Teacher effectiveness and the blame game

If having great teachers in the classroom is so important, why then is $2.4 billion in federal funding for teacher preparation, the third-largest federal K-12 program in the country, on the chopping block?

The present administration has proposed a 9 million dollar cut in education funding and a significant chunk of this cut concerns support for teacher preparation and ongoing professional development. Part of the logic is that these programs are ineffective and are without evidence that the product of such efforts is improved teaching effectiveness.

Educator effectiveness is a very complex issue with multiple causal components and disagreements regarding how to evaluate effectiveness. It is also easy for outside parties to propose that we want prove, but have no idea just what prove would look like. A business mentality without much insight suggests that you just get rid of ineffective employees. On the surface this may seem reasonable. However, practicing teachers work in very different situations by time and circumstance and they do not control some of the major variables influencing student performance (factors outside the control of the school).

I would like to explore a related topic associated with some of the political expectations of higher education and to encourage anyone who reads this to consider the complexity of the situation. One way to frame this presentation might be to ask just who is the student of interest when it comes to the role played by higher education. Politicians tend to be focused on performance variables of K12 students so this would be a reasonable target. Clearly, however, those of us working in higher education must have this impact in an indirect fashion. We must graduate future educators who are highly skilled, knowledgeable, and motivated to have a chance at meeting the expected positive impact assuming that these graduates will be hired into situations that offer them a reasonable chance of success.

Here is a dose of reality. Many of those who go into education are not what I would describe as “elite” students. Of course, this blanket statement ignores some percentage that are. Many education majors try something else first and come to teaching as a second choice. Quite a number make this transition late in the college process. Secondly, education programs reject few applicants. Again, there are exceptions, but it is fair to say few are rejected.  Finally, the grading practices in education tend to be more liberal than in many other disciplines. Grade inflation is everywhere, but note that the field of education struggles with the issue of competitive grading. If you follow social media addressing the field, you will encounter many K12 educators arguing that grading is ineffective and harmful so this perspective is not unique to higher education.

Aside from these factors which you may or may not accept, try this final reality. Educators believe they can educate. This is what they do. If the skills in question concern teaching practices, it is these skills that they are trying to develop. It comes down to how much stock is placed in selection vs. training. Consider that med schools (just another professional school) reject a sizeable proportion of those who apply. I spent a good part of my career as the administrator for a program that trained clinical psychologist and rejection of applicants was at pretty much the same level as med school. Many of those rejected could have made it through and been successful. This was known to all, but the success rate definitely goes up when the admission process is very competitive. Consider the difference in approach here and how the outcome is as much influenced by the selection process as the education process. Consider also that those students who were rejected really wanted to become professionals in the field and have invested a great amount of time and money in the preparation process. Should the preparation programs those failing to gain admission invested their time and money in be blamed? I do not see this as a common reaction.

Here is a somewhat different observation from my experience with clinical psychology. Sometimes one of the students selected for our training program would struggle. This was easier when they struggled with courses they took. In the old days, the general knowledge courses were front loaded so that the students would not be expected to begin developing clinical skills until later. This took some of the pressure off because course failure seemed easier to use as a reason for asking students to leave the program than poor “clinical skills”. One downside was that students would get deep into their education – say 6 years – before it became obvious they were just not good with people and would likely not make an effective clinician. Our program did begin to mix clinical skill development with background coursework partly because of this issue. From my outside perspective, I saw situations in which the clinical faculty observed some students struggling with clinical skills and understood this situation as an educator would – the student needed more time and more mentoring. Again, this is how educators think. Once in a great while, we got burned. We would decide that a student was finally ready to go out on internship (something like supervised teaching for clinicians) and have the student dismissed. This did not happen often, but it happened. My point is that it is difficult to give up and decide that a student will not develop expected skills and when you keep trying to develop needed skills, which I assume most would see as the right thing to do, it becomes even harder.

I think a similar thing happens with future teachers and is much more common because of the limited restrictions on admissions and on the reduced time frame. Note that the time frame in preparing teachers may be significantly truncated if the student changes majors into education. It is very possible you do not start to have misgivings until a future teacher is a senior and it is easy to give such students the benefit of the doubt. Consider being a professor confronted by an angry student and sometimes the parents trying to explain that the teaching skills necessary to continue are just not there – threats to call the dean, the president, etc. There is always the concern that this is an inexact science and maybe that future teacher will somehow blossom.

K12 institutions have a role in this process. What happens with the multiple opportunities to observe these future teachers working with students? What about the cooperating and supervising teachers? What about the hiring process itself? What about the administrators who avoid the A students reasoning that such future teachers will be unable to relate?

It is a messy process. My point is that it is messy in ways many critics do not consider.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.