Schools as Structures of Power

My doctoral students and I are working on a project that is focused on family, school, community partnerships (FSCPs). We have two goals for our work: (1) to craft a literature review that explores the impact of these partnerships and how they might influence teacher preparation, and (2) to develop a syllabus for our summer alternative field experience that takes our learning into account. As I am reading the literature for FSCPs, I am struck by the expectation of schools for families and communities to come to them. This creates a “done unto” relationship with families, rather than “doing with” to best support the children for which all three entities are responsible. Without deep knowledge and commitment to families and communities, schools don’t know what is best for the children in their care. But, that commitment means that schools must integrate into the community just as much as they expect the community to come to them. Together, they can develop shared understandings of how to support children within their context. 

From a policy perspective, this goes back to the notion of standardization. If we expect the same inputs and outputs from all schools, then we ignore the rich culture of the neighborhoods in which those schools are located. Why would families and communities be heavily invested in a school that does not invest in the community? But, why would schools feel compelled to invest in the community if the curricular standards leave no room for integrating community into practice? And whose cultural norms determine standardized practices within our schools? 

Bryan and Henry (2012) do a nice job of summarizing the principles of building FSCPs: Democratic collaboration, Empowerment, Social Justice, and Strengths-Focused. By focusing on these four principles, action teams (representing all stakeholders) are better able to address the specific needs of each community, and potentially develop positive outcomes such as a narrowed achievement gap. 

Why any policy maker believes that standardization, without consideration for individual contexts, would lead to higher achievement is beyond me. This idea positions the school as the only stakeholder with power — the absolute power of knowledge — and gives no credence to the rich cultures outside of the school that are powerful influences on children, and could be powerful partners for schools. Such an understanding would require a paradigmatic shift from deficit model to a strengths-based model of education.

The doctoral students and I intend to support this shift in coursework with our preservice teachers.

Works cited: 

Bryan, J., & Henry, L. (2012). A model for building school-family-community partnerships: Principles and processes. Journal of Counseling & Development, 90, 408-420.


Coolio on my mind, and my mind on the children…

While out on my run this morning, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on my iPod. It struck a chord today, because I’ve been talking (and thinking) so much about the urgency with which we must approach teaching children in poverty (and you thought it was because I was living a Gangsta’s paradise, didn’t you?). 

I never want another child to feel compelled to ask this question…


“They say I gotta learn, but nobody’s here to teach me

If they can’t understand it, how can they reach me”


We have so much further to travel before we can get there, however. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams of equity have not yet been realized, and I sometimes worry that we are even farther away today than we were when he spoke them 50 years ago. For our children’s sake, I hope we recognize–and act upon–the need to reach all of our children.




Literacy Research Association’s Response to the NCTQ Paper

I sit on the Literacy Research Association’s Policy & Legislative Committee as an ad hoc member. Our committee released the following response to the NCTQ paper that was published last week.


LRA Response to the NCTQ Review of Teacher Education Programs


By LRA Policy and Legislative Committee members Caitlin McMunn Dooley (Chair), Carla Meyer, Chinwe Ohanu, Ian O’Byrne, Sharon Kletzien, Trika Burke-Smith, Renee Casbergue, and Danielle Dennis (ad hoc member)


We recommend that all Literacy Research Association (LRA) members reach out to media, school leaders, and hiring personnel to remind them to attend to teacher education program ratings and evaluations that are valid and reliable rather than glossy, surface level reviews of syllabi. The adage, “you need to eat at the restaurant to review it, not just look at the menu,” comes to mind.


As professional organizations dedicated to high-quality literacy education and teacher education, LRA, drawing on quoted sources from the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teacher English (NCTE), provide this response to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) “Teacher Prep Review.”  Our response focuses primarily on the literacy-related components of the review.


NCTQ evaluated more than 1,100 colleges and universities across the U.S. By offering a four-star, “consumer tool,” NCTQ claims to provide judgment about which teacher education programs are the best and worst. NCTQ’s methods included an evaluation of admissions standards, the syllabi of literacy-related courses, and the textbooks used in those courses.  There was neither an attempt to check on the quality of field-based practices nor to check the reliability of data collected. This review is the latest chapter in NCTQ’s riddled history.  As literacy-focused organizations, we offer an alternative vision for what makes “quality” in literacy teacher preparation.


By offering this statement, we join a crescendo of critical responses to the NCTQ review.  The Association of American Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) President and CEO Sharon Robinson provided a detailed rebuttal of the methods used in the NCTQ report.  AACTE has also provided a portal for rebuttals. More than a score of responses sent by national organizations, colleges, and universities were posted within the first 36 hours. 


The National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) Conference of English Education (CEE) provided this analysis of the NCTQ methods back in 2011 when the NCTQ requests for data were just starting.  Many colleges and universities did not actively participate in NCTQ’s data collection because of the lack of valid methods and the cost–$10,000s in personnel hours—money better spent in teacher prep classrooms rather than on an invalid report.  Some programs evaluated by NCTQ do not even exist. In addition, NCTE’s CEE Chair Louann Reid, has issued a statement about the need for more helpful evaluations for continuous program improvements.


We would be remiss, however, if we did not seize this opportunity in the spotlight to highlight some of the productive work our colleges and universities, professional organizations, and publishers are doing to ensure high-quality literacy teacher education—and were doing long before the NCTQ report.  Additionally, we would like to take the opportunity to leverage support for continuous improvements.


  • Attending to the Deep Research Base on Excellent Preparation for Teachers of Literacy

Many of our members actively engage in research and practices that demonstrate excellence in the preparation of classroom teachers and literacy specialists.  As a community, our research addresses diverse topics within literacy education and teacher education. For example, IRA’s research on teacher preparation demonstrated how a wide variety of programs achieve excellent student learning results and kudos from school leaders. Many of our professional journals offer research on the best ways to prepare excellent literacy teachers (see, for example, the bibliographies for research studies on Professional Development/Teacher Education from NCTE’s Research in the Teaching of English here).


NCTQ’s singular focus on “the five elements of reading” is neither broad nor deep—nor is it helpful for preparing teachers for diverse classrooms. Any report that talks of students as though they’re all alike—as the NCTQ review does—neglects the reality of today’s diverse classrooms.


We encourage close attention to findings from research studies that have demonstrated the excellence of many diverse literacy teacher education programs. This research addresses how to teach teachers to meet the needs of students who may not have had a meal before coming to the classroom; the needs of students who have learning disabilities; the needs of students who are multilingual; the needs of students who are gifted; and the needs of students who struggle with eyesight, hearing, and other physical problems that may influence literacy learning. This research-base on teacher education and literacy learning is broad and deep.


  • Supporting Valid Evaluations that Support Effective Literacy Education Programs

Understanding what makes an excellent teacher—one who creates learning opportunities and stays in the profession—is essential for districts and school hiring personnel. The nation’s teacher work force loses 15% of teachers every year, effectively meaning that half of the workforce is replaced every three years. Given that experienced teachers are most often better teachers, evaluations of teacher education programs should attend to the need to attract good teachers who stay in the profession.


The NCTQ’s processes for evaluation are so flawed that any decisions about teacher education made on the basis of the NCTQ review would be detrimental to teachers and—most importantly—children. The review does not attend to teacher retention rates. Nor does it attend to the literacy needs of diverse student populations.


We recommend that only comprehensive, valid evaluations of teacher education programs should be used for decision-making; the NCTQ review is neither valid nor comprehensive. Most states offer reviews of teacher preparation programs, including retention rates, already.  Most colleges and universities go through accreditation processes that depend on transparent and extensive data analyses (the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) offers an explanation of the difference in quality evaluations between NCTQ’s evaluation processes and accreditation).  Local colleges and universities can advise which body accredits and governs programs in your area.


  • Assessing Teacher Education via Accepted Standards

Teacher education programs, including all literacy-related courses and field placements, are aligned to State standards for K-12 curricula, accreditation, and teacher licensure. This is common practice for all programs in public universities, the very same programs evaluated by NCTQ. However, NCTQ created new “standards” by which to judge programs—none of which are aligned with State curricular, accreditation, or licensure standards. In addition, NCTQ’s claim to have evaluated the integration of the Common Core State Standards is questionable because most of their “data collection” (we use quotes because no researcher would consider NCTQ’s data collection valid or reliable research) occurred prior to the most States’ adoption of the Standards.


  • Celebrate What’s Right and Support What’s Needed

Teacher educators may know what works, but often political and fiscal support is lacking.  There is no rhyme or reason to the funding formulas for supporting teacher education programs. There are universities that have funds to offer small classes, many supervised hours in the field, and tailored curricula. And there are universities that are pressed to churn out hundreds of teachers annually.  Some teacher preparation programs (not evaluated by NCTQ, but sponsored by the same funders as NCTQ) even get federal funding for offering very few courses, no supervised time in the field, and low levels of guidance. Retention rates and evaluations of effectiveness rarely seem to play into funding formulas.


AACTE’s Jane West has offered this statement about the need for increased fiscal and political support for high quality teacher education programs in general. Additionally, the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) has offered recommendations for improving literacy education and literacy teacher development in its report titled “Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works.”


We recommend that media, policy, and governments (local, state, and federal) make examples of programs that have been successful, highlight effective features, and invest in creating more high-quality teacher education programs with those effective features.


  • Base Textbook Selection Based on Robust, Professional Choices

Our organizations publish and have many members who author texts for literacy teacher educators. These texts are research-based, peer-reviewed, and closely edited to ensure that teachers can glean understandings about how to design high-quality instruction for students.  


The NCTQ review provides a flawed evaluation of literacy-related textbooks; if used for decision-making, the NCTQ textbook review could be damaging to teachers and children. Their review of the “five elements” of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) neglects to value worthy topics such as writing, motivation, interest, diverse learners, family literacy, multi-literacies, and digital literacies, among others. Additionally, several texts deemed “unacceptable” do indeed address the five elements—perhaps a level of detail easily overlooked by the three novice literacy specialists who were tasked with “reading” textbooks for over 1100 programs in less than a year.


We encourage teachers and teacher educators to read broadly and deeply. We discourage any list that restricts what is taught to a stagnant, limited inventory of early literacy skills. We believe such limits confine learning opportunities for children and are harmful for literacy education. We highly discourage any third-party limitations of textbooks for teacher preparation programs.


Again, we encourage members of LRA to speak out both through communications with policy makers and writing letters to local newspapers. Refer to IRA’s Advocacy Manual and the OpEd Project here or here for direction, if needed.


One of the goals of LRA is to conduct and provide literary research to inform its members and the larger profession in ways that improve literacy curriculum and instruction, including literacy teacher preparation.  The LRA Policy and Legislative Committee, working colleagues from other organizations, will generate a longer position paper based on current literacy research that will address some of the broader methodological limitations of and false generalizations in the NCTQ report regarding teacher preparation programs for literacy education as well providing a more positive, productive direction for literacy teacher education programs through formulating a set of recommendations for improving these programs.



NCTQ: Teaching Quality is about more than a syllabus.

Today, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a report highlighting findings from an evaluation of teacher preparation programs across the U.S. They tout on their website about the “unprecedented” nature of this evaluation, and how we now finally know that teacher preparation programs are at least partially to blame for the failings of our schools.

While the methodology of this report is questionable at best, since it’s release at 12:01am today, it has garnered significant mainstream airtime. Therefore, the word is getting out that “Colleges of Education are failing”.

Just what corporate reformers want people to believe.

Twitter is swirling with news about the report — from those that believe it in its entirety, and those who see no value in it whatsoever.

I tend to sit closer to the side who sees no/little value — mostly because I believe that research methodology must not only be transparent, but valid and reliable. However, I do see some key points that must be explored further.

1. Higher admissions standards.

I agree with the report, teacher preparation programs must require higher admissions standards for candidates. Like many of our international competitors, we too should accept only the best and the brightest into our professional training program. Of course, it should be noted that NCTQ did not develop this finding for the first time — this has been repeated for years.

But, while this seems like an easily remedied issue, teacher preparation programs do not always make these decisions. The larger university community must agree to — and sign off on — higher admissions standards for teacher preparation programs, and they must do so with the understanding that higher admissions will likely mean fewer students and therefore less dollars generated through tuition and fees. Likewise, if the public wants only the best and the brightest to enter the teaching profession, then they must be willing to pay the best and the brightest to stay in the teaching profession.

2. Need for prerequisites.

Again, I agree with the report. Prerequisites for candidates of teacher preparation programs is a worthy consideration. Focusing their pre-education coursework on English, Science, Math, and Social Studies content that provides the foundation for the content they will teach is essential. Colleges of Education should work with the University Undergraduate Councils to make this a reality — I am sure that other undergraduate programs have prerequisites. Ensuring that our candidates have the content knowledge needed to transition to pedagogical conceptualization of those contents would serve the children they teach well.

I know at our institution the concern about both higher standards and prerequisites is that they favor students who attended the institution for four years, and may not give those who start their education at community colleges the opportunity to enroll in our programs.

3. Common Core State Standards.

First, it is important to note that NCTQ collected syllabi for their “study” around the time that we were learning about the intricacies of the Common Core. Although our elementary program went through a complete overhaul during the time NCTQ was collecting syllabi — which included incorporating instruction about the Common Core — NCTQ refused to collect our revised program syllabi. Instead, they used old syllabi — largely created by faculty who no longer teach at our institution — to evaluate our current program.

It is important to note that conservative, corporate reformers are pressing — and funding — the Common Core movement. As a matter of fact, many of reformers who funded NCTQ are the very ones with their hands in the Common Core pot. So, it stands to reason that NCTQ — who was writing a report meant to admonish teacher preparation programs — would not actually want to collect evidence of the infusion of Common Core within said programs.

4. Faculty matter — unless you’re NCTQ.

NCTQ wants teachers who are competent in subject matter instruction. However, they apparently saw no need to review the faculty expertise at the participating institutions. Clearly, syllabi and course catalogs tell the entire story about the “teaching quality” of teacher preparation programs. Of course, one would think that NCTQ would be interested in the actual teaching quality of faculty in these programs, but having never visited the institutions they evaluated, it would be challenging for them to determine quality in this manner.

To be clear, I will not adjust my syllabi solely to address the NCTQ concerns. I adjust my syllabi based on the needs of those I teach, after careful consideration of the research literature and our school district partners. I know the work we’ve put into the revisions of our program, and I know that our students are receiving a high quality experience. Perhaps if NCTQ had evaluated the syllabi we actually use in our program, they would know that too.

(The NCTQ focus on reading instruction and internships are worthy of separate blog posts — that I will write very soon.)


The not so GREAT Act…

In yet another attempt to privatize education (this time at the University level), Senator Bennett (D-CO) re-introduced the Growing Education Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals Act (GREAT Act). The bill would eliminate the role of teacher preparation programs in universities, and introduce teacher preparation academies run by private, for-profit companies. Despite a lack of details on the requirements of the academies — both in terms of the instructors and the candidates — the candidates would exit the academies with the equivalent of a Master’s degree in education.

Further, we are looking again at the placement of unqualified and underprepared individuals in our highest needs schools.

Please contact your Representatives and let them know that you oppose this bill. AACTE has set up a letter and auto response for you to easily send.


Our schools have a poverty problem…

Yesterday, Florida’s “Parent Trigger Bill” failed in the Senate with a 20-20 tie. Supporters would have you believe that this bill was designed to give parents greater voice in the education of their children. Really, it’s another step in the direction of privatizing our public schools and creating an even larger chasm between rich and poor. Today, the Florida Legislature is voting on a Charter School bill that, if passed, will increase the influence of private charter and virtual school companies. Not surprisingly, several legislators are poised for financial gain should this bill pass. Financial gain for legislators, or doing what’s right for kids? That’s a rhetorical question.

Using scare tactics and lies to portray our public schools and teachers as “failing” is nothing new. In a recent blog post, David Berliner discussed how the past three decades are fraught with this approach. Berliner suggests that we have an opportunity gap in the United States, and states, “Frankly, it looks to me like our nation is more at risk from critics like these than it is from the hard-working teachers and administrators trying to help poor kids and their families get ahead in a nation that is increasingly stacking the deck against the poor.”

We have a poverty problem.

Our schools and teachers are not failing. From the day they are conceived, poor children have fewer educational opportunities than rich children. In his recent post, Sean Reardon writes, “It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students.” 

Our public schools are not to blame for the educational disparities critics thrash them for on a regular basis. Rather than focusing on so called “school reform” — which only serves to make the rich richer — we need to focus on the actual issue. Poverty.


All teachers as teachers of literacy?

In a recent article, Denise Smith Amos, from the Cincinnati Enquirer, noted that with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards all content area teachers will become literacy teachers, as well as teachers of their content.

While I certainly appreciate the idea that each discipline has it’s own distinct approach to navigating text, I have two concerns with this notion. First, suggesting that all teachers are teachers of literacy, undermines the sophisticated understandings actual literacy educators have about teaching kids to comprehend text. Second, most science teachers, for example, did not choose their field because they wanted to teach kids how to read science books. Rather than referring to a science teacher as a literacy teacher, we should instead create interdisciplinary teams that work together to develop students’ understandings of science and scientific concepts, and how to negotiate complex scientific text. This approach recognizes the unique skill set each educator brings to the table, and allows each educator to focus on his/her specialty.