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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Arne Duncan Has a Good Idea on Teacher Training

It's true.

July 31, 2018

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education for the bulk of the Obama administration, has a new book out, How Schools Work: (Plus a Ridiculously Long Subtitle), so he’s back in public eye.

I’ve not read the book, but the reviewers are unimpressed. Fredrick Hess, as pro reform as they come, but also someone who has expressed feeling chastened by the lack of progress, is dismayed by Duncan’s failure to reflect on the failures of his tenure, judging the book essentially a rehash and of Duncan’s well-known stances. 

I was never a fan of Duncan, not just because of the poor results of his tenure, but also because he is the ne plus ultra of a certain strain of education reformer, birthed and nurtured in the administrator class with a 1,000-foot view which seems entirely divorced from the day-to-day workings of the classroom. The reason he was always sticking his foot in his mouth is because he only understood education from a very narrow kind of system thinking.

An interview about the book with U.S. News & World Report demonstrates that when it comes to education, Duncan’s mind is fixed, championing “college ready” “high standards” while also wanting to boos the high school graduation rate to 100% with nary a question about how these two things may be in tension. He seems to betray little understanding of the limits of his own thinking.

But Duncan does, almost as an aside, propose a bold initiative that would have tremendous good effects on the quality of teaching and learning in response to this question from his interlocutor Gabrielle Levy:

“We tolerate failing teachers in ways that we don't tolerate bad doctors or lawyers. What are the ways, short term and long term, these issues can be addressed?”

Before we get to Duncan’s answer, we must note the - not to be unkind - base ignorance of the question itself.

We absolutely tolerate bad doctors and bad lawyers. Daily you can find stories daily of lawyers who are outright crooks, or worse, defense lawyers in capital cases who committed various strands of malpractice, including sleeping through the trial. While terrible lawyers are more likely to be tolerated for those with limited resources, I'm wondering if I'm the only one watching whatever Rudy Giuliani has been up to and wondering WTF?

As for doctors, Larry Nassar was recently convicted of sexually abusing more than 250 women over a period of almost 25 years. In fact, the increased status which comes with the M.D. can often protect bad doctors who are willing to wield their privileged status to deflect scrutiny or deny the complaints of the less powerful.

There are bad doctors, bad lawyers, and yes, bad teachers, but thankfully, in each of these professions the truly, irredeemably bad are a minority of the practitioners.

And yet, it’s only teachers who have been subjected to assessment and accountability regimes meant to weed out the bad actors, as opposed to establishing systems that allow for continuous training and improvement.

Anyway, let’s get to Secretary Duncan’s answer:

“I just don't think we value teaching enough. We don't train teachers as professionals, we don't respect them as professionals, we don't compensate them as professionals. Great teachers should make a heck of a lot more money. Teachers that work in the hardest communities – the toughest environments, whether that's inner city-urban or rural-remote – should receive extra support and compensation for taking on those toughest of assignments. And we don't do any of that.”

“There's a study that shows that two-thirds of young teachers are ill-prepared to enter the classroom, and these are the most committed, most altruistic people you can find. I always say that if two-thirds of doctors said they were unprepared to practice medicine, we'd have a revolution in our country. I close the book on the story about visiting an Academy for Urban School Leadership, which uses a residency model based on a medical model. That's how they train there: Teachers take a year and they train with a master teacher before being given their own classroom. There are a couple other models that are like that, but it's probably less than 1 percent of teachers get trained that way.”

A pause here to note the irony of this answer coming from Duncan, a believer in “Value Added Modeling” to judge teacher performance, a brand of statistical voodoo that couldn’t be further from treating teachers like professionals.

The irony gets thicker, as Duncan has also long been a champion of Teach for America, which “trains” its teachers in less than two months before putting them into “the toughest environments.” TFA has received hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal government support.

But whatever, we’ve got a new model here, and I say we run with it.

I’ll bet two-thirds of doctors do say they’re unprepared to practice medicine in the immediate aftermath of receiving their M.D., which is why we indeed require not just one, but four years of additional training for just about all practicing physicians.

Teaching is hard. It requires practice and experience, and there’s no substitute for either of those things. An internship and residency model is a great fit for training teachers. We should do it.

For the first year, all new teachers will be supervised 100% of the time, essentially co-teaching with a certified mentor teacher. Just as in medicine, the student load of the mentoring teacher will be reduced in order to free up time for the mentoring-related duties.

For years two and three, the resident teacher will continue to be closely supervised, but will be the primary in charge of their classes. They will also maintain a lower student load than teachers who have finished their residencies.

Year four, teachers will be the equivalent of a “chief” resident, working mostly autonomously, while also having some mentoring responsibilities for first year “intern” faculty. Following the completion of the residency period, teachers will be “board certified” with a full license to teach. To move on to become a mentoring teacher will take additional years of experience and training.

Sound good? It does to me. Will it perhaps cost money? Yes, but consider the high cost of teacher turnover, not just in dollars – which is significant – but in the quality of teaching and continuity of personnel within schools[1].

Duncan doesn’t seem to get that this plan is largely inconsistent with the rest of his policy portfolio, but never mind, it’s a good idea.

Well done, Mr. Secretary.


[1] This is the reason why embracing TFA is such hypocrisy. Eighty-percent of those starting TFA have no plans to make their careers as teachers. Well more than half don’t teach past their initial commitment. By design, teachers leave the profession just as they’re starting to get their feet under them.


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