Category Archives: teacher preparation

Does Instruction Matter?

For me, the pandemic era (and semi-post-pandemic era) of teaching has included some of the longest periods in my 39-year career as an educator when I have not been teaching.

The first half of my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years included also teaching adjunct at local colleges during the academic year along with always teaching summer courses (even while in my doctoral program).

Currently in my twenty-first year as a college professor, in addition to my required teaching load, I have always taught overloads during the main academic year, our optional MayX session, and (again) summer courses.

Teaching has been a major part of who I am as a professional and person since my first day at Woodruff High (South Carolina) in August of 1984.

However, during pandemic teaching, I have experienced several different disruptions to that teaching routine—shifting to remote, courses being canceled or not making (especially in MayX and summer), and then coincidentally, my first ever sabbatical during this fall of 2022 (in year 21 at my university).

One aspect of sabbatical often includes the opportunity to reset yourself as a scholar and of course as a teacher. As I was preparing my Moodle courses for Spring 2023, I certainly felt an unusually heightened awareness around rethinking my courses—an introductory education course, a first-year writing seminar, and our department upper-level writing and research course.

Here is an important caveat: I always rethink my courses both during the course and before starting new courses. Yes, the extended time and space afforded by sabbatical makes that reflection deeper, I think, but rethinking what and how I teach is simply an integral part of what it means for me to be a teacher.

For two decades now, I have simultaneously been both a teacher and teacher educator; in that latter role, I have been dedicated to practicing what I preach to teacher candidates.

I am adamant that teacher practice must always reflect the philosophies and theories that the teacher espouses, but I am often dismayed that instructional practices in education courses contradict the lessons being taught on best practice in instruction.

Not the first day, but a moment from my teaching career at WHS.

In both my K-12 and higher education positions, for example, I have practiced de-grading and de-testing the classroom because I teach pre-service teachers about the inherent counter-educational problems with traditional grades and tests.

Now, here is the paradox: As both a teacher and teacher educator my answer to “Does instruction matter?” is complicated because I genuinely believe (1) teacher instructional practices are not reflected in measures of student achievement as strongly (or singularly) as people believe and therefore, (2) yes and no.

The two dominant education reform movements over the past five decades I have experienced are the accountability movement (standards and high-stakes testing) and the current “science of reading” movement.

The essential fatal flaw of both movements has been a hyper-focus on in-school education reform only, primarily addressing what is being taught (curriculum and standards) and how (instruction).

I was nudged once again to the question about instruction because of this Tweet:

I am deeply skeptical of “The research is clear: PBL works” because it is a clear example of hyper-focusing on instructional practices and, more importantly, it is easily misinterpreted by lay people (media, parents, and politicians) to mean that PBL is universally effective (which is not true of any instructional practice).

Project-based learning (PBL) is a perfect example of the problem with hyper-focusing on instruction; see for example Lou LaBrant confronting that in 1931:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246. http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664

LaBrant and I both are deeply influenced by John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of teaching (noted as the source for PBL), but we are also both concerned with how the complexities of progressivism are often reduced to simplistic templates and framed as silver-bullet solutions to enormous and complex problems.

As LaBrant notes, the problem with PBL is not the concept of teaching through projects (which I do endorse as one major instructional approach), but failing to align the project in authentic ways with instructional goals. You see, reading a text or writing an essay is itself a project that can be authentic and then can be very effective for instruction.

My classrooms are driven, for example, by two instructional approaches—class discussions and workshop formats.

However, I practice dozens of instructional approaches, many planned but also many spontaneously implemented when the class session warrants (see Dewey’s often ignored concept of “warranted assertion”).

This is why Deweyan progressivism is considered “scientific”—not because we must use settled science to mandate scripted instructional practices but because teaching is an ongoing experiment in terms of monitoring the evidence (student artifacts of learning) and implementing instruction that is warranted to address that situation and those students.

So this leads to a very odd conclusion about whether or not instruction matters.

There are unlikely any instructional practices that are universally “good” or universally “bad” (note that I as a critical educator have explained the value of direct instruction even as I ground my teaching in workshop formats).

The accountability era wandered through several different cycles of blame and proposed solutions, eventually putting all its marbles in teacher quality and practice (the value-added methods era under Obama). This eventually crashed and burned because as I have noted here, measurable impact of teaching practice in student achievement data is very small—only about 10-15% with out-of-school factors contributing about 60-80+%.

The “science of reading” movement is making the exact same mistake—damning “balanced literacy” (BL) as an instructional failure by misrepresenting BL and demonizing “three cueing” (see the second consequence HERE, bias error 3 HERE, and error 2 HERE).

Here is a point of logic and history to understand why blaming poor reading achievement on BL and three cueing: Over the past 80 years, reading achievement has never been sufficient despite dozens of different dominant instructional practices (and we must acknowledge also that at no period in history or today is instructional practice monolithic or that teachers in their classrooms are practicing what is officially designated as their practice).

In short, no instructional practice is the cause of low student achievement and no instructional practice is a silver-bullet solution.

Therefore, does instruction matter? No, if that means hyper-focusing on singular instructional templates for blame or solutions.

But of course, yes, if we mean what Dewey and LaBrant argued—which is an ongoing and complicated matrix of practices that have cumulative impact over long periods of time and in chaotic and unpredictable ways.

From PBL to three cueing—no instructional practice is inherently right or wrong; the key is whether or not teachers base instructional practices on demonstrated student need and whether or not teachers have the background, resources, teaching and learning conditions, and autonomy to make the right instructional decisions.

Finally, hyper-focusing on instruction also contributes to the corrosive impact of marketing in education, an unproductive cycle of fadism and boondoggles.

In the end, we are trapped in a reform paradigm that is never going to work because hyper-focusing on instruction while ignoring larger and more impactful elements in the teaching/learning dynamic (out-of-school factors, teaching and learning conditions, etc.) creates a situation in which all instruction will appear to be failing.

Reforming, banning, and mandating instruction, then, is fool’s gold unless we first address societal/community and school inequities.

Whose Voice Matters?: Reading Teacher Edition

Here is a teacher voice that resonates with me in my work as a literacy teacher and scholar:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. …

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we…experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully.

This voice in many ways parallels a dominant narrative in the media about teaching reading in the US:

From how much of the media tells it, a war rages in the field of early literacy instruction. The story is frequently some version of a conflict narrative relying on the following problematic suppositions:

a) science has proved that there is just one way of teaching reading effectively to all kids – using a systematic, highly structured approach to teaching phonics;

b) most teachers rely instead on an approach called balanced literacy, spurred on by shoddy teacher education programs;

c) therefore, teachers incorporate very little phonics and encourage kids to guess at words;

d) balanced literacy and teacher education are thus at fault for large numbers of children not learning to read well.

The opening teacher voice is from Lou LaBrant, published in 1947 in the journal that would become Language Arts (NCTE). LaBrant was a classroom literacy teacher and teacher educator over a 65-year career.

The second passage is by Maren Aukerman, a scholarly analysis of the current media coverage of the “science of reading” (SOR).

Although 77 years apart, these voices and claims about teaching reading seem to suggest that concerns about reading achievement have been similar for many, many decades, and thus, placing blame for current reading achievement on specific aspects of teacher preparation and teacher practice today seems if not baseless at least misguided.

For a couple years now, I have also heard from dozens and dozens of teachers, some of whom send me real-time DMs documenting teacher PD they are receiving in SOR; these teachers identify misinformation in that PD as well as misunderstanding about reading and teaching reading by their administrators.

Often these are LETRS training sessions, or similar programs designed to emphasize phonics for teachers of reading.

Many teachers have contacted me about being reprimanded and threatened for simply asking questions about the training or pointing out the misinformation.

What is important to stress here is that these teachers—often veteran teachers who have a high level of expertise—do not have a podcast or a Facebook page amplifying their stories.

To be blunt, in today’s SOR climate, these reading teachers’ voices do not matter.

But other points need to be stressed also.

First, is the media narrative that teacher education does not include SOR or phonics instruction true?

No, and in fact, there is research that teacher education is grounded in science, but there also is an absence of research on these exact concerns (again, identical to LaBrant’s reference to the “gap” above):

It is clear that the repeated critiques of literacy teacher preparation expressed by the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques. However, to dismiss these critiques as unimportant would ignore the reality of consequences, both current and foreseen, for literacy teacher preparation….

In contrast to the claims made by the SOR community, research in literacy teacher preparation has been extensive, scientific, and useful for guiding reform efforts….

Despite the political and media attention given to the SOR and the tools on which the SOR community relies, there is no body of evidence that reflects the SOR perspective on literacy teacher preparation by members of the literacy teacher preparation research community.

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Next, and really important, if we are demanding scientific research inform practice, currently the research base on LETRS simply does not show that the training improves teaching or learning to read by students:

A growing number of U.S. states have funded and encourage and/or require teachers to attend professional development using Moats’s commercial LETRS program, including Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Texas. This is despite the fact that an Institute of Education Sciences study of the LETRS intervention found almost no effects on teachers or student achievement (Garet et al., 2008).

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

We are confronted, then, with an increasingly harmful pattern: The media continues to make unsupported claims about reading failures by teachers, teacher educators, and students, leading to parental and political responses that have resulted in very harmful policies and practices (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

And these questions remain:

  • Should we reform how reading is taught in the US? Of course.
  • Should we reform teacher education, notably focusing on literacy instruction? Absolutely.

However, the current SOR movement is doing the same thing once again while expecting different results.

And the SOR movement isn’t playing by the rules advocates and policy makers are demanding for everyone else.

If we are disqualifying reading programs popular throughout the US because of personal and corporate profit (a key claim in one podcast episode), then we must hold people and programs being implemented in their place to the same standards.

Media and journalists are making money off a false narrative, shouting “science” while using cherry-picked anecdotes to sell their story.

Corporations and program designers are making huge amounts of money off PD that isn’t supported by science at all. My home state of SC, like many states, just allocated $15 million for LETRS training.

If we are disqualifying anything that isn’t “scientific” (notably the exact same call as was codified in No Child Left Behind in 2001), then we cannot use anecdotes (especially cherry-picked anecdotes) to demand reform and cast blame.

Yet, the media continue to drive a narrative by including only voices that make that story seem true.

We could easily fill a podcast episode with teachers who have suffered through really flawed LETRS training, and at least several episodes of teachers who have had their professional autonomy stripped from them because of administrators holding them accountable for implementing a program and not teaching students (which is exactly what is happening with structured literacy as a replacement for so-called failed programs):

We recognize that some teachers using structured literacy approaches will find ways to respond to the interests, experiences, and literacy abilities of individual students; however, we are concerned about the indiscrim- inate and unwarranted implementation of the following practices:

• Directive and/or scripted lessons that tell teachers what to say and do and the implementation of les- son sequences, often at a predetermined pace (Hanford, 2018)

• Privileging of phonemic awareness and phonics as primary decoding skills (Hanford, 2018, 2019; IDA, 2019; Paige, 2020; Pierson, n.d.; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Use of decodable texts that do not engage multiple dimensions of reading (Hanford, 2018; IDA, 2019; Paige, 2020; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Specialized forms of reading instruction designed for particular groups of students as core literacy instruction for all students and teacher educators (Hanford, 2018; Hurford et al., 2016; IDA, 2019; Pierson, n.d.)

• Mandating structured literacy programs despite the lack of clear empirical evidence to support these programs

• Privileging the interest of publishers and private education providers over students.

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Throughout my forty-year career as a K-12 teacher and a university professor/teacher educator, I have a clear record advocating for students (1a) and teachers (1b).

The current megaphone allowed teachers and parents who see failure and feel failed is certainly valuable while also being anecdotes, not science, and more problematic, cherry-picked anecdotes.

I have heard much different voices, and I also know they are being ignored or often silenced with threats.

I suspect there are far more reading teachers who need better teaching and learning conditions so that their expertise can be more effective with students than those who need retraining.

Or at least if we addressed teaching and learning conditions, we would have a better context in which to decide who needs PD.

That story isn’t what sells , however.

The SOR movement has pitted teachers against teachers, teachers against administrators, and teachers against teacher educators. Those conflicts serve the interests of commercial programs, not students and teachers.

So, finally, if we drop the “science” bullying and admit that teacher voices matter, then we must hand that megaphone to all voices, not just the ones that serve the market interests of those who see the SOR movement as an opportunity to cash in (again).


See Also

Reading Science Resources for Educators: Science of Reading Edition

If Teacher Education Is Failing Reading, Where Is the Blame?

Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene’s Mystification in Teacher Education, P. L. Thomas

NCTQ: “The data was effectively useless”

You can count on two things when the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) releases one of their “reports.”

First, media will fall all over themselves to report NCTQ’s “findings” and “conclusions” without any critical review of whether the “findings” or “conclusions” are credible (or peer-reviewed, which they aren’t).

Second, NCTQ’s “methods,” “findings,” and “conclusions” are incomplete, pre-determined (NCTQ has a predictable “conclusion” that teacher education/certification is “bad”), and increasingly cloaked in an insincere context of diversity and equity (now teacher education/certification are not just “bad” but especially “bad” for minority candidates).

So the newest NCTQ report has been immediately and uncritically amplified by Education Week (who loves to take stands for “scientific” evidence while also reporting on “findings” and “reports” that cannot pass the lowest levels of expectations for scientific research).

There is great irony in this report and EdWeek’s coverage that includes two gems:

“The data was effectively useless,” said Kate Walsh, the president of NCTQ….

Said Walsh: “We do think that states ought to be asking some hard questions of institutions that have really low first-time pass rates. … We shouldn’t be afraid of this data. This data can help programs get better.”

First-Time Pass Rates on Teacher Licensure Exams Were Secret Until Now. See the Data

Walsh, in the first comment, is referring to data on passing rates on standardized testing, used for teacher licensure, but the irony is that she would be more accurate if she were referring to the NCTQ “report” itself.

The “report” admits that a number of states refused to cooperate (NCTQ has a long history of lies and manipulation to acquire “data” and many institutions and organizations have wisely stopped complying since the outcomes of NCTQ’s are predictable); therefore, this NCTQ “report” is similar to all their other “reports” in terms of incomplete data and slipshod methodology (a review of another NCTQ “report” by a colleague and me, for example, noted that NCTQ’s methodology wouldn’t be accepted in an undergraduate course, much less as credible scholarship to drive policy).

NCTQ and EdWeek, however, are typically not challenged since their claims and coverage fit a misleading narrative that the public and political leaders believe (again ironically in the absence of the data that Walsh claims “[w]e shouldn’t be afraid of”)—everything about U.S. public education, from teacher education to teacher quality, is total garbage.

NCTQ is a hack, agenda-driven think-tank, and EdWeek has eroded its journalistic credibility by embracing NCTQ’s “reports” when it serves their need for online traffic (see EdWeek’s obsession with the misleading “science of reading” movement where EdWeek shouts “science!” and cites NCTQ reports that fail the minimum requirements of scientific methodology).

This “report” on standardized testing in the teacher licensure process shouldn’t be viewed as in any way valuable for drawing conclusions about teacher education (teacher ed is a real problem that I have criticized extensively, but NCTQ hasn’t a clue what those problems are, and frankly, they don’t care) or for making policy.

However, what is interesting to notice is that NCTQ has chosen to use a shoddy analysis of previously hidden data on standardized testing to (once again) damn teacher education and traditional certification (both of which actually do deserve criticism and re-evaluation) even though there is another position one could take when analyzing (more rigorously and using a more robust methodology and the peer-review process) this data.

What if the problem with passing rates is not the quality of teacher education, but the inherent inequity built into standardized testing throughout the entire system of formal education?

Across the educational landscape—from NAEP to state-based accountability testing to the SAT and ACT to teacher licensure exams—standardized testing remains deeply inequitable, mostly correlated with socio-economic status, race, and gender in ways that perpetuate inequity.

In the very recent past, NCTQ was fully on board with the value-added method (VAM) for determining teacher quality, recall, and that movement eventually fell apart under its own weight since narrow forms of measurement, standardized testing, are actually a lousy way to understand teaching and learning.

If we take Walsh seriously about data (and we shouldn’t), here is a simple principle of gathering and understanding data—one data point (a standardized test score) will never be as powerful of valuable (valid/reliable) as multiple data points:

“Multiple data sources give us the best understanding of something,” said Petchauer, who was not involved in NCTQ’s report. “I get worried when a single high-stakes standardized test can trump other indicators of what a teacher knows and is able to do.”

First-Time Pass Rates on Teacher Licensure Exams Were Secret Until Now. See the Data

For one example, the Holy Grail of data credibility for the SAT has always been to be as predictive as GPA (GPA is the result of dozens of data points over years, and thus, a far more robust data set that one test score). GPA is more predictive.

Teacher education, like all education, remains inadequate, especially for marginalized populations, but one of the key elements in that claim is the overused of standardized testing.

If NCTQ and EdWeek were interested in challenging the use of high-stakes testing, then there may be some value in NCTQ’s most recent “report” (although the data is incomplete and the analysis is shoddy).

NCTQ’s “report” makes a big deal out of the licensure pass rates being hidden until their “report,” but once again, NCTQ’s agenda and total lack of scientific credibility as research makes this unveiling even worse than the data being hidden.

Ultimately, NCTQ’s misinformation campaign could be averted if and when media choose to practice what they preach. EdWeek is obsessed with teachers using the “science of reading” but their journalists routinely publish articles citing “reports” that never reach the level of “scientific.”

Whether you are a journalist or a researcher/scholar, you really are no better than the data, evidence, or sources you choose to stand with.

When your data are not credible, neither are you.

Fact-checking Phonics, NRP, and NCTQ

The “science of reading” movement often claims that a systematic intensive phonics-first approach to teaching reading is endorsed by science that is settled, that the National Reading Panel (NRP) is a key element of that settled science, and that teacher education is mostly absent of that “science of reading” (a message that has been central to NCTQ for many years).

These claims, however, misrepresent what evidence actually shows. Here, then, are some evidence-based fact-checks of phonics, NRP, and NCTQ.

Phonics

Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)

Abstract

There is a widespread consensus in the research community that reading instruction in English should first focus on teaching letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences rather than adopt meaning-based reading approaches such as whole language instruction. That is, initial reading instruction should emphasize systematic phonics. In this systematic review, I show that this conclusion is not justified based on (a) an exhaustive review of 12 meta-analyses that have assessed the efficacy of systematic phonics and (b) summarizing the outcomes of teaching systematic phonics in all state schools in England since 2007. The failure to obtain evidence in support of systematic phonics should not be taken as an argument in support of whole language and related methods, but rather, it highlights the need to explore alternative approaches to reading instruction.

[For context, note some of the problems remaining in how whole language is addressed in this post.]

National Reading Panel

The Federal Government Wants Me to Teach What?: A Teacher’s Guide to the National Reading Panel Report, Diane Stephens (NCTE, 2008)

An Ever-So-Brief Summary with Book Recommendations

1. Phonemic Awareness. According to the studies cited in the NRP report, this is best taught to very young children (K–1) using letters, and when letters are used, PA instruction is considered to be phonics. Therefore, it is not necessary to have a separate instructional time for PA. Rather, children should have opportunities to learn about how language is made up of parts (e.g., onsets and rimes, or word families) as part of phonics instruction. An effective way to do this in the classroom? Provide time for students to write using invented spelling (pp. 2-1 through 2-86). (See Strickland, 1998, for further information about invented spelling.)

2. Phonics. According to the studies cited in the NRP report, there is no evidence that phonics instruction helps in kindergarten or in grades 2 to 9. It does help first graders learn the alphabetic principle—that there is a relationship between letters and sounds. No one method is better than any other. For example, for at-risk first graders, a modified whole language approach and one-on-one Reading Recovery–like instruction both helped children with comprehension (pp. 2-89 through 2-176). This phonics instruction should be conducted in the context of whole, meaningful text. (See Moustafa, 1997, for information on embedded, whole-part-whole instruction.)

3. Fluency. According to the authors of the Fluency report, the practice of round robin (at any age) does not help children and can indeed hurt them. However, according to the studies cited in the Fluency report, repeated oral reading (K–12) helps with comprehension because reading to readers fluidly instead of word-by-word reading helps them better understand the text. Ways to help with this? Try such things as readers theater (pp. 3-1 through 3-43). (See Opitz and Rasinski’s Good-bye Round Robin: 25 Effective Oral Reading Strategies [1998] for additional instructional suggestions.)

4. Vocabulary (grades 3 to 8). One method is not better than another. Children learn most of their vocabulary incidentally (pp. 4-15 through 4-35). (For further information about vocabulary learning, see Nagy, 1988.)

5. Comprehension (grades 3 to 6). Children need to learn that print makes sense and to develop a variety of strategies for making sense of print (pp. 4-39 through 4-168). (For further information on teaching for comprehension, see the references listed in Chapter 8: Beers, 2002; Sibberson & Szymusiak, 2003; Taberski, 2000; Tovani, 2000; see also Harvey & Goudvis, 2000.)

Across all of these recommendations? According to the studies cited in the NRP report, if we want children to learn something, we need to teach them that something. Want great readers? Then teach children what great readers do.

NCTQ (Teacher Education)

NOTE: This is more complicated, but first I am posting an older (2006) and new (2020) report from NCTQ both making essentially the same claims that teacher education fails to teach the “science of reading.” Then, I include a link to several reviews that show that NCTQ’s “reports” are methodologically flawed and essentially propaganda, not “science.”

What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching (2006)

2020 Teacher Prep Review: Program Performance in Early Reading Instruction

NEPC reviews of NCTQ reports

NCTQ on States’ Teacher Evaluation Systems’ Failures, Again

Teacher Preparation and the Kafkan Nightmare of Accreditation

Over three-plus decades of teaching, I have found that students are far less likely to laugh while reading Franz Kafka than, say, while reading Kurt Vonnegut. But Kafka and Vonnegut are essentially satirists, though both traffic mainly in dark humor.

Black-and-white photograph of Kafka as a young man with dark hair in a formal suit
Franz Kafka 1923 (public domain)

The Metamorphosis is the work most people associate with Kafka, but it isn’t readily recognized, I have found, that the work is filled with slapstick humor—the scene when Gregor is revealed as a bug to his family—while also making a damning commentary on the consequences of the bureaucratic life.

You see, Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis into a bug is merely a physical manifestation of his life as a salesman, which, Kafka illustrates, is nothing more than a bug’s life.

This, of course, was Kafka’s impression of early twentieth century Prussia as well as the corrosive nature of materialism. As I enter my eighteenth year as as a teacher educator, after eighteen years as a public school English teacher, I can attest that Kafka has pretty much nailed my career on the head as well.

So when I saw Teacher-Preparation Programs Again Have a Choice of Accreditors. But Should They? in Education Week, I immediately recognized that this was the wrong question—or at least incomplete.

Accountability, standards, and assessment have been pervasive my entire career in education, which began in 1984. Over that career, I have heard a consistent refrain about the failures of both K-12 education and teacher education.

As I have recently detailed, teacher education is, in fact, the new scapegoat for all that ails education.

I have worked through about ten combined iterations of standards and assessment expectations, include two different rounds of submitting the teacher preparation program I am solely responsible for now, the first being for NCATE and the for CAEP (mentioned prominently in the article linked above).

Through these experiences, I have witnessed that the same complaints of failure remain while each new round of standards and assessment promise to reform the system and bring great success (often for all students), only to be replaced in a few years under the blanket of the same crisis rhetoric and the same promises that never materialize.

This Kafkan nightmare is perfectly described by Gilles Deleuze, who also turns to Kafka:

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. In The Trial, Kafka, who had already placed himself at the pivotal point between two types of social formation, described the most fearsome of judicial forms. The apparent acquittal of the disciplinary societies (between two incarcerations); and the limitless postponements of the societies of control (in continuous variation) are two very different modes of juridicial life, and if our law is hesitant, itself in crisis, it’s because we are leaving one in order to enter the other.

In my home state of South Carolina, for example, the state adopted Common Core standards, planned to implement the assessment designed for those standards, purchased textbooks and materials aligned with the standards, trained teachers in the standards, and then dropped the standards for new SC versions of standards before Common Core could ever be fully implemented.

My first experience with accreditation of teacher education programs was early in my tenure in higher education. I was baffled both by the process (again, I am solely responsible for an entire program and all the data as well as the report submitted for that accreditation) and my colleagues’ almost complete uncritical obsession with the requirements. In short, the vast majority of my department’s time and attention was devoted to fulfilling the obligations of accreditation—not teaching, not scholarship, but standards, rubrics, and data tables mandated by the accreditation entity.

Just six or seven short years later, the process came back around again—nearly the same, but different. NCATE had been replaced by CAEP and standards were different along with the report itself and the broad expectations being both eerily different and the same.

Accreditation, I suspect, is a process that is perceived as a necessary layer of bureaucracy to insure some sort of consistency and fidelity among all teacher education programs across the U.S. This appears to be the same initial urge driving Common Core, for example.

Political leaders have used accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing for nearly four decades as a way to claim a commitment to higher expectations and better outcomes from the public education system. The public appears incapable over that time to examine closely the argument that schools are failing (the mainstream argument is both false and misleading) or the assertion that accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing will somehow address those problems.

Accreditation of teacher education is essentially a thinly veiled admission that there is no political or public trust of teacher educators, the field of education, or teachers.

Beneath that lack of trust, the accountability era for public education and the allure of accreditation are evidence that political leaders and the public fundamentally misunderstand teaching and learning.

Here is the sobering truth about teaching and learning: To teach is about offering the opportunity to learn; however, there is no way to guarantee that teaching will result in learning regardless of the quality of the teacher or the motivation of the student.

Accountability and accreditation are designed with the assumption that teaching and learning can be prescribed and clearly defined (standards) and then made visible with assessments that are valid and authentic.

Those assumptions are mostly hokum.

The standards and testing movement in K-12 education and the accreditation process for teacher education have proven to be what Oscar Wilde argued about how government addresses poverty: ““But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

Trying to meet the requirements of accreditation has made teacher educators less effective, has reduced the quality of courses and experiences for pre-service teachers, and has consumed an incredible amount of time and financial resources for teacher educators.

It is much ado about nothing.

The EdWeek question, then, is overly simplistic; the rise of AAQEP as an alternative to CAEP is the “illusion of choice” that masks the truly important choice—teacher education and education as a field need to abandon accreditation and seek instead to build a discipline.

Meeting the demands of accreditation is a waste of time and resources that should be dedicated to the things associated with disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology, etc.—reading and thinking deeply about the ideas and practices at the core of the field, conducting a wide range of research on those topics and problems, producing scholarship that informs an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning, and engaging students in those topics in ways that allow them to become the educators they seek to be.

To reject accreditation is to embrace higher expectations for teacher education, teacher educators, and teachers.

At the end of The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s macabre demise is a distraction for many readers who miss that this is a story about such rejections and not necessarily a tale about Gregor, but his family. After Gregor dies, “Then all three [Gregor’s family] left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now, and took the electric tram into the open air outside the city. The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun.”

Careful reading of the final paragraph reveals that the family’s obsession with Gregor, who himself had embraced a toxic bug life dedicated to erasing the family’s debt, has to be abandoned for their eventual happiness: “The greatest improvement in their situation at this moment, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling. Now they wanted to rent an apartment smaller and cheaper but better situated and generally more practical than the present one, which Gregor had found.”

Gregor’s sister becomes the symbol of a new, and better, possibility, a fully human life unfettered by the bug life swept into the dust bin.

See Also

The Metamorphosis at 100, Alexander Billet

Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

Checklist: Media Coverage of the “Science of Reading”

Several years ago while preparing the first edition (2013) of De-testing and De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization, I came to know Peter DeWitt as a highly praised principal who wrote in that volume about no testing week at his school.

His work and career have shifted since then, but I have remained in contact through his public writing. Coinciding with a mostly fruitless Twitter debate about how the media continues to misrepresent the challenges and realities of teaching reading, then, I was strongly drawn to DeWitt’s 3 Reasons I Do Not Engage In Twitter Debates.

Much of his examination of the paradox that is social media is extremely compelling to me; his three reasons, in fact, resonate powerfully: They’re rarely about common understanding, they make you look really crazy to onlookers, and he’s not good at them.

When I find myself crossing (foolishly) DeWitt’s pointed line, I try to justify the effort by this (mostly idealistic and probably misguided) justification: Making a nuanced and detailed case, even through the limitations of Twitter, will likely not persuade the Twitter thread members, but can provide a platform for learning to those observing the discussion.

However, I find DeWitt’s conclusions hold fast, and thus, offering here the details and the nuance has a better, although also limited, potential for changing the dialogue and reaching more understanding.

Instead of providing yet another discrediting of yet another media misrepresentation of the “science of reading” (see some of that work listed below), I want to offer here a checklist for those who want to navigate the media coverage in an informed and critical way.

Mainstream media education journalism is routinely bad because of some broad problems inherent in journalism: journalists tend to be generalists and media assume a journalist can and should cover specialized fields, journalism remains bound to a “both sides” coverage of topics that misrepresents the actual balance of evidence in those specialized fields, and as I outline below, mainstream media tend to be trapped in a sort of presentism that lacks historical context.

Below with additional sources to support and illuminate the problems is a checklist for navigating mainstream media’s coverage of the “science of reading”:

Mainstream media’s errors in science of reading include the following:

[ ] Misrepresenting balanced literacy (BL), whole language (WL) to discredit them. To evaluate media coverage of reading instruction, know that reading ideologies such as balanced literacy and whole language suffer very complex realities. First, as links below detail, even when teachers or schools claim to be implementing BL or WL, there is ample evidence that traditional and more isolated practices are actually in place. Second, and extremely important to the current and historical versions of the reading wars, both BL and WL recognize and endorse a significant place for phonics instruction in early literacy; as Stephen Krashen explains pointedly: “Zero Phonics. This view claims that direct teaching is not necessary or even helpful. I am unaware of any professional who holds this position.”

Resources:

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen

Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92, Stephen Krashen

Literacy at the Crossroads: Crucial Talk About Reading, Writing, and Other Teaching Dilemmas, Regie Routman

Facts: On the nature of whole language education

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Silver Bullets, Babies, and Bath Water: Literature Response Groups in a Balanced Literacy Program, Dixie Lee Spiegel

[ ] Misrepresenting the complex role of phonics in reading in order to advocate for phonics programs. Related to the first point above, phonics advocacy tends to suggest falsely that some literacy experts support no phonics instruction and that all children must receive systematic intensive phonics instruction; these extreme polarities distort, ironically, what the broad and complex research base does show about how children learn to read as well as the role of phonics in that process.

Resources:

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

Stephen Krashen: Literacy: Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

The Literacy Crisis False Claims Real Solutions, Jeff McQuillan

[ ] Lacking historical context about the recurring “reading wars” and the false narratives of failing to teach children to read. The media, the public, and political leaders have chosen a crisis narrative for teaching reading throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. That framing as crisis has mostly obscured both the problems that do stunt effective reading instruction and the complex nature of teaching reading as well as the current research base on teaching and literacy development.

Resources:

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium

Research in Language (1947), Lou LaBrant

Hooked on Phonics Redux

[ ] Overemphasizing/ misrepresenting National Reading Panel (NRP) value, ignoring it as a narrow and politically skewed report. A central component of No Child Behind was the NRP; however, as a key member of the panel has detailed, that report was neither a comprehensive and valid overview of the then-current state of research on teaching reading nor a foundational tool for guiding reading practices or policy. Yet, media coverage routinely references the NRP as gold-standard research and laments its lack of impact (although the NRP report did spawn a disturbing scandal concerning federal funding and textbook adoptions).

Resources:

Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

Did Reading First Work?, Stephen Krashen

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report, Joanne Yatvin

The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

[ ] Citing bogus reports from discredited think tanks such as NCTQ. Well over a decade ago, Gerald Bracey warned about the growing influence of agenda-driven think tanks aggressively promoting reports before they are peer reviewed; since the mainstream media and most journalists are under-funded and overworked, press-release journalism has become more and more common, especially regarding education and often in terms of how so-called research is framed for the public. With the recent focus on the “science of reading,” the scapegoat of the day is teacher education; the narrative goes that teachers today do not know the science of reading because teacher education programs do not teach the science of reading. Often as proof, the mainstream media resorts to anecdote (they talk to a teacher or two who claims not to have been taught the science of reading) and citing bogus reports masquerading as research—notably the work of NCTQ, a think-tank that has aggressively and falsely attacked teacher education in report after report using slip-shod methods and devious processes to gather the data claim to analyze.

Resources:

NEPC Review: 2018 Teacher Prep Review (National Council on Teacher Quality, April 2018)

Review of Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know

GUEST POST by Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

[ ] Scapegoating teacher education while ignoring two greatest influences on reading: poverty and reading programs adopted to comply with standards and high-stakes testing. There is ample room to criticize teacher education, particularly focusing on the problems with credentialing and the flaws inherent in the accreditation process, but the current media urge to blame teacher education for either how reading is taught or the errors in how reading is taught distracts from some hard facts about measurable reading achievement: first, standardized testing of all kinds are more strongly correlated with socio-economic and out-of-school factors than either teacher, teaching, or school quality; and this blame-teacher-education narrative glosses over that almost all reading instruction in U.S. public schools is mandated by standards, high-stakes testing, and adopted reading programs regardless of what teachers learned in their certification program.

Resources:

In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words | Shanker Institute

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Masquerading (1931), Lou LaBrant

[ ] Conflating needs of students with special needs and needs of general population of students. The genesis of the most recent version of the reading wars that focuses on the “science of reading” appears to be grounded in a growing advocacy for children either not diagnosed or misdiagnosed for issues related to dyslexia. Parents of those children have been very politically active, and while their concerns for children with special needs are valid, the media and politicians have overreacted to that narrow issue and over-generalized the needs of those students to all students. This advocacy has also run roughshod over the actual and more nuanced research base on dyslexia itself. In short, parents advocating for their children should be honored and heard, but parents should not be driving reading instruction or reading policy.

Resource:

Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

[ ] Emphasizing voices of cognitive scientists over literacy professionals. Two common patterns in media coverage of education and specifically reading are that journalists perpetuate both a gender and a discipline bias in whose voices are highlighted; notably, mostly men who are cognitive scientists are used to drive the agenda while women who are literacy practitioners and scholars are either ignored, marginalized as “critics,” or scapegoated as misguided advocates of BL or WL.

Resources:

NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

[ ] Trusting silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all claims about teaching and learning. Fundamentally, the historical and current flaw in the reading wars, even one framed as the “science of reading,” is that phonics advocacy reaches for “all students must have systematic intensive phonics programs,” buoyed recently by “but intensive phonics programs won’t hurt any students.” However, all teaching and learning proves to be far more complex that these claims. If we return to BL as a reading philosophy, we can emphasize that each child (not all children) should receive the type and amount of direct phonics instruction they need to begin and then grow as readers; that type and amount is difficult to prescribe, and often children are mis-served when systematic phonics programs are adopted because fidelity to the program typically trumps the actual goal of reading instruction, eager and autonomous readers. When a child is mandated to complete a phonics program, regardless of that child’s needs, that time would have been much better spent with the child reading by choice; therefore, systematic phonics do in fact harm students when they are implemented as “all students must.”

Resources:

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Research in Education

Teaching Students, Not Standards or Programs

[ ] Feeding a false narrative blaming teachers and teacher educators both of whom are deprofessionalized /powerless in accountability structures. There are some dirty little secrets about education that discredit much of how media cover teaching and learning: as noted above, measurable teacher impact on student learning is quite small; teachers are mostly complying with mandates, and not making instructional or assessment decisions; and teacher educators have very little impact on how teachers implement teaching once they are in the classroom and required to conform to the mandates linked to standards and high-stakes testing.

Resources:

Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

Autonomy Must Precede Accountability

See Also

 

On New Criticism and Louise Rosenblatt: A Clarification and Dialogue

In an ambitious and contrarian essay, Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an “Experienced Understanding” of Literature, Andrew Rejan asserts:

Without diminishing the significance of Rosenblatt’s contributions, I wish to reexamine and reimagine the familiar history of Rosenblatt’s rebellion against New Criticism: I will propose that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, might be viewed as pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, shaped by the shared influence of I. A. Richards.

As a former Council Historian of NCTE and the biographer of Lou LaBrant, whose career overlapped significantly with Rosenblatt’s, I was immediately drawn to Rejan’s unpacking of both New Criticism and Rosenblatt—but was also intrigued by his citing my “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in En­glish Journal.

Rejan incorporates my analysis of the historical relationship between EJ and New Criticism to offer an example of what he calls the “the folly of defining and critiquing the New Critics without directly citing any of the New Critics’ actual writing.” While I find much of Rejan’s analysis important and nuanced, here he rushes to support his thesis without taking into account the purpose of my piece and he fails to note key final points I raise that fit more closely with his thesis than providing evidence of “folly”:

On one level, we owe our field of English language arts pedagogy the opportunity to reexamine the unspoken power of New Criticism as well as the reduced ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in our classes. We must consider the role reader response has played as the most frequent challenge to New Criticism in our classrooms—including the misunderstanding and misuse of Rosenblatt’s perspective as well. But we must rise above the narrow tensions among critical perspectives.

Literary analysis, then, becomes about agency—the agency in the work/text itself and the agency of the reader reading and rereading the world (Freire). The call for critical literacy does not deny or silence the potential power of New Criticism or reader response or any critical stance. Instead it calls for confronting efficiency and objectivity as questionable stances:

“We can help students read the word and the world in deeper and more profound ways. We can help students investigate the ways in which they are manipulated. They can become critically literate consumers of the media. They can engage with and focus on current issues. We can help them problematize the world so they think about their role in it and what they can do to shape its future directions.” (Michell 45) 

Before highlighting how Rejan offers some very important contributions to both literary theory and how that manifests in traditional English and literature classrooms, I want to clarify a couple points about my own work cited.

First, my article is a historical overview of the relationship between teaching English in high school or college and New Criticism; and in that overview, I note that there is a gap between the pure theory in its founding and how teachers practice a reduced (and often bastardized) version best represented, I think, by the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition [1] test.

In other words, while not as developed or explicit as Rejan’s thorough essay, I very much recognize that what passes as New Criticism in the teaching of English is not solidly grounded in the seminal work of the New Critics. In fact, I will address this more fully below, high school English teachers may have never read the New Critics and, like our students, often navigate within New Criticism without it being named or acknowledged in any way.

The commonly implemented (distorted) version of New Criticism is mostly a consequence of the goal of appearing to be objective that is driven by the primacy of assessment in teaching; in other words, literary interpretation grounded in analysis and “right/wrong” answers helped reduce New Criticism to a practical shadow of its original self—as I teased out when rejecting “close reading”:

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

And to the “folly” Rejan sees my essay modeling, I would note that I spend a significant subsection of the essay, “New Criticism: Defined and Embraced, Narrowly,” arguing a similar point as Rejan’s, the reductive application of New Criticism, citing heavily from a major literary scholar, David Daiches.

Finally, as the passage from my essay highlighted above demonstrates, I was documenting the exact dynamic—the tension between New Criticism and Rosenblatt—Rejan teases out far more explicitly, and also suggesting that tension is too often reductive and fails ultimately to be sufficiently critical, in that students are rarely afforded agency in the process whether they are navigating text through New Criticism or reader response.

Setting aside that Rejan was a bit hasty in one paragraph citing my work, I want to note that Rejan offers some important take aways for how English teachers are prepared and then how we practice our crafts of literary analysis with our students.

One foundational commitment I have implemented as a college professor since my doctoral program in the mid 1990s is assigning seminal texts, not secondary texts, addressing the most prominent ideas in education and literacy. As one example, my undergraduate and graduate students read Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration.

And during our discussion, we address that Rosenblatt’s work is often mischaracterized and over-simplified; I typically add that a careful reading of Rosenblatt uncovers a thinker far more conservative and traditional that often acknowledged.

So, yes, Rejan’s call for reading the original work of the New Critics to understand New Criticism is a worthy call for all aspects of education, the teaching of English, and preparing teachers of English.

Rejan’s broad message about understanding literary theory also shows the importance of the “considerable gap” (LaBrant, 1947) between theory and practice too often common in English classrooms.

A former graduate student of mine and current doctoral student has been discussing by email with me Rejan’s piece as she investigates Rosenblatt. She has confessed, in fact, that she knows little about literary theory because that topic wasn’t covered well in her undergraduate English courses, leaving her with a “superficial” understanding—all of which reinforces Rejan’s central concerns.

When I have taught young adult literature, where I assign Rosenblatt, practicing teachers in the graduate section often share a similar lack of understanding when we practice literary theory with a picture book.

Ultimately, as I shared with Rejan, we are offering a similar message, although our pieces are distinct in purpose and thoroughness (EJ articles tend to be brief, and EE essays, dense and extended). I could not agree more with Rejan’s last paragraph and sentence: “I suspect that Brooks and Rosenblatt both would appreciate a closer reading of the past that might bring us closer together in the future.”

Although I must offer yet one more caveat, the central thrust of my essay—any literary theory lens is a way to investigate text, and if any becomes the way to investigate text, we have failed the ultimate goal of fostering critical literacy in our students.

That is a folly we cannot afford.


[1] I Taught AP Lit and Comp for most of my 18 years as a high school English teacher.

See Also

“A Respect for the Past, a Knowledge of the Present, and a Concern for the Future”: The Role of History in English Education, P.L. Thomas (English Education, January 2011)

Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

I cannot promise below anything as exciting as battling a potential new partner’s seven evil exes, but I do want to wade into an important but too often overlooked aspect of how we assign power and blame to teacher impact of student achievement.

In two recent posts, I have confronted teacher blaming as well as teacher buy-in because far too many people simultaneously overstate teacher impact on student outcomes while ignoring that teachers in the U.S. have very little professional autonomy.

First, and I will not belabor this point, teacher quality contributes to only about 10-15% of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school factors accounting for about 60% or more.

Yet, what is also important to emphasize is that teacher practices in public schools are highly regulated, increasingly so over the past thirty years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Teacher professional autonomy has been nearly absent in the U.S. over the last century-plus in the U.S.—likely since it is seen as a woman’s profession—but current in-service teachers will attest that their practices are significantly restrained by state mandates and schools polices anchored to state standards and a wide assortment of high-stakes tests (from state accountability to the SAT/ACT and Advanced Placement as well as International Baccalaureate).

Part of the reason I resist the inherent teacher-blame in pieces such as Goldstein’s on how writing is taught rests on my own experiences as a teacher educator of English teachers for 15 years.

My journey to teacher education began as adjunct teaching in local colleges throughout the 1990s, culminating with two wonderful years as the co-lead instruction in the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP).

That fist summer institute of SWP introduced me to Dawn Mitchell as well as how common her struggle is among in-service teachers across the U.S.

While we at SWP worked diligently to teach our participants best practice in teaching writing, they—as did Dawn—routinely met resistance in their real-world schools and classrooms.

Principals and parents balked repeatedly at changed practices, even as those changes move from unwarranted to warranted instruction.

Once I became a full-time teacher educator, I had to anticipate a recurring refrain from the wonderful young people I was helping move into the field of teaching English; they nearly all said they valued what I had taught them about best practices in teaching reading and writing, but they were not able to implement most of those practices once they secured a job teaching.

So here is the dirty little secret of education blame in the U.S.: we simultaneously want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement even though we know teacher quality is a small percentage of those measurable outcomes and even though teachers are often implementing practices that are not supported by research but by mandate.

If we return to the Goldstein article and consider why student writing continues to fall short of our expectations, we must accept that how we measure student writing proficiency significantly shades what we believe about student proficiency and that teachers are mostly practicing in their classes what they are required to do (teach to standards, teach to tests) even when those mandates conflict significantly with what we know is best practice in fostering young students as writers.

Ultimately, there is a type of education reform that has never truly been implemented—seeking ways to increase teacher professional autonomy.

As someone with almost two decades as a public school English teacher and now 15 years as a college professor, I can attest that professional autonomy is one of the most powerful aspects of university teaching; we are hired for our expertise and then given the respect we deserve for behaving as professionals in our classrooms.

There is much about teacher certification as well as in-service teaching that deserves attention and reform, but currently, the discourse around teacher blame and why students (and schools) fail completely ignores the key cause behind all of this discord: accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests, which is all folded into federal and state legislation.

Both teacher education and in-service teacher practices would be exponentially improved by teacher educator and teacher autonomy—and then we would find a much more valid context for holding both accountable.


See Also

Many Teachers Have ‘No Say’ in Decisions About Their Own PD, Survey Finds

Accreditation: “‘relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement'”

For well over three decades, I have been both a full-time educator (high school English teacher for 18 years and currently a college professor, going on 16 years) and a writer. As a high school teacher, I also taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor for the school newspaper and literary magazine over about 10-11 years.

Therefore, I have a great deal of experience in the fields of education and journalism, experience that has revealed to me a rather damning fact: One can be well trained in educational pedagogy or the craft and conventions of journalism, but without nuanced and deep knowledge of the content of that teaching and writing, the outcome can and often is quite awful.

In journalism, for example, the vaunted New York Times publishes and fails to recognize blindly awful articles about poverty. And Education Week regularly features the worst of edujournalism.

And let me emphasize here, these criticisms are about the very best of the field.

The rise of Trumplandia has also birthed a renewed concern about the media and journalism—much gnashing of teeth about fake news and post-truth—so this announcement from Northwestern University may seem ill-suited in the context of those concerns:

In a nontraditional move, officials at Northwestern University‘s prestigious journalism and communications school have decided not to renew the program’s accreditation, letting the designation lapse.

The dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications said Monday that school officials chose not to pursue renewed accreditation, which provides outside approval of academic programs, because the process is “flawed” and not useful.

More pointedly, the dean explains:

“Our goal is always to be the best in the world, and this process doesn’t get us there,” Hamm said in an interview Monday afternoon. “We just don’t find that the review provides us with anything beyond what we already know today. It’s relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It’s sort of a low bar.”

The current hyper-focus on media and journalism has been a parallel reality in the field of education over the last three decades-plus; therefore, there is much to unpack about the parallels in the two fields.

As a lifelong educator, I had to seek certification during my formal college education, I worked as a classroom teacher in public schools under standards and testing, and I now must conform to the mandates of teacher certification and program accreditation as a teacher educator.

In all of those contexts, I am a witness to that accreditation (like certification) is, in fact, “’relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It’s sort of a low bar.’”

All types of bureaucratic accountability—such as the thirty years of standards and high stakes testing in public education reform—are ultimately reductive by shifting the focus toward meeting standards and requirements that are secondary and tertiary approximations of authentic goals (holistic goals that have been cannibalized into discrete elements for the sake of efficiency).

Why, we should be asking, do disciplines such as journalism and education feel the need to add the layer(s) of accreditation (and certification) onto their degrees—when other disciplines trust that the degrees themselves are enough?

Two reasons are practitioners in both disciplines suffer from the low self-esteem of the fields and the twin-tyrannies of the market place and bureaucrats.

Since I focused on journalism above, let me shift here to education.

No discipline or profession has suffered more under the weight of political and public marginalizing and de-professionalization than education—in part as a consequence of sexism (teaching long associated with being a woman’s job) and in part due to the burden of K-12 and many college teachers/professors being agents of the state, working in tax-funded public institutions.

Education currently labors under a nearly unmanageable matrix of mandates related to degrees, certification, and accreditation; and these requirements are in constant flux—standards and mandates for proving those standards have been met shifting every 3-5 years.

Over the accountability era, then, many teacher certification programs have dropped educational philosophy courses, foundations courses, and what many people would consider the more academically challenging knowledge base of education degrees (degrees, by the way, that have historically been slandered as “too easy”).

Education programs are in constant flux, changing courses and programs to meet state certification mandates and accreditation mandates—neither of which are being driven by scholars or practitioners but by bureaucrats.

The most perverse of ironies has occurred, then, in education because those who claimed education degrees are flimsy have successfully made them a maze of nothingness through certification and accreditation mandates.

Ultimately, we must face these realities:

  • Increasing an emphasis on the technical aspects of education and journalism distorts the importance of both and has created practitioners who may perform with proficiency while failing miserably at the larger responsibility to what is being taught and what is being expressed as well as who is being taught and who is being informed.
  • No generic teaching or journalism skills exist absent the content of what is being taught or written about, and therefore, reducing teaching or journalism to discrete skills necessarily dilutes holistic professions to simplistic bureaucracy.
  • There is no option for objectivity in education or journalism; both are political acts that require moral and ethical distinctions as well as seeking out the Truth/truth.
  • Accreditation (and certification) is more about power and political grandstanding than about the integrity of any discipline. In fact, accreditation is necessarily counter to the integrity of any discipline.

Reaching back to Franz Kafka and then recurring throughout pop culture (mainly satire such as Dilbert and Office Space), the folly of bureaucracy has been exposed time and again; yet, it remains entrenched in some of the foundational disciplines in our democracy—education and journalism.

Northwestern University has taken a bold but necessary step that should be a beacon for all of journalism and education; we are well past time to end accreditation (certification) as the process that strangles the vibrancy out of any discipline.