe most important, teachers learn things about real schools that even smart, informed civilians never seem to understand. Let me give you one example that helped me understand this lesson. I get to teach different classes. I teach an undergraduate course that introduces juniors and seniors to basic issues in American education, such as charter schools, unions, and the role of religion, race, gender, and economics. I also work with people who are completing their student-teaching experiences. Both groups of students are intelligent and informed. In fact, they are very similar groups of students. The biggest distinguishing factor is that the student teachers have taught for a few weeks, while most of the undergrads have not yet.

Though these two groups of students are very similar, they have very different reactions to certain issues. In general, the undergrads are enamored of ideas such as using value-added measures to gauge teacher effectiveness. To them, it makes sense: If you want to know how good a teacher is, test their students at the beginning and end of the year. The difference = what the kids learned that year.VAM

Sounds good to smart, informed people. Yet ALL of the student teachers react with horror to the idea. Why? Because after even just little bit of experience as a classroom teacher, students learn that their students are living complicated lives. There is no simple way to slap a number on the changes that students will go through in one academic year. To assume that their teachers are the ones who are driving those changes—to teachers with even a little bit of experience—seems obviously kooky.

For all three of these reasons, it seems obvious to teacher-philes like me that school leaders should have experience as teachers, classroom aides, or paraprofessionals. They might learn important stuff at the Broad Center, but they will miss out on things they can only learn by working with students.