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Feb 15, 2008

The sleep of reason produces monsters

There are two different conversations about quality in teacher education. One has to do with compliance. How do we gather data that will allow us to report to the State and to NCATE? The other is about what makes sense for teacher preparation as such. Both are probably needed, but what I find more and more troubling is that the first tend to crowd out the second one. Among other things, we tend to create incredibly generic assessment instruments the sole purpose of which is to "cover" certain standards. For example our Elementary teacher candidates get evaluated at the end of student teaching, with this rubric:

  1. Uses knowledge of math and social studies and standards to plan instruction and support student achievement.
  2. Creates a learning environment characterized by acceptable student behavior, efficient use of time or gaining knowledge, skills, and understanding.
  3. Applies sound disciplinary practices in the classroom.
  4. Develops/selects/utilizes resources to enhance the learning of students with diverse backgrounds, experiences, abilities, values and perspectives.
  5. Applies appropriate assessment and intervention strategies consistent with a successful learning environment.
  6. Uses strategies to keep students on task to support learning processes.
  7. Demonstrates instruction which is consistent with district goals and state standards.
  8. Teaches students within the scope of teachers' legal responsibilities and students' rights and follows procedures as specified in state, federal, and local policies.
  9. Reflects on and evaluates his/her own performance to improve teaching.
  10. Is dependable, reliable, and punctual.
  11. Demonstrates effective interpersonal communication skills with students, staff, parents.

Our Secondary candidates are evaluated with a 6-page long instrument that is somewhat similar, although more detailed (the STEP Instrument). If you think of it, it is incredibly difficult to assess these with any degree of accuracy. We do not, agree on what are sound disciplinary practices. Moreover, we do not teach those practices. We do not make judgment on whether such an application is effective or not; it is just "applies." Number 6 is simply funny, because everyone uses strategies, some just use better ones. The room for error is huge, criteria are very subjective, and there is no way to assess the validity or reliability of these monster rubrics. Yet the people who designed those rubrics are very smart, competent educators who certainly know what makes a good teacher. What happened? Very simple: the demands of accountability. The State of Colorado in its infinite wisdom has developed standards (not really bad ones), and demands us to show how we meet all of them. The most efficient way is to copy the standards almost exactly into the rubric, and then have some poor supervisor to check – advanced, proficient, or just good enough. The value of a monster rubric is minimal, because its sweep is so broad. However, the compliance conversation tends to ignore the common sense, and instead leads us to accept the absurd as the normal. The whole last year we were thinking about curriculum and assessment, and yet we were not thinking about curriculum and assessment. Our horizon was artificially limited to those things that produce good compliance records rather than good teachers. It is ironic how the quality movement actually detracted us from working on improvement of quality.

Several colleagues and I have attended the AACTE Conference last week. One of the highlights was the lecture by Deborah L. Ball, Dean, School of Education, University of Michigan. Her point was that teaching is really a precise, highly skilled occupation, which should involve a lot of training, and not a lot of improvisation. She suggested that teaching should be analyzed to its basic elements, and teacher candidates are to be trained in very specific behaviors and ways of thinking. This is simple enough, and we can probably do it right here, within our school. The combined expertise among my colleagues is enormous, and we certainly have the desire to do the absolutely best we can. However, we're running round thinking how to comply. We have no time or strength to think about the substance of what we do.

I say we stop now. Let's ignore the compliance worries, and focus on what we teach and how do we know if we did a good job. Let's look at very fundamental elements of good teaching and then concentrate on how to do more with less. Let's get rid of all monster rubrics, monster portfolios, monster assignments, and make a few very good assessments. Let's find wholes in our programs and plug them all. There is no accrediting body on Earth who could touch us with a six feet poll if we do that. We can always come back and say that these standards are covered by this and that. However we need to stop being afraid and only do what is good for our students. We should put our foot down and only comply to demands which does not hurt what we do. Enough is enough; let's take charge of our own affairs.

Let me try to begin brainstorming. I think we should be able to see a teacher candidate to do the following:

  1. To explain a concept or an operation to children, in several different ways
  2. To assess whether kids get it or not, and then re-teach it in yet more ways.
  3. Organize a learning activity
  4. Respond to kids' questions and problems
  5. Address behavioral problems in classroom and relate to children well

I think this is about it. Well, perhaps I am missing something, but let's keep it short and manageable. The standards movement has ran into problems precisely because no one had the guts to stop proliferating the standards.

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