Friday, April 30, 2010


I'm here in lovely Denver attending the American Educational Research Association's conference.  I'll be updating with some thoughts on interesting presentations I see over the next few days . . . as long as I don't freeze first.  My initial impression of Denver is distinctly positive, but waking up to snow yesterday morning after wearing shorts and a t-shirt the previous day was a bit of a shock to the system.  If anybody else is here, please feel free to seek me out and say hi.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I got my Master's from . . . TFA?

New York is reportedly considering granting alternative certification programs the ability to award master's degrees to teachers.

I have distinctly mixed feelings on the plan.  On the one hand, I can't imagine that TFA, NYCTF, or most other programs could do any worse than about 80% of the master's programs already in existence in NY.  On the other hand, I'm not really sure how an organization other than a college/university can be given the power to grant academic degrees.  Does anybody know of any other examples of this happening?  Can hospitals award master's degrees in nursing?  Can  banks award master's degrees in accounting?  Can businesses grant MBA's? 

If not, this seems like a somewhat troubling precedent to set.  One can easily imagine that these institutions and others could provide better vocational training than the average university in many cases, but I'm not sure that I'd want them handing out advanced degrees.

Or perhaps I missed something in the article and these alt cert programs can award degrees, but only in conjunction with a college/university?  Some sort of hybrid program like that may allow for students to experience both the practical training these programs want to (and should) offer along with at least a little bit of study of child development and other more academic subjects.

I'm not an expert in anything higher ed related like this, but I can give you a small tidbit based on personal experience.  I did a master's program through NYCTF at a local college.  I'm not sure exactly how much influence NYCTF had over our curriculum, but I'm fairly certain the college had quite a bit of autonomy with setting syllabi and hiring instructors (we were taught almost exclusively by adjuncts).  While I think the people at the college had their heart in the right place and were actually pretty competent, the program nonetheless failed to meet my expectations.  99% of the teachers in the program who I heard express an opinion wanted -- oftentimes very badly -- for their to be a greater emphasis on items that had a practical application in the classroom.  One of my classmates convinced me that an education more focused on best practices and less focused on theory would have served us much better. 

Looking back though, it's not that any of the theory and such that we studied was useless or should never have been presented to us -- it was more the case that in our (then) current situation (i.e. being thrown into the deep end), what we most needed was practical advice and demonstrations that we could copy in our own classrooms.  And in part because we had more than we could chew on our plate, a lot of us tended to ignore anything other than these types of discussions.  In retrospect, I'd say two things: 1.) I wish I'd learned more about some of things I ignored at the time, though I also wish I'd learned them at some other point in my life when I had time to pay attention to them; 2.) I can honestly say that the most valuable part of the program was getting together on a regular basis with other teachers in similar situations and discussing issues, oftentimes led by competent people who'd been in our shoes before.

Which, I suppose, is my long-winded way of saying that I can understand the motivation behind the possible rule change -- and I'd expect that other organizations would offer a superior product (at least in terms of immediate impact on classroom teaching).  Heaven knows that there are a ton of things we could and should do better when training teachers, but I'm not sure that means we need to let anybody and everybody start awarding master's degrees.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Exactly How Does Tenure Hurt?

I've heard numerous intelligent and knowledgeable people argue for the abolition of tenure over the past few years.  It's a pretty easy case to make: clearly, more than a few tenured teachers across the country do a disservice to our schools, and getting them shape up or ship out isn't always that easy.

But I have yet to hear anyone explain precisely how tenure, in an of itself, is hurting our schools.

I've heard people argue that many systems award tenure too quickly (NYC, for example, does it in three years).  I've heard people argue that too many bad teachers earn tenure  I've heard people argue that in some places tenure makes it too difficult to fire teachers.  But these aren't arguments against the concept of tenure; they're arguments against the specific ways in which certain places have implemented tenure.

The fact that "bad teachers" earn tenure doesn't mean that tenure is bad, it means that principals aren't doing their jobs.  If principals fail to fully evaluate teachers before awarding them tenure, how can we hold teachers responsible?  And if principals know that the teachers to whom they're awarding tenure have shortcomings but make a calculated decision that they likely can't hire anybody better, I again fail to see how tenure, in and of itself, is at fault.

In an ideal school, I'd imagine a scenario something like this: new teachers are given copious amounts of support for their first couple years and given maybe five years or so to prove that they're capable teachers -- during which time they're under fairly intense scrutiny.  Once a teacher has proven that they're competent, administrators can turn their attention to helping/evaluating newer teachers and have some peace of mind regarding the veteran teachers b/c they've proven that they know what they're doing.  In such a scenario, the only way tenure could do harm is if teachers subsequently became worse because they'd earned tenure.  And I'm not sure I've heard anybody make that argument.  Nor have I seen any evidence that it's true.

So can somebody please explain to me exactly how tenure, in and of itself, destroys our schools?  Because until I hear that elucidated I can't think of any reason why we should strive to eliminate, rather than modify, current tenure systems.