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What’s Really Wrong with Teacher Quality and Teacher Education?

It's time to get rid of our wrongheaded approach to evaluating teacher quality and educating professionals for the classroom.

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Student outcomes and teacher quality should be much more than test data and change takes much more time than political and public sentiments allow.

Next, what are the problems with teacher education?

My short answer is to say, first, not what National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is claiming. Part of the problem with teacher education is that the political and public discourse about teacher education has been historically condescending and recently further eroded by the essential failure of teacher education: the technocratic and bureaucratic nature of certification.

While NCTQ has fostered both an influential and compelling presence in the teacher education debate, we must acknowledge that think-tank advocacy and reports are often agenda-driven and not well suited for education reform. Further, Diane Ravitch has challenged NCTQ’s agenda, Susan Benner’s review of NCTQ’s first report has highlighted the flaws in NCTQ’s methods and conclusions, and Anthony Cody and Jack Hassard have further questioned NCTQ’s credibility.

Political, public, and media failure (see Yettick and Molnar) to consider think-tank credibility as well as what educational problems we are seeking to solve remain corrosive dynamics in the teacher education debate.

Beyond these direct challenges to NCTQ, however, lie the broader failures of teacher education—our repeated faith in standards, measurement, and certification.

Teacher education, and teacher quality, must be reformed away from the certification process and toward building education as a challenging discipline and raising teachers to the level of both master teachers and autonomous scholars.

I, for example, am one of those people in education with a string of education degrees—undergraduate and two graduate degrees in education. Without hesitation, based on my experiences as a student and my more recent decade as a teacher educator, the certification requirements (identifying and meeting prescribed standards, for example) do more to inhibit growth as an educator and scholar than help, but every course and experience related to teacher education not linked to certification were invaluable to me.

This may sound simpler than I intend, but the central reform needed to teacher education is not more or different standards and accountability for those standards, but a renaissance of expertise and scholarship in the field of education—both for those professors and scholars of education and the students seeking to be teachers and scholars.

Professors in fields outside of education—English, political science, biology, for example—do not spend their professional time conforming to and addressing standards mandated by think tanks or the government. The agency and accountability for expertise rests within the professor. Yet, professors of education and K-12 teachers spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on bureaucratic compliance.

For both improved teacher quality and teacher education, then, we must set aside our historical and current commitments to technocratic bureaucracy. Instead, we must seek equity of access to quality teachers and schools for all students, and we must built teacher professionalism by focusing on teacher expertise and autonomy instead of standards and accountability.

Esther Quintero explains how teacher commitment is impacted by misguided attempts to hold teachers accountable as an avenue to increased teacher quality: “Furthermore, the evidence suggests that emphasis on performance and accountability ‘have effects that are substantially greater than overwork and stress.’ That is, when teachers feel that they are operating ‘under a disciplinary regime,’ negative emotions such as fear, anger and disaffection begin to take hold — and fester.”

Teacher quality and teacher education matter, but our current misguided discourse and policies promise only to ruin further the promise of universal public education driven by teachers as scholars and leaders.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.

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