I am writing this from my nest in a luxurious leather lounge chair at the beautiful old hot springs resort called the Gideon Putnam, in Saratoga, NY. For the last two days, I’ve been attending the NYS Association of Teacher Educators conference about which I blogged here last year. Professors of education, state officials, deans and corporate reps filled the audience. Things haven’t changed much since last year except that the anger that was still palpable then has collapsed into a barely discernable murmur. People who seemed to be fired up in 2012 are all smiles and complacency now.
The occupation of teacher education by market forces in the form of the edTPA and its attendant array of support services and systems for sale wasn’t concealed in the least. Evidence that the corporate machine has purchased teacher education, just like they did K-12 education, was everywhere. The cocktail hour, complete with a full bar and lavish hors d’oeuvres was sponsored by Pearson. Chalk and Wire, taskstream and LiveText joined Pearson in sponsoring the rest of the events and their tables, festooned with banners and swag, lined the halls outside the meeting rooms. Pearson’s table was the hardest to avoid as the one with the best real estate next to the rest rooms.
NYS Education Commissioner John King was the keynote speaker at the luncheon yesterday. The man who introduced him, Mark LaCelle-Peterson, is the former VP of the teacher education program accreditation body known as TEAC, which morphed into CAEP where he also served as VP, and now holds a position as Senior Vice President of AACTE (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education). In his introductory remarks he compared King to Horace Mann, the revered father of American public education who established common and normal schools. Like Mann, King has charged himself with leading the way to necessary reform. With a historian’s long view, LaCelle-Peterson equated Mann’s journey to King’s. For both, change was and has been hard and requires great patience and rectitude; but also for both, acquiescence by the public is inevitable. Remember how much flack Mann had to take a hundred and seventy five years ago? The audience chuckled knowingly when LaCelle-Peterson made joking references to King’s ability to deflect criticism by wearing a Kevlar vest.
After listening to King, I can report that he hasn’t pulled back one inch from his deep certainty that his policies are the right ones for NYS, that the difficulties with the reforms aren’t his fault, and that public school teachers and schools of education are still the problem. In his talk, titled College and Career Readiness, he trotted out all the ‘opportunities’ ready to be gobbled up and gave us the same slideshow we saw last year, which still couldn’t be read from the audience. Once again he sloughed off the problems with the modules on teachers and administrators who just don’t get it.
King didn’t reveal any of the twitchy irritability that we all saw last year in his public engagements. He appeared calm, self-assured and very confident and didn’t seem to feel the need to actually answer even mildly challenging questions, sidestepping them with, ‘The question is really appreciated,’ over and over again. When one person asked about how the exorbitant cost of the new certification exams has the potential to exclude poor, but otherwise capable candidates, he simply ignored it. The one person in the audience who truly challenged him happened to be sitting next to me. He prefaced his question with, “With all due respect Commissioner, you seem to be enamored by data’. I can’t remember his actual question because King, in his one moment of pique, took exception to this statement which he vigorously rejected by saying, ‘I want to challenge the premise that a person can be enamored of data, data ARE’ (my emphasis), ignoring the truism that any undergraduate with a stats class under her belt can trot out; that data can be manipulated to say anything you want them to say.
The sessions I attended were led by well-meaning peers who offered useful tricks and strategies for passing the tests. No one seemed to question the underlying premise that the new NYS teacher certification exams actually indicate whether or not a candidate is prepared to teach. The person giving us tips for how to get our students through the new Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST). Her words, ‘You have to answer what’s in the text, and only in the text, the answer is in the question. You have to put blinders on when you take it, don’t bring in anything from the outside, any knowledge that you may have, they aren’t interested in that. And the students should practice, because it’s timed.’ There was a winking acknowledgement that we in teacher education need to do whatever is necessary to get our students through those tests.
This is a perfect example of goal displacement, as DeMarrais and LeCompte say, when the dos, don’ts, and how-tos of organizational life become more important than the reasons for which the organization was created in the first place. As we’ve seen in K-12 education, assessments, which were initiated to ensure that teachers were teaching and students were learning, have become the focus of all school activities, i.e., test preparation has become more important than learning. And so the circle is closed, teacher candidates are to follow directions and not to think for themselves, just like the students they will encounter in their classrooms.
I’ll be glad to get back home among people who haven’t drunk the cool-aid.