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No guarantees…but no reason to give up

Should we just give up on trying to professionalize teaching?

According to a report issued today by Bellwether Education Partners, the answer is yeah, might as well. This new report, titled “No Guarantees” and co-authored by Chad Aldeman and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel, analyzes existing research on teacher preparation and offers a handful of policy recommendations. (Disclosure: Both Chad and Ashley are personal friends; Deans for Impact has worked with Bellwether; and I reviewed an early draft of this report and provided comments.)

The first part of the report provides a helpful summary of the evidence base — or lack thereof — connecting teacher “inputs” to desired outcomes. Inputs as used here refers to everything from preservice training to in-service professional development, although the report focuses more on the former than the latter. The academic citations alone make this a helpful guide, and I’m grateful for this research-influenced contribution to the conversation about how to improve teacher preparation.

Then there’s a policy recommendation that kind of goes off the rails.

I say that because, after a relatively measured analysis of the existing research base, Aldeman and Mitchell revive a rather draconian policy solution that some economists have pushed for years: States should eliminate essentially all barriers to entering the teaching profession, and teacher-preparation programs should be stripped of having any role in teacher licensure. In this brave new world, schools would be given complete autonomy to hire whomever they want based on whatever criteria they want. This will allegedly make the teaching profession “less risky.”

Seriously?

Does anyone who’s spent any time in schools in this country really believe the barriers to becoming a teacher are too formidable?  Here in Texas, the interstates are littered with signs that read “Want to teach? When can you start?” as advertisement for an online preparation program that costs $295 to enroll. In some rural areas in West Texas — as in many areas across the country — districts are so desperate for teachers they are hiring long-term substitutes as de facto permanent employees.

Easy entry isn’t unique to the Lone Star State, either. As Bruce Baker at Rutgers has shown, the real explosion in education degrees granted over the past two decades comes from the stunning growth of for-profit, largely online programs such as Walden University and the University of Phoenix. In my view, these programs have grown so rapidly precisely because they’ve offered a fast and cheap on-ramp to the teaching profession.

To be sure, it’s possible that a purely “market driven” approach will improve teacher quality. The same theory of action underlies many education reforms, including charter schools. Yet if we’ve learned anything over the past 20 years of charter policy, it’s that states with low-quality authorizing tend to have low-performing charter sectors. Or so I remember reading recently. Simply relying on the demand side of the equation to ensure quality is fraught with peril.

There is an alternative way forward. As I’ve argued previously, there is a bit of a playbook on improving professional systems in the U.S. At various points in our history, the professions of law, medicine (including nursing), and business management managed to increase the rigor of the preservice training required to enter their respective professions. That rigor was defined largely by institutions of higher education that coalesced around a common vision of the skills that practitioners should possess before being allowed to practice.

Professions embrace coherence rather than chaos.

So how might we make this happen? What role should policy play in helping programs improve the effectiveness of the educators they prepare? Might traditional teacher-preparation programs and new innovators band together to take the lead in elevating the prestige of the education profession by preparing teachers who are indeed good on day one, and great over time?

I hate to be a tease, but in a few weeks Deans for Impact will have something important to say on these subjects. Stay tuned.


Benjamin Riley

Founder and Executive Director


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