University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

UA Professors Debate Pathways to the Classroom

In The View from the OEP on May 30, 2013 at 9:10 am

Debate2Professors Bill McComas and Chris Goering from the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas recently published an opinion piece challenging the efficacy of alternative teacher certification programs like Teach for America and our new in-state program The Arkansas Teacher Corps. The McComas and Goering commentary originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Sunday May 19th, 2013 and has been reproduced on the Edusanity blog linked here.

As you would imagine, we at the OEP felt that the other side of the story also needed to be told. Thus, our director, Gary Ritter, wrote a rebuttal to highlight the “other side of the story.” Dr. Ritter’s original piece, published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Thursday May 30th has been reproduced fully here.

We encourage all of our blog viewers to read BOTH posts and join the debate! If you feel strongly about either side, or would like to mention a point not discussed here, please leave us a comment below!

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  1. Posted twice. Sorry for the redundancy.

    I enjoy reading and hearing your thoughts Gary.

    Two of my own:

    First, when Drs. McComas and Goering discuss “lowering the bar” they are not simply referencing the quality of teacher candidates. They are primarily referring to the process with which a teacher is trained to become an educator. Programs such as yours (as well as this editorial) imply that simply taking the best applicants off the street and throwing them into the classroom with little training relative to a high-quality teacher preparation program is all that is needed. That is an insult to the professionals who trained intensively (and academically) for the role of educator. As with TFA, you will be probably be able to point to improvements in test score data and fool everybody into thinking that’s all that matters.

    Secondly, pointing at traditional teacher education programs and mocking our selectivity conveniently leaves out the fact that your program is backed by tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars in PRIVATE funds that allow you to effectively bribe people to become candidates for your program. And the irony is that the “educators” taking part in your program will actually be paid more than their colleagues struggling next to them who actually worked to become educators. Not only that, but traditional teacher preparation programs actually have specific expectations for academic preparation in the content area, prior to entry. One wonders how your business majors who have spent 20 years in the private sector will do teaching History or Science a couple of decades removed from their last history or science class. Since content knowledge is one of the most important factors in high quality pedagogy, I doubt they do well. Hopefully they’ve been watching the Discovery Channel. Of course, since raising test scores doesn’t really require high quality pedagogy, it won’t really matter.

  2. Dr. Endacott,

    Some thoughts on the points you have raised:

    To your comments in your first paragraph, about taking people off the street and throwing them into a classroom, and the insult this is to professionals who trained intensively…

    First, these applicants don’t come “off the street”; rather, these are highly motivated individuals who want to get into the field of education, who are choosing to invest in the education of others and impart some of their own professional expertise onto the students with whom they will work. I am not aware of the specific backgrounds of the ATC applicants and participants, but given Dr. Ritter’s comments, these are highly trained, highly educated, and highly motivated professionals. It would seem like we would want more of these types of individuals in classrooms, not less, so removing some of the barriers to get these talented individuals in the classrooms seems like it would be beneficial to the students with whom they will work.

    Further, the idea that this is insulting to individuals who go through traditional training programs is, to put it simply, kind of silly. I tend to believe that we can learn how to be really good at something by learning through many different avenues and methods. Some likely benefit more by going through a traditional program and would likely not be effective going through a program like the ATC. However, I think it also stands to reason that some individuals might not need some of the content and classwork offered in these traditional programs. Perhaps instead of debating how teachers get into the classroom, we should be more interested in what they do with the students once they get there?

    And to the point you make in your second paragraph about the program being backed by millions of PRIVATE dollars, and how this is effectively bribing people into the program….I just went back and re-read the article by Drs. McComas and Goehring, and reviewed some of the solutions they posed. They suggest things like scholarships for high school seniors, financial incentives, tuition waivers, etc. I may be wrong, but isn’t that the same thing as offering a few thousand dollars more in salary to get these ATC candidates in hard to staff schools? Seems like financial incentives are one of the few ways to remedy this issue, and I don’t see why when the ATC does it it is called “bribery”, and when Drs. McComas and Goehring recommend it it is called “commitment to the students and future of Arkansas”.

    Just like every student shouldn’t be taught the same way, I think it is time to stop thinking that every teacher needs to be trained the same way.

  3. Greetings Nate,

    I read the first line of your response and thought I was reading an advertisement for a car dealership sales position. “Highly motivated individuals who want to get into the field of education…” That’s all about one needs in order to sell a used Toyota, right? Granted, ATC is highly selective of its applicants, a point I won’t argue. However, while they may be “highly trained and highly educated” they are not highly trained or highly educated as TEACHERS. I hold a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. I work my tail off. I’m about as “highly trained and highly educated” as a person can get. Yet, while that makes me eminently qualified to teach, it doesn’t make me qualified to practice law, cut your hair or fix your car. But that’s essentially what you’re arguing isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if one is highly trained to do the work of an educator as long as they are really smart and try really hard. How is that not an insult to the profession?

    I wasn’t offended that you saw my reaction as silly given that it isn’t your chosen profession that is under attack from private interests and alternative routes to certification. However, it was a little harder to remain unoffended by the remainder of that paragraph. I think it is really nice that you “tend to think we can learn how to be really good at something by many different avenues and methods.” Had I known it was that simple I could’ve avoided the $100K in student loans and 7 years of my life I wasted in earning that aforementioned Ph.D. in teaching people how to teach. How “silly” of me to not recognize that there are many different ways to learn something. I must have missed that over the course of the past 15 years as I have actually been teaching. If I would have known how easy it was to dismiss the “silly” concerns of a lifelong educator with a generic cliché that almost every neophyte student in Education 101 writes into their first essay on becoming a teacher, I could have saved myself a lot of pain. At least now I know what my first tattoo will say.

    As to your question of whether we should pay more attention to what teachers do when they actually get to the classroom, we both know that’s a no-win rhetorical trap in the myopic achievement-chasing era. We’ve narrowed measures of good teaching to a single metric, which is as “silly” as determining the best team in baseball based on who hit the most homeruns. But that’s the playing field in education right now. Being generically “highly trained and highly educated” passes for pre-service training and “tending to think” passes for expertise. We can’t compare our results because I’m watching the World Series and you’re watching the Home Run Derby. There’s a distinct difference between training people to raise test scores and training people to be teachers, and success in the former is not necessarily evidence of the latter.

    Finally, in regards to the ideas of Drs. Goering and McComas, I think you fail to see the point they are trying to make. Rather than commit millions of private dollars to bribe the best candidates to take shortcuts into the profession, why not reward the best candidates who go about it the right way? Instead of giving a corporate employee a $5,000 bonus to train for a month and then head down to the delta to teach, why not give that $5,000 to one of our MAT graduates who are the finest new teachers in the state? “Commitment to the students and future of Arkansas” means providing highly trained teachers to the students who need it most, not bribing “highly motivated” loan officers or mid-level managers to test drive teaching for a couple of years TFA-style. The most admirable aspect of ATC is your desire to find teachers who will make a commitment to the parts of Arkansas that need it most. I don’t see why that commitment has to be mutually exclusive of a proper preparation in teaching for the students who need it most.

    Nate, I’m sure you didn’t mean any offense with your response. It was respectfully written and politely worded. Yet, like many other Education Reformers, the disrespect you show for me and my teacher brethren can be clearly read between the lines, even if you are oblivious to it. The fact that you believe our “silly” concerns can be dismissed with generic assurances of candidate quality and empty educational clichés actually screams it loud and clear.

  4. Dr. Endacott,

    First, my apologies if my comments offended you in any way. That was certainly not my intent in my comments, and I did not mean to suggest that your concerns were silly. I also certainly did not mean to suggest that all it takes for someone to be a good teacher is to be highly trained and highly educated, or that we should narrow down measuring teaching performance to a single test score. And I certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for the work you do and for the teachers you train.

    You just made a comment though that stood out for me as central to this whole debate; that is, “why not reward the best candidates who go about it the right way?” Specifically, the idea that the traditional preparation route is in fact the “right way”. You certainly have your opinions, and as you said, you certainly have to take the stance of defending that statement given your current position. But, that is I think the crux of this argument — you believe that your program is the “right” approach, and anything else is “wrong” (I certainly don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I think that is the point you are making). That point is certainly debatable, but at the end of the day, I care less about the route that a teacher takes to getting into the classroom, and more about the work they are actually doing with students (work that goes well beyond a simple test score).

    If there are alternative steps that can be taken to get more teachers into these high-need classrooms, I saw great, bring them on! We do need to do more to get high-quality teachers in these classrooms, and if they come from your MAT program and are the finest teachers in the state and can be motivated to go to these hard-to-staff schools, then I am all for it.

    But, in the meantime, these hard-to-staff schools don’t have an influx of talent coming in, and are in desperate need for more high-quality teachers, especially since they – the people making the decisions at the school level – are viewing these ATC candidates as educators who can come in and help their students learn. They are choosing to have them come teach in their schools, and I think that says very loudly what the need is and how it is currently not being met. There clearly is a demand, so wherever the supply of high-quality teachers comes from to meet this demand, I’m all for that as well.

    I appreciate the dialogue, and as a former educator and a current researcher working with teachers all over the United States to help them improve their classroom approach, I acknowledge the work you do preparing future educators, and share in your desire to help improve the teaching that all students receive. And at the end of the day, if the ATC program proves to be ill-equipped to prepare teachers to be top-notch teachers, then I would not hesitate to say it should be gotten rid of and other options should be explored. But, why not give it a chance? Why not see if it does work? Is it more about defending the status quo, or should it be more about doing whatever can be done to get these students teachers who actually want to come to their schools and teach them? I would argue the latter…but that is certainly just my opinion. Again, I do appreciate the conversation around this issue.

    Nate Jensen

  5. Dr. Endacott,

    We may not have communicated this clearly but we are always happy to have MAT graduates apply to be a part of the Arkansas Teacher Corps so that they could receive the additional $5,000 a year to teach in a high-need area (as you suggested above). We will be taking application again in August and would love to have them apply.

    Also, we have multiple school districts in southern Arkansas that have contacted us with additional vacancies that we are not able to fill for this upcoming school year due to capacity issues. I would be happy to share this information or pass along any of your MAT students’ resumes to these districts so that we can work together to make sure we fill these vacancies in difficult to staff schools.

    Best,

    Benton M. Brown
    Director, Arkansas Teacher Corps

  6. Just a real quick set of questions of in terms of teacher-student match that perhaps folks could address for me. It seems to me that one of the girding constants in both sides of the conversations is the desire to have sharp first year teachers in classrooms. Now, these novice teachers have learned to “do” school well and have no small amount of pride (rightfully) and self-worth wrapped up in doing so. These beginning teachers know academics, have incorporated the needed processes study skills, and have the motivation and intrinsic understanding of the mores and hidden expectations of what it is to be successful in a school setting.

    But, as first year teachers ourselves in the day, we have experienced the upheaval in our sense of identity and perceived loss of expertise in what it is to “do” school when one shifts from learner to student. It is just the nature of the beast when moving out of school into any job but it does make me wonder about how nimble, compared with the more traditional approach, these specific first year teachers will be. How will the difference in exposure, time for reflection and amount of dialogue about what it means to deal with students who do not approach schooling in a similar way play out for the novice teachers and the students they will face in the classroom? How many in this first cadre of the program have gotten to where they are from an impoverished background or are the first to get a college degree? Of those who do not have this direct experience with being other, can they rotate perspectives sharply enough and quickly enough to be able to meet the heightened needs of their students? Finally, will these first year teachers be teaching the general education or remedial classes where there is an even wider range of needs and perspectives than the streamed upper class track? I realize that the first cadre has not had a chance to get out in the field as yet, so the answers to these questions will probably undergo some revision that only the first run through brings, but from a social-justice point of view these were the questions that kept popping up in my mind and perhaps you all could help me with because I flat don’t have enough researched information base to do find my way to a position on my own.

    With warm regards,
    Bridgette

  7. Bridgette,

    Thank you for your comments. These are valid concerns for all first year teachers and we, at the Arkansas Teacher Corps, take them very seriously. As a program run by former teachers from challenging districts, we definitely understand the importance of adaptability and experience with low-income and diverse groups of students. In our selection process, we actively seek out individuals who have had experience in low-income communities. While we have many of the same concerns you have, we are optimistic given the diversity and backgrounds of our Fellows. Many of them are first-generation college students or come from rural or low-income communities while others have worked as tutors in homeless shelters and high-poverty schools. We hope to build on these experiences with our rigorous training process, student teaching in high-need schools, and community involvement during our training institute. We believe this will help prepare them to teach students with a variety of backgrounds and needs.

    Thanks again for the questions and concerns.

    Benton M. Brown
    Director, Arkansas Teacher Corps

  8. Gary and Nate,
    As a traditionally trained teacher, with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in elementary education, and teaching experience in a traditional public school, I want you to know that I am not the least bit offended that you believe their can and should be multiple pathways to the classroom. As a first generation college student, with a bachelor’s degree from a small state college, I would have found it exhilarating and rewarding to know that I could compete for jobs with graduates from Ivy League Schools.

    Sincerely,
    James

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