Friday, April 13, 2007

We get no respect

Rodney Dangerfield, who died in 2004, was one of my all-time favorite stand-up comedians. To me, his signature line, “I get no respect,” never grew old. Rodney never seemed to run out of material. Still, if Rodney Dangerfield had been a teacher he would have discovered the mother lode of disrespect. The teachers I work with never seem to run out of “I get no respect” stories, either. I’m beginning to feel the same way. The last few years there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism of teacher education. For many critics, a host of educational problems can be laid at the feet of teacher educators who, it is claimed, have emphasized trendy, feel good pedagogies over teaching practices that have been proven to “work.” Perhaps the most widely-reported critique of the way reading is taught in teacher education programs (“What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading--and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning”) was produced last year by the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ). NCTQ describes itself as an organization that advocates for educational reforms at the federal, state, and local levels to produce more effective teachers. The NCTQ Board of Directors and Advisory Board are dominated by conservative critics of public education who have long advocated for market-based solutions to educational reform.
NCTQ’s report on how prospective teachers are taught to teach reading begins with the assumption that how reading should be taught is a settled question. To support this assertion, the authors of the NCTQ report point to the National Reading Panel. The authors of the report then ask whether the teaching of reading in schools of education is faithful to the findings of the National Reading Panel. To answer this question, they examined course syllabi and assigned readings from reading methods courses at 72 colleges and universities across the US. Based on this less-than-rigorous survey, the authors concluded that most universities are not teaching prospective teachers the “science of reading.” But, despite the lack of rigor, the basic findings of the NCTQ survey have been reported in newspapers across the country. Once again, teacher educators get “no respect.”

What should NCTE members and other progressive educators make of the NCTQ report? The most important thing to do is to be informed. The NCTQ report must be read critically. Readers of the report shouldn’t accept (or reject) the NCTQ findings without considering the point of view from which the report is written or without assessing the quality of the research. My sense is that the authors of the report subscribe to a narrow, behavioral view of reading and reading instruction that is not widely accepted among reading theorists and researchers. Further, I’d argue that the NCTQ report doesn’t meet even minimal standards for research so I think it’s fairly ironic that the authors of the report take such a strong position on “scientifically-based” research.

Two of my colleagues at Boston College and I have written a detailed critique of the NCTQ report which can be access via the NCTE Council Chronicle website. URL:

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Blame the Teachers

When students who attend poorly resourced schools with overcrowded classrooms underachieve academically it is teachers who are blamed. When American school children fare poorly on international comparisons in math, science, and reading teachers are faulted even though these comparisons are often unfair. When it is found that, on average, girls are outperforming boys on various measures of academic achievement the “blame” is placed on female teachers who are insufficiently considerate of boys’ needs. When Massachusetts introduced its new teacher test several years ago the prospective teachers who failed that test were labeled “idiots” by a leading Massachusetts politician even though the content of the test had been kept secret and the test did not align with state curricular frameworks. High stakes tests and prescriptive curricula are often justified on the basis of claims that teachers are too easily taken in by educational fads. Given this trend, it isn’t much of a leap to imagine that, when high stakes testing and prescriptive reading and math programs fail to remedy the achievement gap teachers – not publishers, politicians, or policy makers – will be blamed. A recent article USA Today referenced in the NCTE InBox offers a glimpse of the kind of criticism teachers can expect in the not-too-distant future.

The USA Today article (“Study gives teachers barely passing grade in classroom,” (March 29, 2007) summarizes a study published in Science Magazine which concludes that US elementary teachers spend “too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough on problem-solving, reasoning, science and social studies.” I agree. Many teachers are spending far too much time on the reading and math skills that are the focus of state tests to the exclusion of higher order problem-solving, science and social studies. I’ll go even further. Many teachers focus on basic reading and math skills to the exclusion of higher levels of reading and math. Some students spend far more time sounding out words than they do reading authentic texts. Many beginning readers may not even read texts in school at all. But it is difficult to fault teachers who are forced to follow prescriptive, teach-to-the-test curricula. If, in the context of No Child Left Behind, problem solving, science, and social studies (not to mention art, music, and even recess) are being pushed out of the school day, let’s put the blame where it belongs. The real culprits are politicians and policy makers who have taken curricular decision-making out of the hands of teachers and placed it in the hands of test developers and textbook publishers. I’m not above blaming individual teachers when students fail to learn. I was certainly dissatisfied with some of my children’s elementary teachers. But individual teachers can only be held accountable when they have some control over their work and, regrettably, many teachers in schools today have relatively little control over their work or students’ learning.

Monday, April 2, 2007

"Onerous" Testing in Public Schools

My wife’s mother bought her a subscription to the Wall Street Journal for Christmas. The generous explanation for this gift is that my mother-in-law wanted to encourage the development of my wife’s investment skills. The less generous reading of my mother-in-law’s motives suggests that she bought the Journal as an antidote to my liberal views. In this case, the Wall Street Journal is the equivalent of a garlic necklace for warding off vampires. Ironically, when I’m sufficiently desperate for reading material I sometimes read the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed pages.

On Saturday the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed piece by Brendan Miniter, a regular contributor to the opinion page of the Journal, bemoaning the defeat of a school choice bill in South Carolina (“A Day Late,” March 31, 2007, p. A10). There was nothing remarkable about the topic of this piece since the Wall Street Journal has consistently championed school choice as an essential element of educational reform. No, what grabbed my attention was Mr. Miniter’s assertion that opponents of school choice in South Carolina “attempted to derail ‘opportunity scholarships’ [an Orwellian term for a kind of voucher plan] by attaching restrictions that no private school could live with” (p. A10). And just what were these intolerable restrictions? “Requirements for teacher accreditation, submission to onerous state testing, and limits on tuition,” said Mr. Miniter.

In the context of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) teacher quality and state testing are presented as fundamental to “fixing” American public schools. Recent calls to relax the testing requirements of NCLB are being fiercely resisted by the Bush administration. But for the Wall Street Journal and other proponents of vouchers who would see taxpayer dollars flow to private schools in the form of vouchers teacher certification and (onerous) testing are “restrictions that no private school could live with.” For people possessing unquestioned faith in market forces to solve a range of human problems including disproportionate educational failures among poor and minority students I guess this makes some sense. Still, I’m mystified why state testing is “onerous” in the context of private schooling and a cornerstone of reform in the context of public schooling. Why such faith in (often uncertified) private school teachers and so little trust in “highly qualified” teachers working in public schools? I certainly agree that many parents are sending their children to private schools to escape “onerous” state testing practices that dumb down the curriculum. This is one of the reasons we sent our children to a Waldorf School. But why aren’t these same testing practices viewed as “onerous” for the children and teachers who work in public schools? Maybe the problem is that folks like Brendan Miniter just aren’t talking to the right people. My guess is that if they talked to the children and teachers who daily endure the tedium of test-based curricula they would discover that high stakes testing practices are equally despised in public school settings.