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Teacher prep programs coming under high-level scrutiny
There's a common joke, of sorts, about university schools of education and other programs that train teachers for the classroom: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach, teach teachers."
As an old alumnus (we won't say how old) of an education school, I always felt there was a certain amount of truth in that, although the comment seemed more biting than was called for. But it does point to a commonly held attitude (and one that's not entirely unjustified) that education school is not on the same plane as law school, medical school or other professional training grounds.
And that probably goes a long way toward explaining why the teaching profession has never been held in the same regard either.
Now, it seems, teacher training programs are coming under the same "reform"-minded scrutiny that K-12 classrooms have been under for some time.
Mind you, I say that knowing that KU Education Dean Rick Ginsberg has already corrected me: "If you haven't been hearing the criticisms of teacher training programs for years, you haven't been reading." But what is clear, he said, is that President Barack Obama's administration is placing a high priority on this as a national policy initiative, and reforming teacher training programs is likely to be the signature policy piece of Obama's second term.
Earlier this week, the American Federation of Teachers released a report, "Raising the Bar: Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession," that spells out a vision from one of the nation's largest teachers unions.
Although generally supportive of traditional training models like those used at most universities, it does acknowledge the need for more rigorous standards for entry into the profession, and for more universal assessments of those programs so that new, alternative training paths are held to the same standard as traditional colleges and universities.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it calls for a single oversight organization, "composed of predominantly teachers and teacher educators," to establish standards and assessments of teacher prep programs, "as is the case in other professions."
The clear intent of that seems to be to keep the governance of teacher training programs out of the political arena.
There may be some reason for the teachers union to be concerned about that because later this month another report is due to come out, a set of joint recommendations from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker is a member of that latter group. She's been pretty mum about the contents of the report because it's all embargoed until the official release date. But she does plan to give the State Board of Education a kind of Reader's Digest summary of it when the board holds its regular monthly meeting next week. (The release date isn't until a few days after the board meeting.)
But DeBacker did share a few minute details with me during a recent phone interview, including one item that is likely to cause a few headaches in Kansas and several other states: the idea of allowing almost universal reciprocity across state lines, so that a teacher who is qualified in one state can be automatically qualified to obtain a license in another state.
And this is where the so-called "reform" movement in K-12 starts to parallel this movement to reform teacher training programs.
A number of states in the country - Kansas most decidedly not among them - have begun opening their doors to all kinds of alternative routes to certification. Most of them are well-intentioned because they are trying to relieve serious teacher shortages in key areas by making it easier for working professionals in other areas like science and engineering to make mid-career changes and go into teaching.
But there is a world of difference between, for example, being a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and knowing how to teach chemistry to high school students, including those with learning disabilities, as well as those who simply aren't all that interested in chemistry to begin with.
Kansas does have reciprocity with many states, as long as the person applying for a license in Kansas has met the qualifications to obtain a license here, and as long as the training program he/she comes from meets the standards that the Kansas State Department of Education requires.
Ginsberg rightly points out the irony of a system that places higher and higher expectations on teachers and schools to improve student outcomes, while simultaneously lowering the standards for people to enter the teaching profession.
We'll see before long how many of the new reforms our State Board of Education is willing to endorse.