I think we’re going over the cliiiiiffff. . . . (a rant with stylistic apologies to Peter Greene)

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like Wile E. Coyote. You know the bit. The coyote runs off the cliff, then looks forlornly at the camera before crashing to the valley floor. Unfortunately, as we have driven Teacher Education off the cliff I’m not sure we’ll simply be able pick ourselves up and chase the Roadrunner again.

There was a time when (at least some) Teacher Education programs promoted high quality, engaging approaches to teaching, even though the teachers they worked with in the schools would say “oh that’s just college stuff, here in the real world we don’t do that.” But at least we tried, and the message got through to some of our students who became excellent and engaging teachers. I’m afraid the era is over and we may have driven the Teacher Education car off the cliff with no possibility of return.

A number of recent experiences have led me to this unfortunate conclusion. First a number of my colleagues often speak about creating a “Culture of Assessment” in our programs. Let’s get real here! Do you know any teachers, university faculty, or students who would want to work and learn in such a culture?  I guess some people might enjoy the constant surveillance but personally I’m not that kinky and I suspect most teachers and students aren’t either. Even the teacher educators are now focusing on surveillance instead of on engagement, creativity, self direction, wonder, or critique. Yuck!

It’s gotten so bad people are starting to suggest that we build our programs around our assessment tools rather the reverse. I recently heard a faculty member excitedly suggest that teacher education students could create an on-line portfolio based around the 11 required standards. She breathlessly told us how students could begin it in their introductory course and continue to build and update it as they mastered each standard through out their programs. WOW!  That sure sounds exciting! I bet we can find lots of 20 year olds who would think of that as an exciting and engaging way to spend their time and would love to spend two years working on it. Of course those standards are entirely focused on building wonder, engagement, love of learning, inquiry, critique and democratic values right?. What could possibly go wrong here? Doing that would surely help to turn our schools into joyous places that children will want to attend.

The same people who love this portfolio idea thought it would be an equally good idea to use the intro class to acquaint students with even more standards, and to start getting them ready for the edTPA (essentially they want to make teaching to the test raison d’etre of our programs.”) What a great way to introduce potential teachers to the profession and to get them imagining the great ways they’ll interact with kids!

I suppose that some folks might suggest that teaching is actually like that now in public schools so education students should get used to it. Actually the same argument is used when elementary kids are forced to change classes every hour because they need to “get ready” for doing it in High School. The underlying rationale could be described like this: They are going to have a lousy de-humanizing experience when they are in High School, so we better get them ready for it by giving them a lousy de-humanizing experience now.” By that logic race car drivers and airplane pilots should practice crashing their vehicles and airplanes so they can be ready for how bad it is going to be when it actually happens. I’m sure they’d all LOVE that. More seriously, the underlying stance of “that’s how it is, get used to it” also doesn’t leave any room for us to help teacher education students imagine something better either.

Unfortunately, the lunacy doesn’t stop there. CAEP (the successor to NCATE) wants to evaluate teacher education programs based on our graduates’ VAM scores. Never mind that most statisticians recommend against using VAM scores (for a variety of different reasons) in the first place. Even though VAM scores should not be used to evaluate individual teachers because of a wide variety of social and economic factors CAEP now thinks those scores could be used to evaluate institutions. There is however an easy solution to this. From now on we will only allow our students to take jobs in schools serving primarily white, middle to upper class students. That will make our VAM scores go up.

Lest you think it can’t get any worse you need to check this out. Go ahead and look. I dare you. For the faint of heart, I’ll describe what it is. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) is piloting a “National Observational Teacher Exam” (called NOTE)  in which education students will teach for 7 minutes in front of a set of electronic avatars. You read that right. Students will teach and be judged on a 7 minute lesson taught to electronic avatars. ETS claims it will standardize instructional contexts for assessment because, of course, all classrooms and kids come in standardized models. Perhaps we can stop this foolishness by having ETS pitch their new product to a bunch of avatars well.

So maybe I am just some old codger hopelessly caught in a bygone era. Perhaps I should just give up and shut up. But like Wile E Coyote I’m going to dust myself off, climb out of the valley and continue with the chase as long as I can. Maybe someday one of my attempts to catch and shake the lunacy will succeed. I know I’ll probably be driven over the cliff again, but like the coyote, I’m hopelessly compelled to keep trying.


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