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.


Eve Proper said...

My understanding is that anyone/thing can award a degree - the question is just, does anyone value that degree? I can give you a pretty diploma that declares Corey to be a Doctor of Education Stuff, but try putting that on your CV! The value of a degree is generally regulated by accreditation agencies, not by states. States get involved only when they consider the education to be a scam or fraud - like diploma mills. (The values of degrees are also regulated by profession groups, especially in medicine and law.)

I suspect the degrees in question were initially regulated by the state Regents in this case only as a fraud measure. That is, you can require a degree to teach, but if anyone can go buy a diploma by mail, what's the point? So the laws used some kind of language to prevent that, specifying colleges or something. This is wild speculation on my part, though. I'm open to being disproven.

Ceolaf said...

I've looked at this issue of theory vs. practical lessons for a while. A few ideas:

* I think that there are times when faculty think that they are teaching practical lessons, but teachers and leadership prepartion students see it as theory. They have such different perspectives that they don't even agree on what is might be theory.

In the absense of real experience, any statement that is the least bit generalized sounds like theory. But with a lot of experience or knowledge, even relatively abstracted practices can sound like practice.

* This points to a problem with how we train teachers (and leaders, too). A strong internship year (in which they view classrooms as educators, rather than students) would make them much better able to take in what these programs have to teach them. But in the absense of such experience, or in the midst of the craziness of first- or second-year teachings, anything other than color-by-numbers advice is very hard to take it.

* I do not think that there are any other fields where degrees are granted merely for practical and concrete lessons. Law, medicine, MFA programs and all the rest, I believe, grant degrees for understanding ideas. These are not vocational programs that teach all the pracitical skills of the profession. Pilots might not learn a lot of theory, but pilots do get get degrees.

* Practical learning, learning how to engage in the practice of a profession, probably requires the kind of learning in the field that other professions have. Doctors have residencies, and lawyers have the early highly supervised years of their careers, for example.

This points to a real place for TFA, NYCTF and othe programs. But they would not take the place of academics programs. Rather, they would work together with those programs to provide the kind of training that budding professionals need.

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