Education Schools: Prescriptive Training and Academic Freedom

I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on ed school, when someone retweeted Peter Sipe’s op ed about his ed school training, which he went through at the same time his wife went through med school.

It’s a good piece that accurately captures, not caricatures, graduate ed school (the only type I’m discussing). My ed school did not make us throw around a medicine ball. I recall posters and drawings and gingerbread men.

But I part ways with the second half of Sipe’s article, and our difference characterizes an important philosophical conflict in teacher training.

The difference begins and ends here: “The thing is — and it’s the thing that still bugs me — I don’t recall learning how to do anything.”

Ed schools, the complaint goes, want their teachers to “reflect” on their philosophy and methods, but don’t teach the “hows” and the “what’s”. I find this charge to be somewhat misguided. While most ed schools don’t spend a lot of class time on these topics, they require apprenticeships in the form of student teaching where plenty of hows and whats are discussed. Leave aside the issue of the quality of student teaching experiences for the minute. Ed schools as currently designed explicitly allow for teachers to experiment with the hows and the whats. But yes, ed schools do not mandate a specific list.

A second charge against ed schools is their lack of academic freedom. Ed schools are disastrous and keep FIRE in business, say the critics, because the “teacher dispositions” criteria allows them to expel anyone who just, well, doesn’t have the personality or the right qualities to be a teacher, providing a convenient tool to reject or expel students lacking the correct ideology.

So ed schools are insufficiently prescriptive on technique and overly prescriptive on political ideology.

But wouldn’t prescriptive teacher training decrease academic freedom?

As Paul Bruno observes, both reformers and progressives argue that teachers should be more like lawyers and doctors. But law schools and med schools aren’t exactly bastions of academic inquiry and experimentation. Peter Sipe’s wife spent all her free time memorizing madly. Law and medicine have huge bodies of knowledge, and candidates don’t get to challenge the professors or argue about the necessity of given approaches and techniques.

In ed school, teachers are actually encouraged to examine approaches and try them out. Paradoxically, despite the legitimate complaints about ideological demands, ed schools grant teachers far more academic and intellectual freedom than law and medical schools do (at least in their early years), and are in that sense more like MBAs. Think of ed school as the equivalent to the last year of law or medical training, when students have demonstrated mastery of the basics and encouraged to explore options and specialize. (this is necessarily simplified, I know). In ed school, the content knowledge tests are “the basics” and we demonstrated that competency as an admissions requirement. From that point, all we have to do is explore options, find our identities as teachers, develop an education philosophy.

So why is ed school so open-ended? And here we come to the issue that has plagued education policy since its inception: teaching doesn’t have an extensive body of knowledge. It never has. The profession has no best practices. I started to expand on this, but really, it’s best to just read David Labaree. I may put some more thoughts down in a second post, whenever it arises. For now, even those who disagree with this assertion would not dispute the lack of agreement about best practices.

Given the lack of any accepted body of knowledge, any attempt to put a stake in the ground is necessarily ideological. .

As an example, consider an ed school that mandates one particular set of hows and whats: Relay Graduate School of Education. (Facts pulled from various places but mostly here)

Charter schools that can’t or won’t hire credentialed teachers hire college graduates who are then shuttled through an alternate certification program while they teach. Back in 2005, Norman Atkins of Northstar and David Levin of KIPP decided they could eliminate the middle man. Rather than using alternative credential programs, they built their own program. They began by running their program through a university (Teacher U), but it was pretty clearly their goal from the start to have their own ed school.

Relay’s teacher “trainees” are put through a largely scripted curriculum, the instructors often literally reading from a script. The program is “competency based” (critics would say bereft of theory or any intellectual exercise).

I put “trainees” in quotes because Relay students aren’t actually training. They’re teaching, usually at a charter school, often KIPP, ACHIEVE, or Uncommon Schools. Students must be full time elementary or middle school teachers—that is, students must have obtained a teaching job without a credential, which limits their hiring pool almost entirely to charters. They can only graduate when they have demonstrated that their students make a full year of academic progress—which again, limits their hiring pool to schools that will boot absentee kids, troublemakers, and unmotivated low achievers.

Is Relay using an accepted body of knowledge? No. They don’t claim to–and in some cases, they are using the same content that ed schools would use anyway. Does Relay have a research base to prove its effectiveness? No. Were Relay’s methods developed to enforce a strong ideological bias about education? Yes. Relay’s ideological canon includes notions like test scores are the only accurate measure of effective teaching (not a given at all) , that more time on task is equivalent to more learning, that rigid control is essential for effective teaching, that effective schools must have uniform education philosophies, and that teachers and schools can and should make behavior demands of low income children and parents as a condition of their education, to name just a few.

Could Relay’s techniques be used to educate all teachers? Oh hell no. Relay’s techniques are designed for mid-ability, low income black and Hispanic children in elementary and middle school whose parents are desperate to remove them from schools that aren’t allowed to expel troublemakers. In return for a guarantee of expelled troublemakers, the parents sign up for all sorts of commitments and expectations that parents with any other choice would laugh at. And Relay’s methods won’t work without that anvil hanging over the kids’ heads. Or, as I said in my last post, white kids don’t do KIPP.

Leaving aside the parents, a significant chunk of the potential teaching population would never sign up for Relay’s ideology. As just one example: Relay provides videos of what it considers exemplary teaching—most of them from Doug Lemov, whose taxonomy drives a lot of Relay’s methods. (at the link, look for Strong Voice, Transitions, or Supportive something or other, as examples. Or check out Doug Lemov’s videos).

Regular teachers often find these exemplaries…..unconvincing. My terms range from “flatly incompetent” to “pretty damn creepy”. Carol Burris goes further and while I don’t agree with everything she says here, my general vibe is way more “right on” than “don’t be ridiculous.” Paul Bruno feels this characterization is extremely unfair. You do not need to agree with me about the videos, but understand that many teachers vehemently disagree with the methods and ideology on display.

But remember, Relay doesn’t want typical teacher profiles. No Excuses charter schools are pulling in a fairly high-performing group for their two years and out teachers. The teacher “trainees” drawn to this approach are, as a rule, control freaks who have just (checks watch) two years to save the world before they go to law school or work for a hedge fund. They are the best of the best of the best, to quote Lieutenant Jake Jenson, and they want no truck with those slouchy teachers who didn’t even get straight As and don’t make baggy pants look nearly as cool as Will Smith does. It doesn’t matter that Doug Lemov isn’t a professor, what matters is the man has an MBA from Harvard. He’ll show the way, and they’ll get it done, just like they always do, unlike those idiot teachers who created this mess they’ll have to fix. They are usually privileged, usually white recent college graduates who just want to know the best way of drilling simple facts and good behavior into “disadvantaged” (read really, really poor) black and Hispanic elementary and middle schoolers using a required set of procedures.

As a university, Relay must guarantee its students academic freedom, but as the alert reader may have noticed, Relay’s students want methods and answers, not intellectual challenge. They don’t give a damn about academic freedom.

But good form demands we inquire whether Relay guarantees its students academic freedom. We are assured of its existence. I’m skeptical, but not because I doubt Relay’s commitment to the idea.

Say a teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter is required to use those creepy finger waves that you see in the video. He wants to try to manage his class without the finger waves. But if he doesn’t use the finger waves, he gets fired, and if he doesn’t have a job, he can’t complete his education at Relay.

If all charters that accept Relay mandate that behavior and Relay mandates employment in order to be in the program, and the only jobs for uncredentialed teachers are at charters, is Relay offering academic freedom?

If other charters allow their teachers the freedom to decide on their own methods and techniques, then maybe Relay will see a test of its values at some point. Would Relay tolerate a teacher in its program saying “the finger waving is some sick stuff and I won’t do it. And the countdown nonsense? I didn’t get into teaching to turn out robots. White parents wouldn’t put up with this crap.”

Suppose a teacher decides her students are better served by teaching them more slowly, giving them time to explore additional content. Her students don’t make a year of academic progress. She gets excellent results, has few discipline problems, accomplishes miracles with students who would otherwise be expelled and sent back to comprehensive schools, but Relay won’t give her a credential because her students didn’t make a year of progress. Where is her academic freedom, her ability to make pedagogical choices for her students?

These are all just hypotheticals, because most Relay students are Koolaid drinkers who bought into the ideology before they started.

But if you want to skip ed school and Relay’s your only choice, keep FIRE on speed dial.

I am being deliberately flip. My disdain for Relay is irrelevant as anything other than illustration of a basic truth: many, many people are repelled by the school’s techniques. If you want a considered assessment of the different approaches, read this excellent Stephen Sawchuk piece on intellectual vs. technical teacher preparation. And the charter demand for a prescriptive approach goes way beyond No Excuses schools; progressive charters are just as ideologically biased.

A prescriptive method for producing teachers simply won’t work as anything other than a specialized fringe method with a guaranteed market. It’s one thing to mandate a fixed procedure for subcuticular stitches, quite another to mandate weighting homework as 40% of the grade or requiring students to sit in groups or in rows, still another to make teachers force kids to perform transition steps in unison or use a 3-second “wait time” with “strategic narration”.

I believe an open-ended approach to teacher training is the only possible method of preparing teachers. Like legions of teachers, I felt entirely prepared to walk into my first classroom and can’t figure out what the hell Peter Sipe is complaining about. That doesn’t mean traditional ed schools couldn’t be improved. But it’s worth remembering that most of them do a lot of things pretty well, and that many teachers—good ones, even—don’t agree with the prevailing “received wisdom” of the chattering class. Which is what I’ll be writing about the next time I take the topic on.

Okay, I’ve been chewing on this long enough. Posting. Maybe I’ll edit later.

About educationrealist

21 responses to “Education Schools: Prescriptive Training and Academic Freedom

  • anonymousskimmer

    Excellent and mind opening post to me, thanks.

    From one of your links:
    “”It seems very basic, that all students should have their eyes on you when you’re speaking,” Ms. Vuolle said after giving her lesson.”

    How much are the students missing because they’re internally telling themselves “must keep tracking the teacher with my eyes”?

  • tteclod

    As an engineering school graduate (BS and More S), I’m inclined to conclude that what the ed schools lack is a clear body of knowledge. The Relay schools you describe would be functionally impossible to implement in the ABET-accredited engineering profession. As it is, we are already moving toward either a tiered professional system (generalists may pursue more education to become specialists) or a professional degree following the BS for all engineers. We also have four years’ internship, minimum, in all but one state, plus more experience for some specialist licenses and certifications.

    Ultimately, all the above is dependent upon that body-of-knowledge. In the early education years, that’s simply not up for discussion, by which I mean, assertions like, “I don’t think things work that way,” better be backed with evidence ’cause the professor certainly can demonstrate the difference between a pet hypothesis and a theory darn quick. Clearly, Relay et al aren’t anywhere near that standard of practice, but Sipes may have a point about ed school’s failing to develop or transmit a body of knowledge. Looking at you profession from the outside (and recalling discussions with close family with teacher’s certificates who teach in public schools), there appears to be far too much ongoing debate regarding teaching methods and effectiveness for a profession with at plenty of foundational years for establishing a body of established and effective instructional design and performance improvement targeted at children and youth. A look at the US military’s established training programs provides a useful comparison. When such BoK is finally established, the academic freedom you describe will look very different, such that thing like finger-pointing will be either supported by testing or discredited, and arguments won’t be tolerated once the scientific work is done.

    • Apollo

      100% agree as another scientist/engineer (piled higher and deeper) with many primary and secondary school teacher relatives. Teaching as a profession goes back, probably, as far as engineering or more and yet there really isn’t any body of knowledge at all, or at least not an appreciably effective one. “Academic freedom” in the sciences means the freedom for a researcher (note: not all or even most students, e.g. probably not a professionally-oriented master’s level student) to pursue in a rigorous way whatever area of research he or she chooses, NOT a period of play time to “find what feels good to you”.

      After reading this post I find myself wondering what the point of ed school is at all. Just do an internship and call it a day. (Require subject tests or a relevant subject-matter degree for secondary school teachers.) Done.

  • anon

    Let me be the first to admit that this is at best hazily related to the post, but I’d be interested to see your thoughts on Mr. C as described here:

    This is the only class I’ve ever taken where the grade was tied to the student’s understanding of the material, and where failure to understand would result in a failing grade. We’re a long, long way from the, “Do all the work and you’ll pass” mentality that pervades the rest of the school system.

  • malcolmthecynic

    All right, the cat is out of the bag that I’m planning on being a teacher. I’m going to ask a basic question that has a very complex answer, and know in advance that I already know there is no one size fits all answer here.


    I am paying my own way through college, basically with loans (I say “basically” because I also have a low-paying retail job that’s going to pay mostly for car insurance and gas, not to mention the car itself). I’ll be going into my junior year, and while I still have a meeting with a counselor to work out details my basic idea right now is to major in English and minor in Bio, then get credits in both to teach High School.

    So, is Ed School a practical choice for me? Would it be worth the money?

    • Apollo

      Most states have a glut of high school English teachers, and of the sciences Bio also has the most supply versus demand because it’s the science bachelors that is (otherwise) least useful without further education in the subject.

      I wouldn’t do it. Get a physics or math credential instead, if you can manage.

      • malcolmthecynic

        I just learned that in my state getting credentialed in a subject is fairly easy, so yay for me.

        Don’t get me wrong, the education program in my state is extremely rigorous; it’s just that to get credentialed in a certain subject, all you need to do is pass a test. Which is cool.

        For all I know, it could be like this in every state, but whatever. I like it.

      • educationrealist

        You can’t just pass a test to become a teacher. You have to go to ed school or get certified by some process.

        Then AFTER that, you can get credentialed in a certain subject by passing a test. And it is like that in pretty much every state.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Yes, I know. I didn’t make that clear. I mean after I get certified (which is a pretty rigorous process in my state).

        Cool, it’s like that in each state.

  • EB

    You make some good points. Here are a couple more:

    1. While ed schools may in general provide “good-enough” preparation for future teachers because they include student teaching, there are several states, and some specific programs, that do not. And these add up to a lot of underprepared teachers. This is especially true at the K-8 level, where it is very common in my state to run into teachers who cannot write a simple paragraph (which of course has something to do with their ed school program failing to flunk them out and something to do with their previous deficient education).

    2. Best Practice. While there is not a complete array of best practices, there are a few validated approaches. Some are designed for specific types of students — Direct Instruction was invented for disadvantaged children whose school readiness scores were very low; Orton-Gillingham is proven to work for children with learning disabilities; and so on. But they tend to be rejected by most ed schools, particularly Direct Instruction because it is scripted. Never mind that the scripted part of the day amounts to at most 1.5 hours broken up into 15 minute sessions, leaving plenty of time for the more teacher-designed activities. The purpose of the scripting is not to control the students, but to make sure that what’s being taught is being taught clearly and without ambiguity (a big source of failed learning).

    Interestingly, the term “Best Practices” was hijacked for a while during the ’90’s to mean all kinds of student-directed, politically-progressive types of activities that had not even been rigorously studied, much less validated.

    3. Another difference between ed school and law/medical school is that with the latter two, students are having to master a body of knowledge that they have not been thoroughly exposed to in the past. The same cannot be said of ed school: we’ve all been through 13 years of education by the time we reach college, and we have developed some sense as to what instructional methods might be good (at least for people like us and maybe for students who differ from us too).

    • educationrealist

      Teachers who can’t write a paragraph are not the responsibility of ed schools. Your state presumably has a very easy credential test. Most ed schools require the teachers to pass the credential test to even get in.

      While I agree there may be some best practices for specific demographics, it’s a big difficult to put that on ed schools. Want to get sued? Say in ed school that the best way to teach poor kids is by drill and kill.

      Since I already made point 3, I’m wondering if you actually read the post.

      • EB

        “Teachers who can’t write a paragraph are not the responsibility of ed schools.” Why not? why can’t they just refuse to keep those students in the major or the degree program? regardless of what the state regulation says? why can’t they require that candidates pass the credential test before they begin? The ed schools are VERY passive in my state and a few others I know of.

        You might be sued if you said that Direct Instruction works for low income kids (it also works for other kids, but not as dramatically). You would win, however, because there is evidence.

        I certainly did read the post. You almost made point 3, but not quite.

        I love this blog but you are a little too fond of slamming people. :–(

      • educationrealist

        “Why not? why can’t they just refuse to keep those students in the major or the degree program?”

        Because if the state said they had passed the content knowledge to be a qualified teacher, and the ed school disagreed, the ed school would be sued.

        Who wants a lawsuit? And no, I made point 3.

      • Apollo

        What kind of degree requires no writing whatsoever? Who cares if they’ve passed the licensure test in advance; if they can’t write, how are they receiving passing grades in their ed school classes? “This student received an F in my class because his essays were incomprehensible” is pretty defensible.

        Also, I agree that you didn’t make point 3, the key point of which was not the “body of knowledge” part (which you did point out) but the fact that everyone has already had quite a bit of direct, near-daily contact with education in a way that they have not with law or medicine (which you did not point out).

      • educationrealist

        While “everyone” has memories of education, no one save teachers have memories of educating people of all abilities and yes, that makes a difference. You went to college, but I doubt you think you could teach all college subjects simply because you sat in class.

        As for the first, I’ve explained why ed schools can’t have higher standards than the state–can’t remember if it’s in this thread or not,and you don’t make me care enough to check. You’re smart; you figure it out.

      • Apollo

        So in other words, you disagree with the second half of EB’s point 3. That’s fine and I think he wouldn’t object to that. He seemed to be objecting to your claim that you’d “already made” the point with which you now say you actually disagree to a significant extent.

        For the record I think there would be some value in teaching teachers how best to teach low-ability kids, since the students in ed school were likely to have been at least median ability and thus the struggles of the truly dim would be a rather foreign experience. But from your and others’ writing on ed school, outside of special education this is NOT particularly taught, in favor of reinforcing the canard that all children can be taught all the material and that only disadvantage or [insert another nebulous, favored bugbear of your choice] hold them back.

        And yes, I know you’ve explained it–I’ve read your blog for years–but it was a political/ideological explanation (to ensure a corps of teachers who “look like America” so to speak), not an intrinsic one. Fine and dandy if enforcing low standards is politically important for America, but no university degree program worth its salt should be willing to pass someone through who can’t write. This does nothing to make your case for the credibility of ed school.

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