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Published in Inside - Volume XV, No. 4
“One of the things we like to say about Teachers College is that we are the premier address for conversation about education in this country – and during the past month, between U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s visit here and our distinguished guests today, that’s been quite literally true.”
That was how TC President Fuhrman opened the Phyllis L. Kossoff policy lecture on November 30th in the College’s Milbank Chapel. The “distinguished guests” were Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents (and a TC alumna) and David Steiner, the state’s new Commissioner of Education, who in recent weeks have proposed allowing non-academic institutions to grant master’s degree certification for teachers.
“I admire you for coming to the belly of the teacher education beast” to discuss these new ideas, TC Professor Aaron Pallas, who – together with A. Lin Goodwin, the College’s Associate Dean of Teacher Education -- was serving as a respondent at the event, told the Chancellor and the Commissioner.
Tisch said at the outset that – contrary to some previous reports -- New York will, in fact, meet eligibility requirements for federal Race to the Top funding (a pot of some $4.3 billion created by the Obama Administration for pre-K—12 education) and will be “very competitive in our application.”
One potential obstacle to the state’s eligibility: the U.S. Department of Education requires states to tie teacher tenure decisions to teacher evaluation in order to receive the funds, and New York currently has a law on the books that prevents doing that. However, the law expires in June, and Tisch said she sees “no appetite” in the state legislature to renew it.
Tisch also said she expects the state to raise its cap on charter schools, currently set at 200 – another requirement to be eligible for federal funds. However, she said New York will require charters to include and better support at-risk student populations they have neglected in the past, including English language learners, special needs students, and students who enter high school over-aged and unprepared for high school work.
The Regents Board is taking additional steps to boost its eligibility for federal funds, Tisch said, including:
- Establishing a “robust data system” to track every student’s progress in school and link student progress to teachers and the institutions that train them;
- Establishing common core standards in-English language arts and math that exceed minimum national standards. However, in a break with Mayor Bloomberg, who said last week that he would sign on to national standards “without question,” Tisch said the state “will reserve the right to increase the rigor of these standards and make them the top of the heap and not bottom of the heap” nationally. The standards will be enforced by “rigorous assessment,” but standardized tests will measure what is being taught in the classroom – not prescribe the curriculum, as occurs too often now. “New York will no longer be a state that teaches to the test,” Tisch said.
- Moving aggressively to meet a federal demand to close schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent for student performance. Most of these will be large, urban high schools in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo, Tisch said. Charter schools and “external managers” will be asked for help in serving students displaced by school closings.
Steiner said that while some reforms in the service of winning federal funding were worthwhile, and while the national standards conversation has brought New York into dialogue with the rest of the country on important educational issues, New York has not “tailored our sails to the wind of Race to the Top” criteria, but “where there is overlap — and there is considerable overlap — we welcome it.”
The Commissioner questioned whether “tunnel vision” by the national standards movement hasn’t come at the expense of meta-cognitive skills, “critical thinking” and “content-rich, sequenced curricula.” Race to the Top criteria are largely silent on curricula, he noted, while “the current fragmentation of curricula is not serving students well. There is repetition and holes in the knowledge base of high school graduates. Some students, for example, have repeatedly studied ancient Egypt, while there are no state curriculum frameworks for the arts, technology, economics or international studies.
Steiner criticized state high-stakes tests as “overly narrow, overly predictive” and “not rigorous enough,” and said New York should resist “financial and political pressures to continue a multiple-choice, annual, high-stakes environment” that doesn’t test higher-order thinking. He quoted the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who said: “When we choose to be educators, we cannot but take responsibility for the narratives that we pass on to the next generation,” adding, “what we actually teach to our students is at the core of it all.”
Admitting there was “no silver bullet” for failing schools, the Commissioner said he looks to institutions like Teachers College to research which programs are working and which are not, and to evaluate alternative models such as the Harlem Children’s Zone.
On the subject that was perhaps most controversial for his TC audience, Steiner said that teachers colleges must continue to play an important role in preparing and certifying new teachers, but that select non-collegiate institutions should serve that function as well. New York should allow a limited number of nonprofit institutions whose track records have been carefully researched and validated to grant master’s degrees, he said. One reason is that the current teacher certification test is too easy and doesn’t predict success in the classroom. Teacher preparation programs should put more emphasis on mastery of skills and classroom effectiveness, Steiner said.
Steiner took issue with critics of his plan who have said that allowing non-academic institutions to certify teachers is akin to allowing non-medical institutions to train and accredit doctors.
“In medicine, there’s a vast body of accepted fact and practice,” whereas the higher-ed, teacher prep community is “locked, perhaps rightly, in deep debate about what constitutes good teaching and good education,” he said. “The field as yet lacks a robust empirical basis.”
In her response to Tisch’s and Steiner’s remarks, TC’s Goodwin – a faculty member in the College’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching who recently secured a major federal grant for the College to develop an urban teaching residency program -- said TC will make use of “every opportunity available” to be an agent of change in education. But, she said, ”Race to the Top is for the moment, but the 21st century, which is what we are preparing our students for, stretches over a very long time.”
Addressing Tisch’s and Bloomberg’s proposal to link teacher tenure decisions to teacher evaluation, including student test scores, Goodwin said teachers do not object to being held accountable for students’ success – only to “single-snapshot measures” that do not document students’ progress from one year to the next.
Goodwin also noted that China and Singapore, top performers on many global educational measures, use “holistic, child-centered and exploratory” methods. “The irony,” said Goodwin, who has done research in Singapore, “is that they are doing what we taught them to do,” while the United States has largely abandoned these methods. “The question is, ‘How do we walk the talk that we ourselves developed?’ “
Pallas, TC Professor of Sociology and Education, said the proposed reforms, including holding teachers accountable, expanding “free market” methods such as charter schools, and allowing increased autonomy of schools in exchange for increased accountability, merely extend policies of the past two decades that show no evidence of having created better outcomes.
Pallas criticized Tisch’s idea to use “value-added” student assessment data to evaluate teachers and non-collegiate providers of teacher certification programs, saying those data systems are not “ready for prime time and will not be for some time.” The New York State Regents exam, for example, is highly problematic in that it is scored in the same schools where it is taken, by teachers who have a strong incentive to inflate the grades of their own students. “We need to clean up the state assessment system and take the time to do it right,” Pallas said. “Then we can talk about value-added assessment.”
Pallas said he was “deeply troubled” by the prospect of allowing non-collegiate institutions award master’s degrees. Such a system, he said, could pose a “serious threat to the nature of graduate education” and lead to “the explicit decoupling of the production of knowledge from the preparation of practitioners.” Having the Board of Regents award degrees “in a sense turns the State Education Department into a giant ed school,” Pallas charged, and then added, to laughter, “Doesn’t the Department have enough problems?”