Calculating Meaning in the Latest NAEP

Yesterday, the National Assessment Governing Board released the latest numbers with regard to student math proficiency (at least proficiency as measured by NAEP).  The headlines seem simple, yet troublesome, enough.  Fourth grade math scores were stagnant.  Eighth grade score saw a slight uptick.  The math achievement gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students have remained relatively unchanged.

As to be expected with such numbers, we can wring our hands, look for conspiracy theories, and listen for things that go bump in the night.  Many a critic will likely take these latest numbers as yet the latest indictment of No Child Left Behind, pointing to all of the time and money that has been invested in elementary instruction over the last decade and the lack of return in recent years.  The continued struggles to close the achievement gap remain incredibly troublesome.  Yes, we should acknowledge that eighth grade math numbers rose slightly across the board.  But it provides little comfort when we think about all of the interventions and programs that are in place to specifically close the achievement gap, and that chasm remains as large as it has always been, with little sign of narrowing.
In the global sense, EdTrust President Kati Haycock has it right.  Mixing both optimism and concern, Haycock concludes, “It’s clear from the data at both grade levels that we still have a long way to go to effectively prepare all of our elementary and middle school students for the world that awaits them in high school and beyond.”  Yes, we have miles to go before we sleep, and we cannot be content with where the latest numbers leave us.  We also can’t assume that the common core standards, once they are developed and adopted, will immediately translate into gains in student proficiency.  Such standards are goals.  The real rub is in the interventions and assessments meant to align with such goals.
But perhaps the most interesting remarks regarding the latest NAEP scores come from David Driscoll, the new NAGB chairman and the former education commissioner for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  According to Education Week, in overseeing the release of this latest batch of data, Driscoll remarked that the flatlining in fourth grade scores was the result of “shaky math content knowledge among teachers.”  Eighth graders did better because they “were taught by teachers with math majors.”  The full EdWeek article can be found here.
Driscoll’s remarks clearly play into the current debates on teacher quality, as well as EdSec Arne Duncan’s upcoming teacher recruitment campaign.  Rhetorically, all of the “cool” ed reform kids are pointing to alternative certification, mid-career transitions, Teach for America, and other such efforts as the magic bullets to fix what is ailing the American classroom.  The pendulum is swinging back to a belief that content knowledge is king, and pedagogy is overrated in the grand scheme of all things teaching. 
As part of the argument, we’ve tagged our teachers’ colleges as part of the problem.  The attacks can get tiresome.  “Ed schools are the cash cows of the higher education system.  As such, they favor quantity over quality, seeking to turn out as many education majors as possible.  They worship at the altar of process, rather than results, and thus are focused exclusively on pedagogy and not worrying about the end game of student performance.  And worse, there is little consistency in traditional teacher prep programs, particularly when some of the lower-quality ed schools are those serving the highest-need communities.”
Driscoll is probably right.  Teachers with a strong understanding of the content knowledge are more effective than the average bears.  But does that mean we scrap our ed schools and expect that math majors will give up their plans for corporate or research jobs to become middle school teachers?  Of course not.  The issue should be how we strengthen our teacher ed programs with such content knowledge, not how we work around our ed schools to get prospective teachers in through the back doors, particularly if those back doors neglect the pedagogy, clinical training, mentoring, and other efforts that go into effectively preparing a teacher for the rigors of the 21st century classroom.
We seem to forget that upwards of 90 percent of our K-12 teachers come from traditional schools of education.  We can hand Teach for America the Gates Foundation’s entire endowment, and TFA will still be unable to get to scale and serve as the primary teacher provider for our public schools.  We can make major shifts in emergency certifications and licensures to move mid-career shifters into high-need areas like math and science, and it will still be a minor ripple in a very large pool.  We can break down the barriers to get ABCTE in every state and let every mom-and-pop alternative certification program serve the local school district, and it would still be but a hiccup in the larger scheme of things.
Don’t get Eduflack wrong.  Programs like TFA can be a wonderful value-add for school districts, injecting new energy into a school and bringing a fresh take to the classroom and the faculty lounge.  But such efforts don’t get at the heart of the issue.  If the end game is to improve the quality and effectiveness of teachers and teaching, that fight begins and ends with our schools of education.  If we are to truly improve teacher quality for the long term, it requires focusing on our colleges of education and ensuring all accredited programs are of the highest quality and greatest impact.  It’s about making sure prospective teachers are trained in the latest research and understand how to use data to improve the quality and impact of their instruction.  It is about offering a strong clinical training, so new teachers understand exactly what they are in for in the classroom and have the supports and knowhow to deal with the challenges they face.  And yes, it is about calling out those schools that are not up to snuff, holding them accountable if they do not meet our expectations.
A century ago, the Carnegie Corporation rocked the medical community with its Flexner Commission, a comprehensive look at medical education in the United States.  In its report, Flexner found that the majority of medical colleges in the United States were lacking, doing a poor job preparing prospective doctors.  As a result, huge numbers of medical colleges were shut down and those remaining redoubled their efforts to focus on quality, research-based practice, and outcomes.  Since then, U.S. medical education has stood as the gold standard for the world.
If Duncan et al are truly serious about improving the quality of teaching, the time has come for a Flexner-style study of teacher preparation in the United States.  Instead of throwing all of our federal stimulus dollars at teacher incentives and alternative certification efforts, let’s actually get under the hood of good teacher preparation.  Put our traditional education colleges up against alternative programs and recent teacher recruitment interventions and really study what is working … and what is not.  What programs are producing the most effective teachers?  What institutions are responsible for the teachers who are boosting student achievement?  And what are those institutions teaching and offering that results in those outcomes?  Then we come up with the formula for the most effective teacher preparation.  What pedagogy, content knowledge, clinical training, mentoring, and ongoing support is necessary to improve teacher quality?  What is the gold standard for teacher preparation?  And most importantly, what should tea
chers know and be able to do in order to boost student learning and achievement?  
Until we have the answers to such questions, we will never be able to truly have the systemic impact on student achievement that we seek.  And we certainly shouldn’t be making decisions on this teacher prep path versus that teacher prep path without strong data analyzing both inputs and outcomes.  I’m all for following one’s gut, but this is just too important an issue to decide based on anecdotal evidence or through a buffet-style approach to simply choose whatever looks most appealing.  

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