Op-Ed: Is this the ‘mean season’ for educating our children?
Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released federal regulations for teacher preparation programs. The gist of the new guidelines, which state departments of education such as Connecticut’s will enforce, is to rank Ed Schools and other programs based on what new teachers do in their first three years.
Rankings will be based on the extent to which new teachers are placed and retained in high-need schools as well as how effectively new teachers help students perform on “measures of student growth.”
I have two concerns. The first is about tying the quality of teacher preparation to the placement of new teachers in high-need schools.
This is an admirable goal, and preparation programs can and do emphasize dispositions that include facility in educating all children, including those coming up through the most difficult of circumstances. There is a ring of truth to that old saw about the American comprehensive high school— it educates students bound for Yale and students bound for jail —and the best teachers inspire them both.
But absent effective state and federal structures and incentives for teachers in their first three years to seek out and be placed in schools and districts with the greatest challenges, this will be a challenge for preparation programs.
Teacher labor markets work much like other labor markets: the organizations paying the highest salaries and offering the best working conditions attract the most applicants. Teacher labor markets do not always work this way for everyone — (other factors such as solidarity and sense of mission sometimes motivate new teachers to seek out all kinds of educational settings) —but most of the time they do.
Put another way, there is not necessarily a link between quality of teacher preparation and placement in high-need schools. If we want the best and the brightest teaching at schools with the most need, pay them. If we really believe that education is the key to opportunity, give all schools the tools they need to attract teachers.
My second concern is about ranking preparation programs based on how a new teacher’s students perform on standardized tests. It is legion how difficult it is to measure the influence of teaching on student academic achievement while controlling for other variables. Those other variables matter, too.
The thing that bugs me is this. There should be an emphasis in teacher preparation programs on academic achievement; this is what schools do and it is a core mission of both schooling and teaching. But the education mission goes beyond academic achievement. The core mission is also about safety; it’s about physical health; it’s about social and emotional growth; it’s about citizenship; and, yes, it’s about wisdom.
Educators impart all of this, but these other important purposes get no airplay in the current policy environment. The federal regulations stress “measures of student growth,” but best believe these measures are not defined in terms of physical health or citizenship; they are defined as test scores in English and math.
That’s the thing that bugs me —the current accountability cycle focuses on teachers and their students as the sole arbiters of variation in academic achievement.
What a bunch of baloney.
If the policy cycle included accountability for public health, for decent housing, for safe and invigorating after-school and summer programs, for available and meaningful youth employment, for adequate wages and benefits in support of households with children, for sane policing and sentencing guidelines, for compassion in our social service systems and in our government, for family values that actually value children —then, and only then, would I be all about the accountability.
Sometimes I wonder if we are in the holiday season or if we are just in the mean season. Because it’s a mean season for so many of our children.
Jim Carl, Ph.D. is Dean of the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
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