What’s the Alternative to a Well-Prepared Teacher?

The following commentary, penned by William McComas and Chris Goering, is a longer version of what appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Sunday, May 19th.  


Most people agree that recruiting and creating the very best teachers for the students of Arkansas is a critical goal made immediate by the significant teacher shortage in some subject areas, particularly in mathematics and science.

We are pleased to reveal that we are both professors of education at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville with vast experience in teacher preparation and as public school teachers ourselves.  Second, we are both taxpayers in Arkansas with a vested financial interest in how state money is spent.  Third, one of us has seen two children through the Fayetteville public schools, one of the best school systems in the nation served by teachers who are ready from the first to the last day of school to help students become successful learners and citizens.  We both want all parents across Arkansas to have such an experience for their children, but that dream could be threatened by mediocre teacher preparation programs.

This problem isn’t new nor is it limited to Arkansas. But the unfortunate response to this shortage has been to propose programs that ultimately reduce the nature and degree of training of new teachers, to get larger numbers of underprepared teachers into classrooms as quickly as possible, and to enable school districts to spend taxpayer dollars to hire these individuals.

This is a short-sighted solution and ultimately a serious threat to the future of our state.  We must not lower the bar just because there is a teacher shortage; rather, we must develop and fund new high quality plans for teacher preparation.

Proponents of alternative plans for teacher licensure suggest that principals will make good choices among those applying for teaching positions (or at least will make the best choices that they can).  These supporters also suggest that a well-meaning adult in the classroom is better than no adult in the classroom. The students of our state deserve better than a hope and a promise.

Though it wasn’t necessarily their goal, Teach for America launched a movement towards alternative preparation programs back in 1990 by placing highly successful college students in challenging and/or hard to fill teaching situations for two years. TFA participants sign on to work in some of America’s toughest schools and receive about five weeks of preparation prior to beginning a stint as full-time, paid teachers. Other programs have spun off of that basic idea in North Carolina, Mississippi, and now here in Arkansas.

The research on TFA has taught us is that these smart individuals may make a difference in student achievement, but they don’t stay long in the profession. The research doesn’t show how damaging it is to the teaching profession that such programs imply that anyone can be an effective teacher with little or no teacher preparation. Such programs also create a revolving door that moves people in and out of our schools, ultimately undermining the stability of the educational system.

TFA and other alternative teacher preparation programs generally produce individuals less committed to a long term career in education. Few of us would want to be treated by a doctor, dentist, or nurse who’d sailed through a five-week preparation program with minimal clinical experience, so why should we trust our children and their future to these individuals?

In Arkansas, schools typically considered “lower performing” often serve students of lower socioeconomic status who tend to score lower on tests than do students from families with higher annual income. It is understandable that alternative teacher licensure programs target the placement of teachers in the most challenging situations but there is an unintended consequence in doing so. What few talk about with respect to alternative teacher certification is a clear social justice concern.

It is likely that these inexperienced and hastily-prepared teachers will be hired in parts of the state where students could most benefit from superior educators. Thus, the disparity in student achievement already seen across Arkansas will grow if, as we predict, the top districts in our state are not likely to hire the least prepared and most inexperienced teachers. All students deserve quality instructors and if these alternatively licensed teachers are so good, why aren’t the state’s wealthiest schools lining up to hire them?

Are the taxpayers of Arkansas prepared to run an experiment on our most vulnerable students? Historically, these types of experiments have not ended well (e.g., Nuclear testing in the Pacific after WWII, biomedical studies in the South in the 1930s and other egregious plans) and are perpetrated against racially and economically disadvantaged people—those without a voice to speak up against the wrong.

So, rather than conduct a vast social experiment just because there is a need, we must make a solid commitment and offer a strategic plan to adequately prepare teachers for service in all parts of Arkansas, in all subject areas. We need excellence while working to address the challenge of teacher preparation for the long term and must not engage with untried quick fixes.

All of us must work together to determine how many teachers are needed in what subject areas to serve in particular regions of Arkansas and plan accordingly for the future rather than offer untested plans to address the problem in the near term. In Finland, for instance, which has an internationally acclaimed model of school success, they prepare only the number of teachers actually needed and thus ensure that every new teacher has a job.  At the same time, teaching is held in high esteem because of the relative competitiveness in entering and rigorous training required for the profession.  We should move teacher preparation here toward such a model, not away from it.

We firmly believe that all children deserve the very best educators, ones committed to and likely to stay in the teaching profession, individuals who are well-suited for the challenges they will face, and prepared rigorously and completely rather than expediently. Corner-cutting, cost-deferring methods of teacher preparation, alternative or otherwise, will net our state exactly the level of mediocrity for which it pays. People entering a profession with a minimal commitment don’t stay.

Here are a few suggestions for how Arkansas might meet the challenges of teacher education and develop or preserve the high quality our state deserves.

We should identify and nurture future teachers as early as possible. We urge Arkansas to consider following a research-based path, perhaps one like the North Carolina Teaching Fellow program that provides scholarships for high school seniors to attend traditional teacher preparation programs. This is an investment in quality that we should emulate.

Let’s provide scholarships for every teacher willing to make a long-term commitment to the students and future of Arkansas.  In high-needs disciplines we should recruit individuals with appropriate undergraduate degrees and provide financial incentives so that they can enter one of the many high quality teacher preparation programs across the state and spend the time necessary to become master educators.

Finally, we call upon the state legislature to join this effort by authorizing tuition waivers at the state universities to further encourage prospective teachers to gain the necessary preparation and engage in significant student teaching experiences in key subject areas. This will permit them to join the teaching workforce with pride, skill and a greater potential for a satisfying long-lasting career.

A student-teaching program is particularly important since such experience is arguably the most important element of teacher preparation and the one most frequently minimized or even eliminated in the majority of alternative certification schemes.  Arkansans should be proud of the current requirement set for such practice found in traditional programs but shamed by what passes for clinical practice in alternative programs—in some cases, there is no practice prior to taking the reigns as a hired teacher.  Other professionals don’t exclusively learn on the job. Teachers shouldn’t either.  Hairdresser Power

We insist that the Arkansas State Department of Education maintain the highest standards in teacher preparation. Currently it takes 1500 hours of preparation before a barber is permitted to independently cut hair.  Why would we allow teachers into classrooms with perhaps as few as 180 hours of preparation and little or no supervised practice?  Do we really want Arkansas hair stylists to have more training and experience than the next generation of Arkansas K-12 teachers?

Social commentator and author of Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell states that “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” “Achievement is talent plus preparation” and finally that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert.  The long path to expertise should begin before an individual stands before a classroom of students.

We won’t suggest that all traditional teacher preparation programs produce universally excellent teachers and we can’t say that all alternatively prepared teachers are ineffective, but doing as little as possible just because there is a shortage is shortsighted. If someone—no matter how exceptionally qualified—won’t spend the time necessary to learn how to teach, they probably don’t really want to teach, likely won’t be successful in the classroom and probably won’t remain in education.

We are not simply advocating the preservation of the status quo and are willing to reevaluate the nature of all teacher preparation, especially in light of research-tested models. We must not allow foolish experiments with the lives and futures of the children of Arkansas—they and their parents have a right to expect that each and every teacher is the best available.  They should not be forced to submit to the risk of alternative teacher preparation.

It is now time to answer the question asked in our title.  What’s the alternative to a well-prepared teacher?  Nothing!


Suggested citation:

McComas, W. & Goering, C.Z. (2013, May 19). What’s the alternative to a well-prepared teacher? Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Special Commentary.

Does Educational Testing Interfere with Parental Rights?

I write today to express my deep concerns that you, parents of Arkansas and America, have unknowingly lost your rights. Specifically, you have lost the right to make a decision about what is best for your child when it comes to standardized tests, a fact I believe requires your immediate attention, ire, and action.

I started thinking about this issue two months ago, immediately in advance of my state’s benchmark examinations mandated by the No Child Left Behind (or untested) act of 2002. Because America is a big believer in the power of tests, students not only have benchmark examinations in the spring but also endure End of Course examinations in Biology, Geometry, and Algebra, the Grade 11 Literacy Exam, and in many cases, individual schools have signed up for outside, for-profit companies to come in and test the students as many as twenty additional days each year. Since we have new standards and new tests on the way, I asked myself why in the world we were still taking tests written to now outdated standards/frameworks. It seems ironic that over-testing and standardization is blamed for the failing of No Child Left Behind so our national response is to replace the old with new standards and tests.


Whether or not you’ve turned on the news in the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about Common Core Standards. These are different than the previous standards and have setup a most unfortunate situation for your students this year: students in Arkansas and across the country were forced to take standardized tests over old standards while being led towards new ones. In Arkansas, third through eighth grade and eleventh grade students in the state were unfairly and unjustly tied to a desk (not really but sort of) for five straight days on April 8-12, taking tests that absolutely, positively no longer matter: the Arkansas benchmark exams.

Next year, we are told that the brand spanking new and improved tests will be here—I can’t wait.

New Tests? I. Can't. Wait.

New Tests? I. Can’t. Wait.

Our country’s obsession with standardized tests is unhealthy and what I’ll shout from the rooftops is the fact that continuing to test students over something to which they are not being taught makes about as much sense as building boots with spoons. It is nothing short of educational malpractice to continue to test students with a test created under old standards while many/most teachers are teaching to new standards.

Given this deplorable situation, I started wondering what could be done about it and if I recommended parents remove their students from this nonsense, just what would happen to the students, parents, or schools (or me). Being conscientious objectors to things, after all, is the very foundation on which America was built. For example, if you, dear parents, don’t want your student to read a certain novel in eleventh grade English class, you have every right to remove your student from what you perceive as harmful or objectionable. The same goes for other subjects in school and aspects of content in social studies, science, etc. I submit that the battery of tests could hurt your student far more than Holden Caulfield.

If the parents of Arkansas—or any state—all stood up to the big bad testing bully in the room and said, “ENOUGH,” the students involved would learn many good lessons about being American: the importance of standing up to senselessness, the power of protest, and the responsibility as students—with your assistance—to take charge and advocate for their own learning. What did your student gain from sitting and taking that test for five straight days? A sore rear end and an increasing distaste for school?

But can the tests be stopped?

There is an organization that supports this general idea called United Opt Out, a group opposed to all corporate education reforms (corporate education reform—think standardize, drill, test, quantify, repeat). In digging around their site, I’ve found that there is a multi-family complaint issued with the ACLU about testing and opting out of testing. Arkansas and other states seemed to think of people like me—status quo disturbers—when they crafted a policy delineating punishments for those students who opt out of the standardized tests in the state.

From Arkansas:

If you decide to opt out, there are consequences for Benchmarks, End of Course Geometry and Biology and Grade 11 Literacy – student will need to have Academic Improvement Plan and be remediated under the law. (the reason is that the student will have no test to show s/he scored proficient.)  With End of Course Algebra a student must pass the examination in order to get credit for the course (must have passing grade too).  Algebra 1 is REQUIRED to graduate.  So, without it, you can’t graduate.

If remediation (sic) does not occur child can be retained.

As I read this and thought about the ramifications of it, the skin on my face and ears started to burn. Seriously? Parents can and should have the right to pull their students out of this or any kind of testing. Groups in other states are starting to wake up to this chilly reality.

Whether you agree or disagree with the current testing, you probably agree that you—as a parent—should have the ability to remove your student from a harmful situation at school. Let’s say the tests were great, transformational learning experiences for students, parents should still be able to say, “no thank you,” when it comes to their child.

Let’s stop this nonsense and I need you, dear parents of Arkansas and America, to help in this action. Let’s contact state legislators immediately and demand a bill that returns these rights to the parents. And if they don’t follow through (insert joke here about the inability for any legislative body to accomplish something), let’s all simply pull students out of the standardized tests for the 2013-2014 school year. We could save the states a coal car full of money, perhaps money they could put to positive uses in education. Burn the cash in the schoolhouse chimney for all I care but give parents back their rights.

To let the lawmakers of the state know we are serious, here’s a release letter we’ll use next year.


March 2, 2014 

Dear teacher, principal, or other test-administrator, please release my son/daughter from the ___________________ (standardized test) being given at __________________ school this week. It is my parental right to protect my child from dangerous, harmful, and senseless behavior and from my perspective, this test is not the best use of my child’s time. 

Student Name _______________

Parent/Guardian Signature ___________

During the time that other less fortunate students are taking this test, please allow my son/daughter to perform any or all of the below-listed activities, any of which would be more educationally beneficial than sitting through another standardized test.

  • Doodle on a piece of paper for the week. One never knows, a new pattern or perspective might be gained free of the limits of bubble sheets.
  • Read a book or two or three. Research actually supports this as educationally valuable as opposed to what the state is attempting to do to my son/daughter.
  • Write a story about their friends whose parents didn’t get the message and are suffering through a pointless test. Creative, meaningful writing has been all but lost from the curriculum.
  • Play video games on a phone or personal electronic device. Even that would be more educationally beneficial than taking this test.
  • Help the secretarial or custodial staff complete safe tasks around the office or building.
  • Be released to attend a lower grade and provide free tutoring for students.
  • Catch up on homework.
  • Shoot baskets in the gym.
  • Nap. Seriously.

Whatever you, dear parents, decide to do, I encourage you to take back your rights from the policy makers in this state/country. I took the Iowa Basic Skills test twice and the ACT twice in my 12-year educational career. That’s right, four standardized tests in 12 years. Your student may take four standardized tests in three weeks and what are they really learning? Checking in on students a bit more often isn’t a horrible idea, but I honestly think students are learning less today because of the unhealthy focus on tests in this country.

It is time that the parents of Arkansas and states around the country see these issues for what they are and to take back the schools. Testing, testing, and more testing will lead to unhealthy competitiveness, public shaming of school, students, and teachers, and a narrowed curriculum that won’t benefit anyone but those interested in destroying public education. The time to act is now. Contact your legislators. Contact me. I’d love to support you in these efforts. Report your experiences and the experiences of your son or daughter in the comments section attached to this article.

Your parental rights were taken away by failing educational policy and there isn’t a single good reason we can’t take them back.

What I Learned in First Grade on Monday

Six words I thought I’d never say: On Monday, I taught first grade.

Actually, last week was one of those interesting and unusual weeks where I found myself in a multitude of teaching situations. In addition to my students at the university, I taught the aforementioned first grade class, alternative high school English, a group of twenty-five teachers, a class on disciplinary literacy for graduate level pre-service teachers, and finally a methods class for future English teachers. All of these teaching situations were tied together with respectful dialogue and conversations about ideas and text.

But it was those first graders who inspired this entry.

What a fabulous start to the week (i.e., learning experience) these students provided me. I learned that one can’t be “stingy” with their learning, an idea repeated by several students in an attempt to encourage their classmates to talk in our discussion. I also learned that in first grade, one has to get their ideas out there so they shouldn’t raise their hand in order to talk. I witnessed respect and compassion from these small but mighty people.

I was invited into their classroom by their teacher to help lead a Socratic Circle, a text-based conversation strategy that I learned from Matt Copeland. Matt wrote what I consider to be a fantastic book on the Socratic teaching strategy back in 2005. In addition to being a gifted teacher and author, Matt also taught down the hall from me and became one of my mentors and best friends while I was learning to how to be a teacher.  With his support and the support of our mutual friend who taught history, I started using Socratic Circles in my classroom on a Tuesday morning about 12 years ago, finally mustering up the courage to empower my students to talk. On my mentors’ recommendations I decided that the “The Pledge of Allegiance” would be my first Socratic Circle with students because it is a short yet surprisingly complex piece, one that students had rarely paused to think let alone discuss analytically.

Then during second hour, the second class of Socratic Circles I’d ever led, Matt knocked on my door and interrupted class.

“We don’t know what’s happening, but a plane just flew into the World Trade Center in New York.”

The horror that unfolded the rest of that day was temporarily shut out as I listened to ninth graders talk about “The Pledge of Allegiance.” My head was spinning—I was 23 at the time—as I wondered if our country was under attack, whether this was the beginning of a war in which I’d be called to serve or worse yet, a war that might claim the lives of students sitting in my classroom that day. Watching television or listening to the radio was banned as our school was under strict orders to maintain business-as-usual, so when I sat down on my couch at 4:30 that evening, I sobbed as the stunning images of that day were played over and over again on the news.

One of the lasting impressions of that first day of Socratic Circles was that my students were not used to having civil discussions with each other. Before the announcement, the first class of students nearly broke out in a skirmish of their own. This is a trend we can easily see beyond our classrooms as well.  Anyone can turn on the news—even ESPN—and see antagonistic debates and arguments about almost any topic. Instead of a country living in dialogue where disagreement and debate can happen in productive ways, we seem to be a country living in divisiveness. Soledad O’Brien constantly and consistently raises her voice on CNN (I’ll not bother to discuss the MSNBC/Fox News tomfoolery) and shows that promote this behavior are frighteningly popular. Their popularity attracts advertisers, which then leads to the creation of more shows that reward talking heads with the loudest voices and most pathetic rhetoric. Maybe I’m old fashioned because I don’t want to be yelled at when I flip on the TV but I can’t stand it.

And we carry this behavior into the conversations we have in our own lives, especially those that happen online where anonymity often leads to behavior that many people would never actually display in the “real world”.  For example, last Tuesday I read a piece by a colleague on the Get Schooled blog from the Atlanta Journal Constitution in which anonymous responders attacked him personally and professionally in the comment section for no other reason than they disagreed with his views. Scroll down to the comment section of almost any article posted online and you’ll see the same thing—vitriolic rage motivated by political or other beliefs. Is free speech destroying our country in this age of anonymity? Perhaps the online world needs to have the white sheets pulled away from the angry virtual faces.

But there is hope and it resides in little Americans who are too young to have been tainted by our addiction to being right at all costs.

Throughout this past week, the 1st graders’ voices stayed strong in my memory. They showed such support for each other by using sentence frames like, “Building on what Ariana said…,” and “Similar to Jack’s idea…,” actually furthering the conversation we were having about an article on wind energy. The patience they showed while waiting for their peers to find the words to say what was obviously spinning around at lightning speeds in their heads stayed with me. Their ability to listen to each other and wait before blurting out the first idea that came to mind are skills I fear they’ll be forced, maybe even encouraged, to lose.

And as I worked with the other groups throughout the week, I brought up these stories as a reminder of what school, learning, and discussion could look like. For the alternative high school students, it served as a positive memory of school. For the teachers, it served as an example of what productive discussions and a culture of learning can mean when students are unfettered by rules and procedures and are trusted to talk. For the future teachers, it served as an example of how first graders could engage in a productive discussion meaning that older students could as well.

But what we can learn as a nation from these first graders could be paramount to our very survival. Take just a cursory glance around the world right now to see what happens when nations are divided. While we don’t have literally warring factions yet, there are threats of that very thing being murmured in the name of our president, guns, and immigration. The demise of those other nations should serve as a reminder that the level of animosity towards our fellow man, the constant bickering and belittling of one another, and the serious lack of honest, civil, and respectful dialogue in our country must be reversed. Those first graders are counting on being or becoming Americans and contributing to a potentially great country, not being forced to shed their respect, dignity, and civility as part of growing up.

The Stickerification of Teachers

I value and appreciate the opportunity to share ideas on teaching with teachers at professional development meetings and conferences. It is something I’ve actively pursued as a teacher and now teacher educator for over a decade. Towards the end of one of these conference presentations in Somewhere, USA (names and places changed to protect the guilty) a few weeks ago, my co-presenter stopped with about ten minutes left in the session and asked if the audience members had any questions.

A lone hand shot up immediately, and I waited for an insightful question about classroom application of the ideas or more background or a challenge or something warranting the pensive hand in the air. Instead, the teacher asked, “When are we going to get the stickers?”

“When are we going to get the stickers?”

My head and heart sank. This was the first question asked after what we thought was an insightful and practical presentation, one that several other attendees claimed as the best they attended during the two-day conference. And while other questions were asked, answered, and posed, I could not stop thinking about what that first question represented to the larger picture of teaching, learning and teacher learning.

What’s the deal with the stickers?

The Somewhere Department of Education requires each teacher in the state to obtain 60 professional development hours each year. Mostly, these hours are accrued through activities within each local district. In order to have hours from other types of professional development—like attending conference presentations, for example—count, teachers must provide documentation of those hours.

In an effort to satisfy the Somewhere Department of Education, The Conference, an annual affair for about 1200 math, science, English, and social studies teachers, awards stickers to teachers for attending each hour-long professional presentation. These stickers, along with a sign-in sheet, verify attendance of sessions and vis-à-vis represent teacher learning, the only proof that this learning occurred.

Enter: Stickers. 

When I first attended The Conference in 2007, I was struck and a bit dumbfounded by the sticker verification of teacher attendance and learning. Receiving a sticker at an event like this was a foreign concept to me and it grated against every bit of my professional being, one that is built on the idea that professional educators should be treated like members of a profession. Duh, right?

And beyond the notion that teachers are professionals and should be treated as such, what message does the sticker requirement communicate about teaching, teacher learning, and professionalism?

About teaching, the sticker structure says that anyone can do the job because it literally only requires the ability to fog a mirror held in front of one’s face—the ability to exhale hot air—to successfully attend a teaching conference presentation.

About learning, stickers for teachers tell us that anyone present is likely to gain from the experience. This reminds me of the fallacy perpetuated by movies like Waiting for Superman that teaching is simply opening craniums and pouring knowledge into the open minds of eager young people. This would only make sense to someone who has never stepped foot in a classroom as a teacher. Stickers tell us that learning is simple and that anyone can do it by just being present.


About teacher learning, stickers devalue professional development efforts by reducing the outcome to attendance. A sticker says nothing about what could be learned by attending a session or how a teacher organizes new knowledge gained with experience and other existing knowledge. That aspect of learning is not addressed through the careful dolling out of stickers. Nothing is ever known of how a teacher implements a new idea or strategy in her or his classroom and whether there is any transference of learning from the presentation to practice. In this sense, a sticker only represents the presence of a teacher in a session and thus sets a low bar to clear.

But the very premise of sticker-based learning concedes a wholehearted distrust of teachers and a further undermining of the concept of teachers as professionals. The Somewhere Department of Education does not trust teachers to actually attend sessions when they go to professional meetings. In my experience, we teachers are hungry for new ways to teach and rarely get to leave the classroom to interact with other professionals, the typical education conference is packed with eager attendees. Yet the irony here is that the sticker structure ignores what a person is actually learning or applying to their own classroom applications because only the most basic measure of attendance, actually putting one’s butt in a seat—is verified.

What a sad state of affairs. Let’s recap what sticker-based professional development essentially says to its participants:

·      Teaching is so simple that anyone can do it.

·      Learning is something accomplished by occupying a chair.

·      Teacher learning is simple and requires only sitting and listening to some supposed expert (like me).

·      Teachers should not be trusted, let alone be treated as professionals.

While I have no delusions of grandeur of being suddenly charged with overhauling professional development for a state, I would take five immediate steps to do exactly that if given the opportunity.

1.     Social learning–Base professional learning experiences on group-based activities. Rather than punitive accountability measures (like giving individual teachers stickers for attending single sessions at a conference), make these learning experiences social in nature. Teachers in my state would form groups ahead of a conference and attend sessions together and then share the contents of a session with members of the group who didn’t attend. Collaboration time would be built into the schedule of every conference in the state. These groups of people would reflect, discuss, and begin to process the new ideas, strategies, and concepts.

2.     Professionalize–Trust teachers to do the right thing, to act as professionals. The old adage of people acting like they are treated rings true here. If an entire state expects less out of its teachers and their learning, we should not be surprised by urgent questions about sticker distribution. If that is the burning question on the mind of the participants, the game is lost.

3.     Inquisitive–Base professional learning on essential questions formed in the individual classrooms of the teachers. By creating insightful questions, a sense of inquiry and discovery would drive the professional learning. It would, in essence, act as a thesis statement to an essay, giving purpose to each session, new learning experience.

4.     Sustained Learning–Hold me (the presenter) accountable. While the sessions I’ve proposed and presented at this particular conference have been tied to the state’s adopted standards for teaching and have been reviewed and accepted by a committee of peers, I’ve not been held accountable to help teachers engage the ideas I’ve presented following the conference. It has been demonstrated that one shot, inoculation style PD doesn’t have any lasting impact on teachers, much less their students’ learning.

5.     Social responsibility–Any teacher attending a professional conference must share their learning in some formal or informal ways with other teachers. This could take myriad forms: posting to a website dedicated to accounts of the application of ideas gained at conferences; brief presentations at faculty meetings; writing a blog post reflection on the experience; leading a reading group at their school, etc.

Stickerification reduces teachers, teaching, learning, and teacher learning to the lowest common denominator—getting a sticker—in the name of accountability. The message is loud and clear: teachers are not to be trusted. And until we trust the teachers in this country to do the right thing, any hope for educational improvement, innovation, or achievement should be kindly placed on the “never going to happen” pile.

Fortunately for my sanity, “The Conference” in balmy Somewhere, USA, is the only one I attend hellbent on stickerfying attendees. The act of handing out stickers after each session might not be as frustrating or infuriating to others. To me at least, it is a symbolic denigration of teachers, teaching and learning, and teacher learning–a slap in the face of what should be a proud profession.

The Delusional Contradictions of “No Excuses” Reform and Poverty

EduSanity is pleased to share a piece from our first invited guest writer, Dr. P.L. Thomas from Furman University. Thomas’ writing has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, and pretty much everywhere else. He will lecture at the University of Arkansas on October 18th and brings an important message about poverty and education and how specifically, the concepts are intertwined.


There’s a haunting lyrics in The National’s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” (Alligator): “How can anybody know/How they got to be this way.”

The question speaks, although not intentionally or directly, to the arrogance at the core of the “No Excuses” education reform claim as it addresses poverty. Like the failed two-party political system in the U.S., the education reform agenda is mired in delusion and negligence—delusion from the “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) and negligence by the progressive status quo of public education. The critical and radical Social Context Reform (SCR) voice remains primarily marginalized and silenced.

Social Context Reform, in fact, is captured succinctly by Martin Luther King Jr. in his Final Words of Advice: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

And this represents as well the foundational source of the delusion perpetuated by NER who hold the political power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), the wealth (Bill Gates), and the media spotlight (Michelle Rhee) that overwhelm SCR. Let’s, then, consider NER delusions.

• Is the U.S. a meritocracy? For the NER, the answer is yes, but the evidence reveals otherwise. In society and in schools, people and children tend to remain in the disadvantage or advantage of their births. The U.S. is distinctly not a country that rewards merit, but the NER speak with and to this myth in order, ironically, to maintain the status quo of privilege and austerity in the country and its schools.

• Is poverty destiny? A rallying slogan for NER is “poverty is not destiny,” but again this saying ignores that poverty is destiny, just as affluence is destiny. Further, NER have directly claimed that a child’s ZIP code does not determine that child’s opportunity to learn—despite the overwhelming evidence children are trapped by the accident of where they are born. The home, community, and school any child happens to experience due to factors that child has not determined are powerfully linked to the opportunities and outcomes of that child’s learning.

• Should we aspire to the template of the rugged individual? The Ayn Rand cartoon version of rugged individualism is compelling for Americans, trapped in a belief culture, and NER manipulate that delusional faith in the rugged individual to perpetuate the harsh and judgmental tenets of “no excuses” school practices—such as extended school days, extensive homework, test-based accountability for students and teachers, zero tolerance discipline policies, and contract-based admissions to selective charter schools. Though compelling, no one actually succeeds without some (or a great deal) communal support, some accident of privilege, or the disregarded and trivialized advantages offered by the commons (see Malcolm Gladwell’s unmasking of the rugged individualism myth in Outliers).

• Is anyone defending the public school status quo? Strawman arguments are common among NER with the status quo slur being central to that tactic. Progressives are clearly a part of the status quo, but the arguments coming from the SCR movement are voices that have long called for significant and even radical education reform. While the NER policies entrench inequity by directly mentioning poverty, the SCR calls for reform seek to change society and schools for democracy, equity, and agency.

• Is anyone using poverty as an excuse? By implication and even directly, NER perpetuate this strawman argument to reinforce the status quo charge; yet, I have yet to witness any SCR teacher or scholar who moves from offering the fact of poverty overwhelmingly impacting student outcomes to seeing that reality as fatalistic, and thus an excuse for slovenly teaching or inequitable schools. More common, I have found, is that teachers maintain their genuine commitment to teaching despite the tremendous evidence that they rarely make a measurable impact on their students (since numbers mean far less to most educators than to NER).

• Are teacher quality and union influence the primary roadblocks to education overcoming the weight of poverty in student learning? NER narratives are embedded in many layers of the media—from uncritical journalism to partisan political discourse to popular media such as Waiting for “Superman” and Don’t Back Down. Two elements of that narrative have been the myth of the bad teacher and the corruption of unions and tenure. The teacher quality strawman is a mask for the real teacher quality issue facing schools: Affluent children receive the best and most experienced teachers while impoverished children, children of color, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits). The union/tenure charade is also a mask that hides the more powerful correlation with student outcomes—poverty. Unionized states have higher test scores than right-to-work states, but that data hide the deeper connections to poverty entrenched in those non-union states. As long as NER can keep the public and political leaders gazing at “bad” teachers, lazy tenured teachers, and corrupt unions, poverty and inequity remain untouched and the privileged status quo intact.

• Have choice broadly and charter schools narrowly revealed effective alternatives for addressing poverty and inequity? Market forces respond to capital, and thus are ill-suited to address inequity; market forces, in fact, appear to fail despite the NER faith in parental choice. Charter schools also have produced few differences when compared to public schools (or even private schools), but are re-segregating education.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she presents an allegory of privilege, a narrative that exposes how privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

NER in education maintains the delusion that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the myth in order to pursue the dream of King in which we continue to seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform then wedded to educational reform.



suggested citation:
Thomas, P.L. (2012, October 9). The delusional contradictions of “no excuses” reform and poverty. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/09/the-delusional…rm-and-poverty/ ‎

Are Schools Misinterpreting Common Core Standards as Common Teaching?

As a high school English teacher, I taught many things that didn’t excite me or pique my personal interests. That’s part of the job when one is following a curriculum, meeting standards, and working with other teachers. I get that. I never let the students know I didn’t love aspects of the curriculum that the district required all teachers to cover. I taught it to the best of my ability and sometimes, I even surprised myself by growing fond of a certain text or style of writing. What I don’t get, however, is the way in which standardization has been taken to extremes recently, effectively robbing the autonomy of excellent teachers, all in name of the Common Core Standards.Teachers in at least four districts across the state of Arkansas, reported to me that their school districts are requiring teachers to teach in lockstep, not just covering the same content (as would be expected) but also covering it in the same exact way, even going so far as to require the use of the same lesson plan on the same day by, for example, all ninth grade teachers. This is disturbing for any number of reasons, most of all it grinds against the grain of how I understand teaching and learning, as a complex task that relies on teachers’ understanding of classroom context and the needs of their students to dictate, within reason, the way in which content is presented. Teaching is supposed to be about learning and every different class of students is likely to learn at different rates and in slightly different ways.

My first reaction? This is not at all what the Common Core Standards indicate as examples of good teaching. CCS are about interdisciplinary units, teaching for depth rather than coverage, and pushing students towards more critical, analytical, argumentative types of thinking. Every ounce of experience I have tells me that those pursuits take time, differing amounts of time depending on how accessible that brand of thinking is to students. But differentiating the length of time spent on lessons isn’t possible when all of the teachers across a single district are following the same plan. Simply put, no two teachers cover material in the same way and no two classrooms of students, even at the same school, are ever going to be similar enough to be taught in the exact same way, from the same lesson plan. This is a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, perhaps one that isn’t widespread across the country. I hope not.

A principal at one of these districts, when questioned by teachers about why this approach was being mandated, responded by telling them they just need to KISS, Keep It Simple, Stupid, when it comes to lesson planning and staying together on those lesson plans. I’m still a little dumbfounded that a school leader would say that publicly; it seems to imply and accept the very worst expectations for teaching and learning. When adults think and speak of the act of education in offensive ways like this, I fear what the future holds. My fears were realized when I visited a different school only to find the lesson plan written and posted on the outside of each classroom door.

This ‘teacher-less teaching,’ has also hit higher education in the preparation of new educators. The Teaching Interns with whom I work in our university’s Master of Arts in Teaching program have explained that they, in some cases, cannot be given the reins to teach a single two or three-week unit of instruction, even a mini-unit of three days unless the entire school or the district follows the same plan. This isn’t to say that experienced teachers can’t learn from new ones—some of the most valuable strategies, methods, and approaches I’ve gained as a teacher were shared with me by my own student teachers. But to force an entire school or district to follow the plans of a single brand new pre-service teacher is nonsensical at best.

The students with whom I’m fortunate to work are some of the best and brightest entering the teaching profession through a traditional program. Over the past five years, the mean GPA of those seeking an MAT in English Education is just over 3.6 on a 4.0 scale. We know that smarter students make a larger positive difference in their students’ standardized test scores (though that really shouldn’t be the only goal we respect) but these future teachers did not sign up to teach from the same lesson plans, the plans their colleagues made or worse yet, the plans an outside group designed. In enacting these requirements, schools are reinforcing the distrust of teachers prevalent in society. By taking instructional planning out of the hands of all teachers, schools can be sure that all are at least teaching average lessons.  Keeping it simple, stupid.  But in doing so, these schools are–unsuspectingly–also affecting the greatest common factor, the talented and effective teachers who now have to teach from the same lessons.

Talented students don’t sign up to become teachers for the money. Talented students recognize the opportunity to maximize their potential in a field that recognizes flexibility, creativity, differentiation, individuality, and the ability to meet the needs of all students.  I fear that the talented future and existing teachers we need in this country are going to flee from the teaching profession if it means following a one-size-fits-all plan and keeping it simple, stupid. Unfortunately, I am seeing some of my future teachers already questioning their career choice when faced with the deprofessionalized classrooms in which they are learning to teach.

My class is reading Dr. Peter Smagorinsky’s textbook Teaching English by Design while experiencing this homogenization in their internships; this week, we discussed several passages that argue for teacher autonomy and illustrate reasons why we should question, challenge, and overthrow teacher-less teaching.

“Teachers ought to consider their own interests and needs when deciding what to teach. They should reflect on the value of their judgment in knowing what students might benefit from studying, even if the students haven’t identified it as an interest. To meet your own needs, think about your interests and knowledge.” (p. 135)

Smagorinsky’s reputation is unparalleled as a teacher, writer, researcher, and teacher educator. He continues, qualifying that teachers should rely on students to guide their instruction, a concept that in the time of standards created by people far away from the classroom and lesson plans created by other teachers, seems completely and most unfortunately, distant.

“Students know when teachers are going through the motions. Many student evaluations of teachers that I’ve read over the years have stressed the importance of teachers being enthusiastic and passionate about their work. Nothing kills enthusiasm like teaching topics and books that you don’t like.” (p. 135)

And perhaps that is what I find most disheartening about all of this, the CCS does not dictate that teachers meet particular standards through particular texts or in lockstep–common–ways. This is death by a thousand compromises and another indication that we are seeing seeds of an implementation problem, a misinterpretation of what the standards are and aren’t, as a response to this nationalized approach to education.

On one hand, the educational climate of 2012, may very well contribute to this oversimplification of teaching and learning in ways like this, taking complex standards and reducing them to a curriculum guide replete with boxes to be checked off at the end of each day. The teachers I’ve heard from are some of the best I’ve ever met and the interns in the teacher education program, as I’ve mentioned, have talents that exceed most of their peers. To enact the CCS appropriately will require truly exceptional–not common–teachers. Most I know are quite capable–or will be quite capable if given a chance to write and experiment with lesson and unit planning–of designing their own path forward.

“Because the teaching profession can often be frustrating, it’s important to have as much control and authority over your teaching practices as possible in order to feel that you are having the effect on students’ lives that you hope for” (Smagorinsky, p. 137).

I couldn’t agree more.

If you are teaching or learning to teach in a lockstep environment like the ones I’ve described, please consider participating in the EduSanity movement by adding your comments, forwarding this to others, posting to Facebook, retweeting, pinning it, etc. It’s time to take back the classrooms.


suggested citation:
Goering, C.Z. (2012, October 8). Are schools misinterpreting Common Core Standards as common teaching? EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/08/are-schools-mi…ommon-teaching/