Monday Night at NCTM: Poster Session and Kenneth Zeichner's Plenary Address

Braving the snow, Ryan Grover and I slogged our way via RTD from Snowy Boulder to Almost-as-Snowy Denver. We arrived in time for a poster session. If you're unfamiliar with poster sessions, I'd describe them as a sort of academic mingling punctuated by awkward moments of silence as you read people's posters before deciding if the person is worth talking to. Yes, it's as fun as it sounds. I had one extended conversation with Sara Lohrman Hartman from Ohio University. Her recent dissertation work in rural Appalachia studied how a small school utilized a math coach. That's a rare luxury for a small rural school, at least in my limited experience.

As 7:00 neared I made my way to the plenary session and happily found Amanda Jansen standing outside the door. I'd never met Amanda in person, but I've conversed with her regularly on Google+ for more than a year. In that time she's made time for me and put up with my questions and rambling; it may not mean much to her, but as a grad student it means a lot to be welcomed by others in the field. We took some seats midway back in the room and settled in for a talk from Kenneth Zeichner, a well-known expert in the field of teacher education. His talk was not specific to mathematics education, but still of great interest for anyone who cares about how teachers are prepared and the institutions that prepare them.

My horrible picture of Ken Zeichner

As a student in Jennie Whitcomb and Dan Liston's Research on Teaching and Teacher Education class this semester, Ken's talk was very familiar. (If you've ever been told of the importance of reflective teaching, Ken and Dan literally wrote the book on the subject.) Ken began by framing three perspectives in the current debate about teacher education. First are the defenders, those who want to preserve the function and status of college and university-based teacher education (UBTE). Next are the reformers, those who seek to deregulate teaching and let the quality of teachers and teacher preparation be dictated by free market principles. Ken frequently cited Rick Hess as a proponent of this perspective, and shared George Will's belief that closing ed schools was the surest path to improving education in the U.S. Last are the transformers. This group, and where Ken places himself, wants reform of teacher education, but in a way that builds upon the capacity and expertise of UBTE and preserves a democratic, public system not driven by market forces.

From here, Ken shared what he sees as the two visions for preparing quality teachers. One is a system that produces professionals for a teaching profession; the other is a system that is technocratic and highly skill-driven, with teachers focused on actions that raise test scores in a narrow curriculum. Teaching skill is important, admits Zeichner, but professionals go beyond the management of a classroom to understand the social and political context of schools and their communities, and have skills that allow them to better reflect in ways that positively impact their teaching.

There are about 3.6 million teachers in the U.S., and alternative pathways for training those teachers (TFA, teacher residency programs, etc.) have grown since the early 1990s. Still, somewhere between 70-80% of the nation's teachers have earned licensure through UBTE at one of the almost 1400 college- and university-based programs around the country. Even if we were to deregulate teacher education, the market does not (and probably would not) have the capacity to prepare teachers without the help of UBTE.

Zeichner admits that UBTE has gotten a lot of non-critical, negative attention from the media. We've come to believe that too many teachers are not getting good results and efforts are now underway to trace poor student results back to the programs that prepared the teacher in those classrooms. When a recent bridge collapsed, said Zeichner, "The engineer who designed the bridge was exposed in the media but I don't remember anyone asking what engineering school he attended." Using another analogy, Zeichner said judging teacher education this way was similar to the idea that we should judge medical schools by patient outcomes. The result, says Zeichner, would be doctors avoiding treating those who need treatment most, just as teachers will avoid teaching in the tough schools with histories of poor test scores. This will lead to further inequality in how quality teachers are distributed, something the U.S. -- which was recently ranked 26th out of 29 nations in a UN report about child well-being -- cannot afford to have happen. The reformers' cries of "No Excuses!" does not rid us of the ails of poverty, no matter how good the teachers might be.

Zeichner addressed some key contradictions in the teacher education argument. For example, the Obama administration has pushed for higher standards for students while simultaneously pushing for alternative pathways to teaching that have lower standards. Also, as Mike Rose has pointed out, the logic of removing teacher education requirements and regulation, or to disregard teaching experience as a measure of quality, makes little to no sense in any other field. (Nobody would trust a neurosurgeon who hadn't been properly trained and lacked experience.) Further, no high-achieving country has deregulated their system of teacher education. Countries like Finland and South Korea have set their standards high, not lowered them.

Zeichner admits that messages like this, and his affiliation with schools of education, have led many to see him as a defender of UBTE. Zeichner insists that he's not a defender, but a transformer. Instead of deregulating UBTE, he sees a great need to change, yet not replace, our current system. This transformation would shift UBTE closer to the world of practice, providing a clinical experience for preservice teachers in a hybrid approach. This move would require the sharing of responsibility and accountability for teacher preparation with schools and their communities, a shared space with values that would prioritize democratized knowledge. Zeichner never advocated for this as a cure-all, but it is the approach most likely to support a system of effective, professionally prepared teachers.


(Note: These quotes from Zeichner are rough approximations. Caveat emptor.)

Q: An attendee from Chicago asked about the dismantling of public education in Chicago and the closing of public schools in lieu of charters.

Zeichner: "I'm not against charter schools. I'm against disempowerment of parents and local stakeholders." Zeichner says he was seeing similar school closings in his home of Philladelphia, where public schools are being closed and replaced by charters run by charter management operators. A new study should be out soon that shows the ineffectiveness of these approaches so far. "There's a lack of democratic debate. I'm not for the alternatives to go away, but I'm for an honest debate."

Q: Why do educational entrepreneurs think they're going to make a lot of money?
A: Zeichner: "Some alternative routes use non-profit status for the tax breaks and they outsource their services. From a distance it's hard to see where they're making money, but they are. ... I'm not implying anything about morality. Greedy, self-serving attitudes are everywhere, including universities. But there is a lack of transparency about what's going on. It astounds me how the NewSchools Venture Fund has so much influence while flying under the radar."

Q: I've done UBTE and "quick fix" teacher education programs. Quick fix doesn't work, and online programs are dangerous. Still, too many teachers don't really their profession like a true profession.
A: Zeichner defends online education to a degree, having been involved with some online programs that offered a lot of quality. "I'd be careful in discounting all online programs. Some universities are using them along with more traditional approaches. They can be improved and we still have a lot to learn. We need to be careful about demonizing anything just based on their sponsorships or affiliations."

Q: What are things a new generation of mathematics educators should fight for in public education? How do we take our conversations outside the education community?
Zeichner: "For me, I've decided that ed schools alone will not accomplish much. The ownership of teacher education needs to be broader and shared with communities. I recently met with a lot of stakeholders and listened to their stories. There's a lot of community activism in places like Chicago and Philadelphia, and we can join those efforts already underway instead of coming in from above with solutions to their problems. I wish I'd been more in the public sphere in my career, writing more op-eds and participating in forums, even if many would have disagreed with me. Now, the polarization we're left with is harmful."

Q: How do we measure low-performing teacher education programs?
Zeichner: "I agree with the National Research Council's report on improving teacher education, and that the profession itself needs to take care of its own accreditation and monitoring. I'm afraid that test scores and value-added models will fill this role at great cost and distraction, as simply ranking as a way to improve quality has never really worked. To anoint these people who know little about the field as saviors is idiocy. Twenty-five years from now people will look back and wonder how we could have been so stupid."

(Mic drop. Not really, but I wish.)

My Thoughts

For me, Zeichner's serious (and some might say somewhat depressing) talk was balanced by a sense of validation. Not only did I recently write a paper that expressed many of these same ideas, it gives me hope that the system I'm a part of is recognizing a need and possibility for significant change. For some people, I'm sure a reformed/deregulated system of teacher education seems like a remote possibility, but right now in Colorado we're anticipating the introduction of legislation proposing to do exactly that, removing the requirement for teacher education as we know it. If that bill appears and makes progress, you'll be sure to hear more from me.