GREAT Act: More Reality Needed in Teaching… and Op-Eds

October 10, 2013

We have a serious problem in the United States: when it comes to training teachers, we are somewhere between mediocre to terrible. And we do a particularly bad job of training effective teachers to serve in our highest-need areas (particularly areas of poverty) and our hardest to staff subjects. 

At NewSchools Venture Fund, we’ve made no secret of our strong support for proposed federal legislation, the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act (S. 1052 and H.R. 2196), that’s designed to address this problem. The GREAT Act is an entirely voluntary, state-based program that – if enacted – is designed to create new teacher and principal training academies that will embrace three core principles.

First, GREAT academies must be more selective in who they admit as prospective teacher candidates. We believe we must elevate the prestige of the profession of teaching by attracting thoughtful, creative people to enter the field of education. We aren’t alone in this ambition: the new Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) standards for teacher-preparation programs similarly set new, higher selectivity requirements to receive national accreditation.

Second, GREAT academies must emphasize hands-on, clinical training so that teachers in training are given meaningful exposure to what actual classroom teaching requires. One might contrast this emphasis on real-world training with the experience most teachers have in our institutions of higher education, as noted in a recent op-ed by Joe Nocera of the New York Times:

Melinda [a teacher interviewed by Nocera] recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job — classroom management, organization, lesson planning — were things she had to figure out on her own, after she had begun teaching. When I asked them [Melinda and two other new teachers] what they had learned in college, they shouted in unison: theory!

Melinda is right, we need less theory – and more reality – in teacher training.

Finally, and most importantly, GREAT Academies are required to hold themselves and the educators they train accountable for improving student learning. More specifically, prospective teachers trained by a GREAT academy cannot be recommended for certification or licensure until they’ve proven that they demonstrate, based on multiple measures, that they are capable of improving student learning. This is a higher bar than has ever been set before in teacher training.

These principles are rigorous and relatively uncontroversial, which is why the GREAT Act has received broad, bipartisan support in Congress (no easy feat these days) and support from more than 100 education organizations and thought leaders. Yet, in a recent opinion piece published in the Washington Post, the academic Kenneth Zeichner from the University of Washington takes (ahem) great umbrage with the GREAT Act and its stated aims. Zeichner’s argument is flawed both conceptually and factually.

Conceptually, Zeichner’s main concern is that the GREAT Act is part of an effort by NewSchools Venture Fund to “disrupt the current system of college and university training” and “create opportunities for new entrepreneur-developed programs to emerge in what would be a market economy.” Guilty as charged. NewSchools unabashedly supports new entrepreneurs entering the field of education and providing new solutions to challenging problems, including teacher training. Indeed, only an academic could possibly think we should create more regulatory barriers in education to prevent entrepreneurship and innovation. Moreover, a “market” for teacher training already exists in the United States – but this market simply happens to be an oligarchy dominated by institutes of higher education. That GREAT would introduce an alternative approach based on outcomes rather than inputs is a feature of the legislation, not a bug.

Zeichner’s second major complaint is that the GREAT Act would “further fuel the situation where the least qualified and most inexperienced teachers are teaching the neediest students.” While Zeichner is absolutely correct about the inequitable distribution of teachers in this country, his claim vis-à-vis GREAT is impossible to square with the facts. GREAT academies by definition will be required to certify teachers only if they can demonstrate their impact in the classroom and produce teachers to serve in high-needs areas or hard-to-staff subjects. In contrast, colleges of education today are free to churn out underprepared teachers with little if any regard to where or what these teachers will teach; many don’t even bother to track where their teachers go after they graduate. As a result, we consistently overtrain elementary school teachers we don’t need and under-train the types of teachers school districts actually want, such as middle-school math or those certified to teach special-needs children. Ironically, the GREAT Act is designed to help solve the very problem Zeichner is (rightly) worried about. 

Zeichner’s piece also includes a smattering of curious statements and outright mistakes. For example, he claims that innovative approaches to teacher training are “without peer-reviewed empirical support beyond individual anecdotes.” Zeichner may be unaware of the recent, peer-review report from the highly respected Mathematica that found that Teach For America trained math teachers were able to provide their students with equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of learning per school year compared to non-TFA teachers. Zeichner also claims the goal of NewSchools’ investments is to promote “privatization…in teacher education” but fails to mention that the GREAT Act is expressly limited to non-profit entities. There are other mistakes too, such as misidentifying Jonathan Schorr’s current job (he works for the Department of Education, not the White House) and claiming NewSchools’ “operates 331 charter schools” (we fund and support a number of not-for profit charter management organizations, but they operate the schools).

Put simply, if Zeichner’s op-ed against the GREAT Act were peer reviewed, it would be marked “revise and submit.”