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A Critique of A Critique of Teach for America by Darling-Hammond, et al.
Rick Garlikov

 This is a commentary on the article (EPAA Vol. 13 No. 42,

 Does Teacher Preparation Matter?
Evidence about Teacher Certification, Teach for America,
and Teacher Effectiveness
by Linda Darling‑Hammond, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin, and Julian Vasquez Heilig

Without saying so directly, the above article strongly implies that (what I will call standard school of education degree) teacher certification programs or a substantial number of courses from them, are necessary for teachers to be most effective, and that this is demonstrated by showing that the strongest alternative background, such as a strong liberal arts degree and strong academic ability, are insufficient to produce equally or more effective teachers. The authors write: 

Recent debates about the utility of teacher education have raised questions about whether certified teachers are, in general, more effective than those who have not met the testing and training requirements for certification, and whether some candidates with strong liberal arts backgrounds might be at least as effective as teacher education graduates. This study examines these questions ....


The data set also allows an examination of whether Teach for America (TFA) candidates—recruits from selective universities who receive a few weeks of training before they begin teaching—are as effective as similarly experienced certified teachers.


On the one hand, advocates of stronger preparation—especially for teachers in schools serving low-income students and students of color—have argued that teachers need to understand how children learn and how to make material accessible to a wide range of students to be successful....On the other hand, opponents of teacher education and certification have argued...for the dismantling of teacher certification systems and the redefinition of teacher qualifications to emphasize higher standards for verbal ability and content knowledge and to de-emphasize education training, making student teaching and education coursework optional


... at the center of many of these debates has been the Teach for America (TFA) program, which seeks to recruit academically able new college graduates, many of them from selective universities, into two-year teaching commitments in hard-to-staff districts.


I wish to make clear that the implication I describe, whether it is intended or not, does not follow from the evidence of the study. Even if the statistical analysis is sound, it does not follow that standard school of education degrees are educationally (more or most) effective or that alternative routes to teaching would not be preferable and more effective.  In short, I do not believe that, as is said in the first quoted paragraph above, this study examines the questions it purports to study.  Those are larger questions than whether the students of certified teachers can do better on standardized math and reading tests in grades 3 through 5 than students taught by a non-certified teacher, particularly, or including, Teach for America teachers.

I realize that I may easily be accused of setting up a straw man, but I will leave it to readers to decide whether the implication I am saying is invalid stems from a natural or reasonable reading of the article.  I simply do not wish anyone to come away with the idea that this article plausibly confirms the importance of standard school of education degree programs.

The reason I say “standard” education degree programs is that there may (at least potentially) be certification routes from schools of education that are radically different from the standard degree program or a substantial number of currently standard education courses, and I do not believe the debate is simply whether schools of education should be shut down, but whether the standard kinds of education courses and material are important or not. It could perfectly well be that those opposed to the standard education courses are not opposed to some sort of education courses, or display of grasp of the material in them, being necessary in order to qualify people to teach.

My first point is that Teach for America should not be considered the standard by which to judge the teaching ability of strong liberal arts graduates.  In some cases people accepted into Teach for America do not get to teach in a field related to their majors.  A student with majors in political science and economics, signing on and expecting to teach high school government and economics courses, may be assigned to teach middle school math, on the basis of strong Praxis II math test scores, even though they may have taken no college math at all.

Second, while I myself have long advocated alternative qualification routes for teachers, and have long believed that a liberal arts education was one such appropriate and important avenue, I would not argue that a liberal arts bachelor degree alone would be sufficient.  Some teaching preparation and/or display of ability to teach is necessary to prevent total trial and error in classrooms where students are unwitting guinea pigs.  As the article correctly mentions, the students suffer from ineffective teachers even if those teachers learn enough from their mistakes to become effective for future students.  The teacher gets more chances to teach the material better, but the students do not easily or without penalty get more chances to learn it. 

One does not need meta-analytic studies to show that those who excel in learning or doing research in a field may be inept teachers of it.  Everyone knows experts in a field who cannot teach at all.  Colleges and universities are replete with such teachers.  Many parents are such teachers.

Moreover, I do not believe students with a mere BA in a liberal arts major are even knowledgeable enough in their fields, generally, to be that effective in the classroom.  I think that typically at least some graduate school courses in a field are necessary to solidify the knowledge gleaned in the undergraduate years, and to provide an important breadth of perspective in that field itself.

It should not then be particularly surprising that those with an undergraduate degree and very little teaching training, who have not had to demonstrate effective teaching ability or had much opportunity to practice teaching, might not teach very well, particularly if they are not even teaching in their field of training or sphere of interest.

But even if ideal liberal arts (or engineering or fine arts, etc.) teaching candidates could be found, people who might be the world’s greatest teachers, I suspect it is highly unlikely they could pass the muster of the kind of meta-analysis done in this study.  I think the study is much too narrow, just as I think “education” today is much too narrow in both its scope and its accountability or testing methods.  To keep, say, Leonardo Da Vinci out of a classroom as a teacher just because he does not have a standard teaching certificate or teacher training, or might not be able to elevate the math scores of students in grades 3 through 5, is as ludicrous as is putting him in charge of a classroom without seeing whether he can actually teach any of the things he knows or whether he can inspire students to learn what he knows or finds worth studying.

American students do fairly well in math in the early grades, but not in the later grades.  Algebra is a particular stumbling block for many students.  I believe that is because of the way that math is taught in elementary schools.  So that even if students do well on a test of grades 3 through 5 material, it could very well be that they are not actually learning as much “mathematics” or developing as much mathematical reasoning skill or math understanding as they should be.  A teacher who was not good in math in high school or college, I do not believe, is likely to be a good math teacher in even first grade, because I do not think s/he has enough understanding of mathematical relationships and concepts to be able to teach the fundamentals in a meaningful, useful, inspiring, interesting, or memorable way.  Yes, such teachers know all the things one needs to know to do well on an elementary math test and probably to teach students how to do well on such a test, but that is different from being able to give primary students the foundation and the inspiration, curiosity, and desire they need to work with numbers or logical/mathematical relationships in middle school or high school.

Similarly, if developing vocabulary and reasoning skills are more important for future reading ability than are certain sorts of typical reading drills teach or tests examine, teaching students to do well on standardized tests may well be a detriment to their education.  Short term benefits do not necessarily mean long term or meaningful results.  Many students who drill on sound-symbol correspondence are often paraded before parent audiences to recite or read passages whose words they pronounce perfectly well, with no understanding whatsoever of the meaning they have.  That looks like reading and it is perhaps even involves part of the skill of reading, but it is not reading, if reading is about understanding written communication or the written word.  Similarly if what is tested on reading tests is merely surface understanding, it does not test many of the more important aspects of the ability to read.

And since there is much evidence that most American high school graduates, even with very good grades and high test scores, do not have the kind of reading, verbal, reasoning, and math skills or understanding that employers and college teachers think they should have I am not confident that doing well on standardized tests, and especially tests in grades 3 through 5, is a measure of being educated, though it is a measure of learning what is being tested.

In this regard, teachers who go through a standard education degree program have an advantage of teaching what needs to be taught for testing well.  But that is because, or is very potentially because, the whole system is circular in the way a “good ole boys’” network is self-selecting and self-promoting.  Insofar as the test is to know the information that the judges believe important, than those taught by the judges will be more likely to pass the test than those taught by anyone outside the system.  Gymnasts, ballet dancers, figure skaters, divers, and equestrians who are taught the techniques the judges are looking for will always score better than those who may be far more athletic, or even graceful, in general but who lack the “proper” techniques.  Enrico Caruso had difficulty finding a voice teacher because according to the standards of the day, he could not sing.  There are standards, of course, for what is good, but one should never confuse having standards with necessarily having the right standards.

Those with liberal arts, fine arts, engineering, agricultural or horticultural, mechanical, etc. knowledge, who can teach, potentially can bring far more of real merit to students in classrooms than those without such knowledge.  But if the standard of “education” does not even attempt to measure those benefits, they will not show up as student achievements.  A writer, for example, without a teaching degree, might not teach the mechanics tested on a third grade reading test, but might very well give students an appreciation for the power of the written word, might enrich their vocabulary, and might provide them with lifelong insights into using words much more effectively in understanding and communicating ideas. A person well-educated in math, with a love for it and an understanding of how to bring it to life for children, might not teach the mechanics tested on a third grade standardized math test, but may teach students how to reason mathematically and inspire them to do in a way that helps them learn higher level math far better than they would if they were taught the standard curriculum and how to do well on standard tests of that curriculum.

And even if it turns out there is some correlation between real life and success on the kinds of tests students are made to take, and that are used here, it does not follow from that, that there is no good way to utilize TFA types of students in schools.  To limit the exposure in schools of students strictly to those with education degrees, seems to me to be ludicrous, because education degrees are even narrower in academic scope than non‑education BA degrees, which are themselves too narrow, especially in this day and age where students can get a BA with little breadth, little perspective about their own fields (majors), and with almost no general reasoning or communication skills.  To keep the best and brightest non‑ed‑certified of the community out of classrooms altogether seems to me be a waste of a valuable potential resource.  And it seems to me that if such people have to either stay out or totally adapt to the system by being a fully trained classroom teacher, they will basically stay out. 

Schools tend to let into the classroom on limited bases those who are successful in politics or business or even sports, but they tend not to utilize the talents of most academically educated people in fields such as history or literature or math (such as engineers or mathematicians), etc.  There should be ways to tap into the broader educations of the community than what schools do.  Many people have BA's or even MA's in majors they love and would love to teach about to students, even though those people have just regular jobs and are not "in their fields".  This all gets squandered.  In our school district, we even have hundreds and hundreds of Mexican children, but they do not utilize the language ability of those students to help English-speaking students learn Spanish (from a young age), because that has to be done by certified teachers in high school, etc.  So the Hispanic kids are made to feel like second class citizens because they cannot speak English well at the beginning, and their Spanish speaking capabilities are treated as useless, and are not utilized to help English-speaking kids learn language and cultural things that are important.

But the education community’s response would be that little Mexican kids can't teach a classroom, and if we made them all teachers on emergency certification, Linda Darling‑Hammonds would be able to do a study that shows they are not good classroom teachers because their students can't score high enough on reading and math tests in Texas. 

The present system is simply exceedingly wasteful of talent that might be available to bring into classrooms in various ways.  It prevents students from being exposed to many people who might help them learn more than narrowly educated teachers can help them learn.  And it often has too low expectations of what children can learn because its understanding of what is developmentally appropriate is based on norms achieved by standard education rather than possibilities of what students could master.

While it is true that “teachers need to understand how children learn and how to make material accessible to a wide range of students to be successful,” it is not clear that ed courses necessarily teach that, though they may believe they do, or that people who do not know some of the research ed students are taught are therefore unable to teach a wide range of students in effective ways.

Finally, the article made it look like TFA's (Teach for America participants) dropped out of teaching after two or three years even if they got certified.  But TFA's are recruited for a two year period specifically.  Many join in the same way Peace Corps volunteers joined that organization ‑‑ as a means of giving public service after college before going on into their intended professions.  There is no attrition issue in TFA for those who complete their two years and leave, and nothing is necessarily driving TFA participants away from the profession.  It is a two year community service program, not a career.  Talking about it as an attrition issue is like asking why Peace Corps volunteers don't stay or why high school students don't stay in high school after they graduate.  So any implication, if there is one, as I believe, in the Hammonds article that TFA's couldn't take it or couldn't make it in the teaching profession, is unfair.  They were not hired to become career teachers.  They are not dropping out of teaching, but completing their tour of duty. 

It may be, of course, as the article points out, that a longer commitment would be better, and that better incentives need to be available to make longer commitments and longer tours of duty appealing.  But short of that, the point of TFA is to get educated and bright people into classrooms for at least two years to serve students who otherwise do not really have much, if any, opportunity to be taught by someone capable.  TFA’s do not take the jobs of certified teachers.  They fill in where certified teachers are not available.

But I, of course, think the best incentive for keeping bright, educated people in classrooms is to have a whole different notion of what an education should be, how to tell whether it is occurring or not, and deciding who is able to provide it well.  That is not about to happen any time soon, but it will be put off even longer if education becomes a merely technical endeavor that is circular in its accountability procedures and research.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.