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Have You Heard: Private Practice

Ken Zeichner warns that the privatization of teacher preparation is likely to accelerate under Trump/DeVos…

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Jennifer Berkshire: You’ve been leading a one-man crusade to expose what you say are false claims being made by the Relay Graduate School of Education and other startup teacher training programs. How’s it going?

Ken Zeichner: Not well. Although the state of Pennsylvania recently denied Relay’s application to offer a graduate degree upon completion of its program in the state on the grounds that it isn’t actually a graduate school, Relay has just signed a contract with the Philadelphia schools to run a teacher residency in Philly with the goal of increasing teacher diversity in the city. The issue of diversifying the teaching force is extremely important, but if you’re going to place your resources somewhere in order to reach this goal, the research suggests that you would invest in grow-your-own programs, high-quality teacher residency programs (which Relay is not), induction and mentoring, and improving working conditions and access to high quality professional learning opportunities in the high-poverty schools in which many teachers of color work. You wouldn’t bring in a program like Relay that can provide no evidence at all that their teachers stay, even though they’ve been in existence since 2007. What good is it if you bring in teachers but aren’t able to retain them?

Berkshire: You wrote a paper called Apocryphal Claims, Illusory Evidence, charging that the case for the rapid expansion of independent teacher education programs like Relay and Match in Boston has ideology behind it but not actual evidence. Elaborate, sir. 

Zeichner: I looked at five of the most visible independent programs not associated with colleges and universities and I tried to find the evidence for the claims that they and their supporters make about how great they are. There is absolutely no credible evidence that programs like Relay have accomplished even the goals they say they’ve accomplished. In the paper and in the testimony I’ve been providing to states where Relay is seeking to expand, I’ve tried to force them to defend their claims, which they haven’t been able to do. When Relay was asked in California to provide evidence about the claims they keep making, that their graduates have to demonstrate evidence that they are able to raise student test scores, they didn’t have anything. They’ve got nothing other than some testimonials from graduates and employers and informal internal evaluations of their students’ master’s projects. That’s not credible evidence. California rejected Relay’s application to operate programs in the state.

Berkshire: The discourse about wanting to pay teachers more and respect them harder seems wildly at odds with the policy trajectory that’s unfolding on the ground upon which teachers actually teach. How does the deregulation of teacher preparation fit into what seems to be the larger project: lowering the labor costs of teaching?

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: When the New Schools Venture Fund first got involved in supporting Relay, the former head of their teacher education investments and managing director, Julie Mikuta, said something to the effect that we needed teacher preparation that was reflective of the low salaries that teachers were going to make. That means lowering the labor costs and steering clear of unions. But due to state disinvestment, you also have rising costs at the public universities, where most teachers are prepared. So now we have more and more people being faced with the choice of whether they go into debt by attending a program at, say, University of Washington, or joining one of these other programs where they get a free or low cost ride with the help of philanthropic support or government money from programs like AmeriCorps. It puts the universities at a real competitive disadvantage. 

But you’re right. If we started raising teacher salaries and improving their working conditions, that would create a push for a higher level of preparation. We’re moving in the opposite direction. I had a debate once with Russ Whitehurst, the former Director of the Institute of Education Sciences, about preparing teachers. Someone asked me to explain why we need culturally competent teachers and I gave a long answer. At one point, Whitehurst stood up and started yelling at me about how all of that’s ridiculous. He said that we can never expect a high-level of academic preparation for 3.6 million teachers so we just need to script everything for them. He used the term *good-enough teachers.* I got angry and said something about *good enough* only being good enough for other people’s children. When I asked him about his kids’ teachers, he got very angry at me and needed to be restrained. 

Berkshire: As a professor of education at a university, though, aren’t you here representing the status quo? To quote a certain Secretary of Education, you sound like someone who is more interested in defending an institution than in innovating and tailoring education to meet the needs of students and the teachers who are preparing to meet their needs.

Zeichner: I think there have been a lot of problems with the dominant model of university teacher education and I’ve always been a critic of it. I would especially agree with the critique that some university teacher education programs do not necessarily help teachers deal with the realities they’re going to face in schools. But the answer isn’t to create a parallel system where the children of more affluent parents are taught by fully prepared professional teachers, and *other people’s children* are taught by underprepared or unprepared teachers. 

Parents of more affluent kids expect them to be in classrooms where they have a rich and diverse curriculum, where they interact with knowledge in authentic ways, where they learn how to think critically and so on. Those teachers need a broad background, not just in teaching skills, but an understanding of learning and development. There are a lot of things in programs focused on preparing professional teachers that are absent from programs like Relay because their main goal is to raise standardized test scores. So we’re creating a parallel system, where poor kids and kids of color are increasingly being taught by inexperienced teachers who’ve had this narrow, basic skills kind of preparation and lack the training that they would need in order to teach in the kinds of schools attended by more affluent kids. We have entire communities now that don’t have much access to teachers from programs that prepare them in a professional way.

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: I’m reminded of the controversial Bridge International Schools in Africa, a chain of private schools backed by such US luminaries as Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates and Whitney Tilson, which replaces unionized teachers with a lower cost version who read scripted lessons from a tablet. You argue that it isn’t just schools that are being privatized in Africa and elsewhere, but teacher preparation too. 

Zeichner: I’ve been learning about this through friends in other countries. A friend in Santiago, Chile told me that the Lemov people were down there promoting the Teach Like a Champion program. Instill Education, which is an independent education school in South Africa and claims to be inspired by Relay and Match, is actually being led by someone from the Relay program in Newark. South Africa is seen as the place to launch an effort to transform teacher education in Africa, and that project is linked to charter schools. Just like in the US, these programs are helping to further the project of privatizing K-12 education by their links to charter schools. In Chicago for example, Relay has partnered with Noble charter schools, and in Connecticut they partner with Achievement First. These independent teacher education programs aren’t just emerging independently on their own. 

Berkshire: But haven’t all of the countries that outperform us PISA-ly speaking deregulated their teacher prep programs? 

Zeichner: When you look at the policies in countries that have consistently performed well in international comparisons of student achievement and equity in student achievement, there are no examples of education systems that have prioritized the deregulation and privatization of schooling and teacher education as strategies for creating and maintaining excellence. Canada is a great example of a high performing country that has focused on investing in a strong public education and in a professional preparation for teachers. Here is an example that illustrates the contrast between one of Canada’s most successful systems, Alberta, and the U.S.

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When I was in Alberta three years ago interviewing people for my study of policies and practices related to teaching and teacher education, I discovered the existence of *Teach for Canada.* The university faculty I was talking to didn’t know about it, and were absolutely infuriated when they found out about it. They couldn’t believe that anyone would even consider the idea of letting someone teach in the Alberta schools who hadn’t completed a teacher education program. It was beyond their comprehension.  There’s a whole different mindset around education there. Canada is pretty diverse, but there aren’t any provinces that allow for prioritizing the kinds of market reforms that are so popular in the US. The education policies have to do with funding public education and teaching as a profession that’s respected. In Alberta they have high compensation for teachers, and they’re not bashed in the media on a daily basis. Beyond that, there’s a focus on both student and teacher learning. A huge amount of resources have been invested into locally-based professional development and locally-controlled school reform, as opposed to investing a lot of resources into massive testing.

Berkshire: The proposed education cuts in the Trump budget take a big whack at university teacher preparation, but, surprisingly, the independent teacher and principal prep *academies* like Relay, that survived the ESSA rollback, did not appear to survive the budget scythe. What does this tell you about the likely growth of private, for-profit teacher ed?

Zeichner: The promotion of deregulation and *choice* in teacher preparation is still alive and well and will have strong support from Betsy DeVos. She doesn’t need the academies provision of ESSA in order to blow up teacher preparation, and it is not clear yet whether the proposal to cut funding for the academies and other parts of Title 2 in ESSA will be approved by Congress. I think that DeVos’ love of online colleges will probably mean an expansion of these programs. We’re also likely to see growth in the involvement of for-profit colleges. DeVos is a big fan of these institutions and I expect the higher education task force led by Jerry Falwell Jr, president of Liberty University, will promote them and that DeVos will try to portray them as a solution to teacher shortages. I would guess that Relay and similar non-university programs are pretty happy about the DeVos pick; they’re going to receive a lot of support from the U.S. Education department to grow at the expense of the public universities that prepare most of our nation’s teachers.

Ken Zeichner is the Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

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Jennifer Berkshire

Jennifer Berkshire is a freelance journalist and public education advocate. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baffler, Salon, Alternate, the Progr...